The Monitor's View

Rise of 'missing girls' in India and China

New data show the effects of aborting fetuses and the killing of baby girls on Asia's two giants. Such nations need more gender equality and appreciation for daughters.

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Of all the world’s major ills – such as war, hunger, and natural disasters – none can quite compare to the millions of baby girls and female fetuses killed by parents who prefer boys.

New data from the most populated countries, China and India, indicate that the practice of aborting female fetuses and murdering girls after birth is still widespread, despite efforts in both countries to curb this extreme gender bias.

In China, the 2010 census reveals there are now 118 boys for every 100 girls, a skewed sex ratio that is higher than a decade ago. The sex imbalance has left millions of bachelors unable to find brides, mainly in rural areas.

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In India, a new study reported in the Lancet journal indicates that 3 million to 6 million females were aborted during the past 10 years, mainly to couples whose firstborn was a girl and mainly among the more well-off families.

With increasing wealth has come greater access to mobile ultrasound units that can determine the sex of the unborn. And such is the continuing cultural preference for male offspring that – despite government bans on using sonograms for sex selection – couples still find a way to use them and then abort a female or commit infanticide (or, in some cases, allow a baby to be adopted).

In India, 2 to 4 percent of pregnancies are terminated merely because of the sex of the baby. And with couples having fewer children, the practice is more common. The 2011 census showed 914 girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of 6, a record-low sex ratio for modern India.

Because of their billion-plus populations, China and India are the most studied about this practice. Yet such abortions can be found in many places, including among some immigrant groups in the United States.

In Asia, South Korea has perhaps done the most to reverse the practice, by better enforcement and more effective campaigns to raise an appreciation for girls (one slogan: “One daughter raised well is worth 10 sons!”). And in Shanghai and other big Chinese cities, there are signs of a similar shift because of the high cost of buying a home for a departing son (a cultural custom in China).

The governments in India and China have long campaigned to raise public appreciation of daughters – “Boys and girls are both treasures” states one Chinese slogan – while retaining the right to an abortion.

China remains concerned about the security implications of having an estimated 24 million bachelors by 2020 with little prospect of marriage. Officials worry about more kidnapping of women, higher crime, and other social unrest.

Laws in China and India against sex determination are not yet effective. Only by creating a deeper respect for the equality of the sexes can countries reduce such a practice.

Even with a possible cultural shift, such countries will be coping with the problem of “missing girls” and “surplus males” for years to come. And abortion on such a massive scale – and done simply for gender preference – cannot help but erode a society’s ethics.

The world needs to come to grips with female feticide.

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