The war on girls

Sad Looking Child

This week we’ve seen two major stories on “gendercide.” That’s the phenomenon of some 100 million plus females having been aborted through sex selective abortion. One appears in the Christian Science Monitor and the other in The Economist.

The Economist asks the reader to imagine that they are part of a couple expecting their first child. They’re in a fast-growing, poor country but part of the new middle class. They want a small family but, most importantly, they prefer sons over daughters. Maybe it’s because they need the boy’s income. Maybe it’s because they want to pass land on and can only do that with a male heir. Perhaps they don’t want to pay a dowry. They get an ultrasound and discover they’re pregnant with a girl. What do you do? Millions of couples, we’re told, abort the daughter and try for a son. In China and northern Indian more than 120 boys are being born for every 100 girls.

For those who oppose abortion, this is mass murder. For those such as this newspaper, who think abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” (to use Bill Clinton’s phrase), a lot depends on the circumstances, but the cumulative consequence for societies of such individual actions is catastrophic. China alone stands to have as many unmarried young men–”bare branches”, as they are known–as the entire population of young men in America. In any country rootless young males spell trouble; in Asian societies, where marriage and children are the recognised routes into society, single men are almost like outlaws. Crime rates, bride trafficking, sexual violence, even female suicide rates are all rising and will rise further as the lopsided generations reach their maturity (see article).

It is no exaggeration to call this gendercide. Women are missing in their millions–aborted, killed, neglected to death. In 1990 an Indian economist, Amartya Sen, put the number at 100m; the toll is higher now. The crumb of comfort is that countries can mitigate the hurt, and that one, South Korea, has shown the worst can be avoided. Others need to learn from it if they are to stop the carnage.

The story is really interesting and there’s no doubt that many countries are dealing with problems that have arisen due to the imbalance in sex-selective abortions. But wow are there some religion ghosts. Religion plays a significant role in sex-selective abortions and infanticide and it’s not even addressed. And the discussion about improvements in South Korea is so brief as to be unhelpful. There’s no mention if religion played a role there, either.

The Christian Science Monitor looked specifically at the situation in India. Here is how it begins with a 50-year-old farmer lamenting that he no longer cares about caste, religion or looks — he just wants a wife to give him a son. Funny, isn’t it. It’s hard to find a wife to give you a son when the people of your country are killing so many of the unborn female children because they’re not sons.

But this story has the same ghosts as the previous one:

The reasons why boys are so longed for vary somewhat by region. In agricultural societies like Nandgaon, boys inherit the land. In urban India, a trend toward smaller families plays a part: Many couples who choose to have only one child want that child to be a boy.

Underlying the preference for sons is a belief that girls are liabilities who require protection and fat dowries. Though the practice of paying a husband and his family for marrying a girl was banned in 1961, dowry violence – when a woman is abused in her in-laws’ home for paying an insufficient price – is on the rise, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

There are other agricultural societies where boys inherit land that don’t have the same gender imbalance among babies who are being born. Ditto for trends toward smaller families. Does religion play a role? The only mention of religion in the piece occurs at the end:

Baljeet Singh, a 37-year-old truck driver, says he began to despair of finding a local wife once he turned 26. Men in this village, where most are farmers, consider it ideal to wed between 20 and 25. “I’m a van driver, I don’t have many prospects, and it seems that you have to have a very good job to get a bride these days,” he says.

So last year, Mr Singh used his life savings to marry a 16-year-old Muslim girl from Assam; though village rumors have it that Sonu Khutum is an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. She is happy to be living in a predominantly Hindu village, she says, joggling the couple’s 7-month-old baby girl on her hip.

There’s quite a bit included in this brief anecdote and it shows that religious views might be a fruitful area for further exploration.

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  • Jerry

    The vast majority of the time when abortion comes up, the American press takes a much too parochial view of it as this story illustrates. Not only are many more abortions performed in China and India compared to the US, but they are performed because of gender bias.

    Too often as in the case of the war on drugs, people focus on either supply or demand rather than taking a holistic approach. So those who are libertarians on social issues believe in putting the choice on a woman’s shoulders. Those who believe in government control want to see laws and strong punishments to stop the practice.

    The failure to understand the demographic issues could cause explosions and crime as the story covered.

    All of that said, I really agree with Mollie in this issue. The role of religion as a potential cause of abortion (theological dismissal of women as second class people) as well as it’s role as a restraint on abortion is an important part of the mix.

  • Sumanth

    This reminds me of “Ugly American” mentality.

    Half of India has sex ratio at birth same as US (it is 950 girls per 1000 boys).

    The reason for sex selective abortions, is the fear created in the society by US funded organisations and UN that girls are burdens on parents as girls face violence throughout their lives. They do this by planting fake statistics. One organisation in US claims that there are 25000 dowry deaths in India, where as in reality a woman in US has 2 times more chance to die due to spousal homicide than a woman in India.

  • Nancy Reyes

    There are even more ghosts.

    How does religion affect the abortion rate in Korea, where 30 percent are Christian?

