India’s Daughters Are Missing

I feel bad writing about so much terrible news for women so close to Mother’s Day. On the other hand, what better time is there to emphasize just how much still has to be done in the global fight for women’s rights?

Despite all the outrages against women committed by the religious right in America, at least here there’s a baseline belief in women’s equality (even if our society often falls far short of its aspirations). More fundamental problems still linger in the developing world, such as in India, where the pernicious custom of dowry persists despite repeated attempts to stamp it out. In many cases, the family of the groom expects payments large enough to beggar the bride’s family. In the worst cases, dowry has become not just a one-time payment but a limitless stream of demands from the groom’s family, with the bride essentially held hostage: if her parents refuse to pay, she may be beaten or murdered by her own in-laws. And India’s growing economic prosperity has worsened this trend rather than mitigated it, leading to ever more exorbitant demands made of middle-class families – cars, electronics, gold jewelry, flat-screen TVs.

Given the huge cost of having a daughter in this sexist environment, it’s no surprise that millions of Indian families strongly prefer to have sons. But they’ve expressed that preference in an awful way: expectant parents will go for a test to find out the sex of the fetus and get an abortion if it’s female. (Some women are forced or bullied into this by their husbands, but others go along willingly.) In other instances, especially among the poorest families, girls are mistreated or neglected in the not-so-subtle hope that they’ll die of disease or hunger, whereas the same parents would spare no expense to preserve the life of a boy. The epidemic of sex-selective abortion has led to severely skewed gender ratios – in some areas, as low as 825 girls to every 1,000 boys. Michelle Goldberg writes in The Means of Reproduction that the Sikhs, an allegedly peaceful religious sect, have some of the highest rates of sex-selective abortion in the world.

I’m strongly pro-choice, and I believe that, if performed before the fetus’ brain develops to the point where consciousness is possible, abortion doesn’t harm any person. (This, of course, doesn’t apply to women who deliberately starve their daughters or neglect to provide them with needed medical care.) So who exactly is harmed by women who abort female fetuses? Is there any injury done to anyone that would justify banning this?

I think the epidemic of sex-selective abortion is like pollution – an act which is perceived to benefit the actor, but imposes a greater cost which all of society has to bear collectively. And in this instance, the cost is that a severe imbalance of men over women is bad for societal stability. It’s bad for human happiness, making it harder for people to fall in love and start families. It’s especially bad for women, as it will doubtless lead to more jealousy (and therefore more violence against women), more sex trafficking, and more rape. Some policy analysts even fear it will lead to more wars, as demagogic politicians appeal to the frustration of angry, unmarriageable young men.

This is Prisoner’s Dilemma logic: in a sexist society which imposes heavy costs for having girls, it makes more sense for any individual woman to want a son than a daughter, but when everyone follows that logic, all of society suffers. India’s somewhat draconian solution has been to ban tests that allow parents to find out the sex of a fetus, but that restriction is easily evaded with the help of unscrupulous doctors, and still doesn’t address the problem of parents starving and mistreating daughters once they’re born.

This almost seems like a problem that should take care of itself. One would think that the sheer force of supply and demand would kick in at some point, giving women and their families the leverage to refuse to pay dowry, but that hasn’t happened yet. The prejudices against women must be incredibly strong, for these demands not to budge even in the face of scarcity. Nevertheless, from a purely economic perspective, there has to be an equilibrium point at which the rarity of women, which increases their bargaining power, balances and then overcomes the misogyny which decreases their bargaining power. But the gender imbalance will have to be even more severe for that to happen, and vast harm may be done in the meantime. There’s strong reason to take action earlier, but is there anything that can be done, short of banning fetal sex-determination testing, which is a serious infringement on human liberty in its own right?

Some parts of India have tried paying for girls’ education or meals, but it hasn’t helped enough. I might suggest something a little more direct: outright cash payments for having girls, dispensed over several years contingent on the child being alive and healthy. This would be similar to proven-effective anti-poverty programs like Mexico’s Oportunidades, which pay cash to the very poor to incentivize good behavior. The payments may not even need to be that large for this to work – thanks to the human bias toward hyperbolic discounting, a small payment in the present might easily be judged to outweigh a larger (but less certain) cost in the future.

This is only my suggestion, and it might not work in practice. But regardless, this is a problem that everyone, including people in the West, should be thinking about and discussing. With their growing economic power, India (and China, which also has this problem) are going to play a major role in shaping the future of humanity over the next several decades. If archaic and destructive sexist attitudes about the value of women come along for the ride, we’ll all be much worse off for it. A huge part of calling ourselves a rational civilization is recognizing the equal worth and value of all human beings, and defeating the vicious prejudices – whether they manifest as religion, culture, or whatever else – that hold back any part of humanity and prevent them from making their full contribution to the welfare and happiness of the species.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.