The Economist magazine combines liberal economic orthodoxy (pro liberalization, anti state etc) with a politically liberal commitment to individual human rights. The latter presumably prompted this week’s cover story, Gendercide: What happened to 100 million baby girls?’ Even if it does come with the rest of the ideological baggage, (more on that later) it’s hard to think of any other mass market publication that would lead with that story. Respect. I assume the issue was linked to today’s 100th International Women’s Day, though no mention is made of it (maybe the author sneaked it through….)
The article updates Amartya Sen’s 1990 piece, which produced the original 100 million figure. It finds that the practice of selectively aborting female foetuses is spreading, both in China and India (the target of Sen’s original investigation) – see chart- but also including other East Asian countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. former communist countries in the Caucasus and the western Balkans, and even in Asian-American subsets of the US population.
The acceleration is ‘a product of three forces: the ancient preference for sons; a modern desire for smaller families; and ultrasound scanning and other technologies that identify the sex of a foetus’. The new technology has seen selective abortion replace outright infanticide or the neglect of girl children as the main driver of the disparity. It also helps explain one of the more surprising findings – far from being some hangover of ‘backward’ thinking, within China and India the areas with the worst sex ratios are the richest, best-educated ones.
Another revelation is the difference between first, second and third children. The sex ratio is much more skewed as parents have more children and start to ‘demand a boy’ (see chart). Among third children in Beijing municipality there are almost three times as many boys as girls. The consequences? A rising population of frustrated single men, many of them in societies that put a huge premium on marriage, some strange economic side effects, such as increased savings rates as families save to set up their sons in a house fit for increasingly scarce brides (think bowerbirds) and anecdotal evidence of a fall in the value of dowry in parts of India (supply and demand at work).
The trends and consequences are grim, and there are few straws of hope to clutch at. One is South Korea, where the magazine sees a kind of gendercide Kuznets curve. ‘In the 1990s South Korea had a sex ratio almost as skewed as China’s. Now, it is heading towards normality. It has achieved this not deliberately, but because the culture changed. Female education, anti-discrimination suits and equal-rights rulings made son preference seem old-fashioned and unnecessary. The forces of modernity first exacerbated prejudice—then overwhelmed it.’
A recent study in China and India found that the gender ratio had at least stabilised at around 120 boys to every 100 girls. Perhaps a combination of social change and a shift in the relative prices of boys and girls (this is the Economist, folks) due to shifting supply can turn it around, but the evidence is thin.
Alas, the Economist’s readers don’t seem interested in such subtleties – the comments on the
website are a depressing mix of ‘See? The Chinese and Indians are barbarians’, and rabid right-to-lifers. Not much evidence of liberalism there.
And what does the Economist miss? Last word to Alice Evans, a PhD student at the LSE ‘never does the article explicitly note that these decisions (to abort/ starve girls) are the product of gender inequalities. Instead they blame: ‘the ancient preference for sons’ – as if this continued practice is just an old habit, rather than a rational response to prevailing inequalities in gendered rewards.’
If people want to dig deeper, here are the sources used for the article:
Gendercide The worldwide war on baby girls Technology, declining fertility and ancient prejudice are combining to unbalance societies Mar 4th 2010
“China’s excess males, sex selective abortion and one child policy”, by Wei Xing Zhu, Li Lu and Therese Hesketh. BMJ 2009
“Why is son preference so persistent in East and South Asia?” By Monica Das Gupta, Jiang Zhenghua, Li Bohua, Xie Zhenming, Woojin Chung and Bae Hwa-Ok. World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper 2942.
“Sex ratios and crime: evidence from China’s one-child policy”, by Lena Edlund, Hongbin Li, Junjian Yi and Junsen Zhang. Institute for the Study of Labour, Bonn. Discussion Paper 3214
“Bare Branches”, by Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer. MIT Press, 2004
“Is there an incipient turnaround in Asia’s “missing girls” phenomenon?” By Monica Das Gupta, Woojin Chung and Li Shuzhuo. World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper 4846.