Thursday, April 10, 2014

Birth Imbalance – Where are the Girls?

Jimmy Carter has a chapter titled ‘The Genocide of Girls’ in his new book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. Under ordinary circumstances, about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls.   In most populations, adult males tend to have higher death rates than adult females, both due to natural causes such as heart attacks and strokes, and also to violent causes, such as homicide and war.  In early adulthood there are roughly equal numbers of men and women, and later on women predominate. 

However, the sex ratio has changed drastically in several Asian countries, including India and China, due to a strong cultural preference for boys.  Boys carry on the family name, are considered stronger workers, and are expected to provide for their parents in old age. Girls traditionally leave to go their husband’s home. In India, girls have been considered a burden because of the need to provide a dowry for their wedding.  The dowry system was banned by law in 1961, but is still pervasive.  The strong cultural preference for boys resulted in infanticide and starvation of girls in earlier times.  At present, ultrasound has enabled women to know the sex of their fetus at about 12 weeks of pregnancy, and sex-selective abortion is easy to obtain in India, China, and other countries. Studies of sex ratios indicate that gender-based abortion or female infanticide may also be occurring in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, countries in the Caucasus and elsewhere.  Sex ratios over 110 (male) to 100 (female) are common in these areas, reaching as high as 120 to 100 in parts of India and China.

Carter goes on to discuss some of the results of the altered sex ratio, such as a shortage of brides, increased demand for prostitutes and abduction or trafficking of young women to become brides - for a price, mainly pocketed by the traffickers. Carter cites the 2011 book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl, a contributing editor for Science magazine.  In another 2004 book, Bare Branches - The Security Implications of Asia’s 
Surplus Male Population, authors Valerie Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer argue that historically, high male-to-female ratios often trigger domestic and international violence. Most violent crime is committed by young unmarried males who lack stable social bonds. Although there is not always a direct cause-and-effect relationship, these surplus men often play a crucial role in making violence prevalent within society. Governments sometimes respond to this problem by enlisting young surplus males in military campaigns. Countries with high male-to-female ratios also tend to develop authoritarian political systems.  The name ‘Bare Branches’ is a Chinese saying for unattached males.  The authors say that the surplus male population in Asia’s largest countries will have serious global implications.

 According to a 2011 Gallup poll, American parents favor boys by a 40% to 28% margin. The results were similar to a survey in 1941, when Americans preferred a boy to a girl by a 38% to 24% margin. The overall preference was driven by men, of whom 49% preferred a son compared to 22% who preferred a daughter. Men's preference for sons was most pronounced among men aged 18 to 29. Women, on the other hand, showed no preference for either sex, with 33% stating that they preferred a girl and 31% responding that they favored a boy. In the United States, there are numerous centers where prospective parents can go to choose the sex of their offspring, before or after pregnancy has occurred. Methods used before pregnancy involve in-vitro fertilization; these methods, similar to IVF, are quite expensive and involve discomfort and some risk to the woman  Methods after pregnancy involve sex-selective abortion, and can be done by about 10 weeks with a blood test.  Sex selective abortions in the US are done mainly to prevent inherited diseases that affect a male child -such as hemophilia and Duchenne's muscular dystrophy. There is some evidence that immigrant groups in the US from countries with a strong male preference are using sex-selective abortion.   However, there has not been an imbalance in sex ratios in this country at the present. 

This has been a discouraging column so far, and I would like to end in a more upbeat way, with suggestions for change.  Be aware of the problem - in virtually every religion and known human society there has been gender inequality (with the possible exception of Paganism).   This awareness is leading to slow but positive social change.  Teach your sons, daughters and friends to see the problem and correct it, as they can.  Support one of many organizations working to give women access to education, tools and family planning, such as Oxfam America.  Consider Kiva; with a $25 loan you can support a person of your choice who is starting a small business                    , and get paid back if and when her project is successful.   

Sadja Greenwood, MD   prior columns on this blog

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