    And in Korea, rural men can’t find brides, so many marry women from overseas, from SEAsia and the Philippines.
    In some rural areas, 40 percent of marriages are “cross cultural”, and their rate of having children is changing the once monocultural Korean society.

    again, many of these are of couples who both are Buddhist, but there are differences in religious practices of the countries involved…but how many include Christians from Viet Nam or the Philippines? Another ghost…

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’d like to see some media analysis on the issue of individual rights vs. community rights. Abortion-on-demand is predicated on what here–before the U.S. Supreme Court pro-abortion decision– considered by many as an extremist, radical elevation of individual rights over the rights of the community.
    Can a society survive if individual rights always take precedence over community rights in situation after situation??? Especially in cases where newfound individual rights are constantly being manufactured or concocted to suit what are sometimes simply immoral passions or demands in a particular time and place.

  • Ben

    I just want to caution against reading too much into the anecdote about the Muslim from Assam who becomes a bride in a Hindu village in Haryana. Countries in South Asia that are almost exclusively Muslim also have skewed sex ratios, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. China and South Korea also have this problem but have other religions at play.

    See chart on page 22 of this report:

    The real relevance of mentioning religion in the anecdote is that it reflects how desperate the men have become in Haryana, how willing to overlook what would traditionally have been major hurdles to a wedding. Assam is a very poor region of the country, quite far away from Haryana, and the bride comes from an entirely different religion to boot.

    Given how this problem appears throughout southern and eastern Asia, cutting across regions with drastically different religions, I think it’s more fruitful to think about marriage, inheritance, and elderly-care customs in Asia rather than religious tenets. Specifically, are there ways to provide for the elderly besides putting the responsibility entirely on sons? Is there a way to encourage new couples to live on their own, not in his parents’ home, and encourage a sense of duty to both sets of parents? The other issue of dowry appears to be starting to self correct due to the shortage of brides.

    That said, it’s possible Christian populations in Asia have shown more resistance to sex-selection (I have no idea). If so, perhaps those communities have customs that could be encouraged more widely.

  • Ben

    Sumanth says:

    This reminds me of “Ugly American” mentality…. The reason for sex selective abortions, is the fear created in the society by US funded organisations and UN…

    Yes, when confronted with a massive cultural problem from your homeland the answer is, ding, ding, ding, it’s America’s fault!
    C’mon, buddy, shooting the messengers is never productive. Time to shed the thin skin from post-colonialism’s days and put India’s rising intellectual and financial prowess toward solving some of these problems.

  • str


    “I’d like to see some media analysis on the issue of individual rights vs. community rights. Abortion-on-demand is predicated on what here—before the U.S. Supreme Court pro-abortion decision— considered by many as an extremist, radical elevation of individual rights over the rights of the community.”

    I don’t think so. The community has no rights in this matter. It is individual rights (of the born) vs. individual rights of the unborn.

  • str

    Two things the media should do:

    -They should at least attempt for some consistency, even in opinion pieces:

    Either one views abortion as homicide or not. If not, one cannot then term it “gendercide”.

    -They should not use senseless and inflammatory neologisms like “gendercide”.

    This term is formed in analogy to genocide but the latter denotes the intent of elimating an entire group. However, those aborting their daughters are not aiming at eliminating women from their societies – after all, the mother is a woman and the family will typically wish their son to marry a woman.

  • str


    “The role of religion as a potential cause of abortion (theological dismissal of women as second class people) as well as it’s role as a restraint on abortion is an important part of the mix.”

    I think such a discussion, especially by pro-abort papers, would be hypocritical.

    A second-class status for women can only lead to such results under an attitude already permissive towards abortion. And if those espousing that attitude then complain about how parents are making their “choice”, they engage in hypocrisy.

    There is also an apparent sexism-ghost, as the issue implies that aborting girls is problematic, whereas boys are still fair game,

  • Ray Ingles

    Abortion definitely is intimately involved in this story and covering the different perspectives (a rather bloodless term for the passionate convictions many have on this, though I couldn’t think of a better term) people have on this – religious and otherwise – is indeed necessary.

    But as others have pointed out, abortion is only part of this story. Imagine if there were a pill men could take so that they’d only produce sperm with Y chromosomes. There’d be no abortions of females because females wouldn’t get conceived in the first place… but there’d still be a gender gap, with all the social consequences.

    The attitudes that cause people to value daughters less than sons are the primary issue here, it seems to me.

  • C. Wingate

    Sumanth, give a source for your statistics; then we can talk. The CIA Factbook shows ratios for males/females at birth as 1.05 compared to 1.12 for India. If half has the same rate as the USA, then the other half has a ratio of 1.19 boys/girls (or if you like it per thousand, 840 girls per 1000 boys). That comes out to something on the order of 11% girls being aborted.

    The last story mentioned is striking for the number of ghosts it contains, and I have to wonder at the consequences of a substantial population of Hindu men taking Moslem women into their homes– not to mention the other end of the transaction. Are poor Moslem families so willing to give up their daughters to another religion? Why? The story is so truncated at that point: losts of fascinating questions, almost no answers.

  • str


    why is my just request deleted but the actual spam still stands in this article (posting 12)?

  • Mollie


    I deleted the initial spam and then your comment as well. Then the spammer came back. I will now leave your comment.

  • str

    I see. Thanks!