The Phenomenon That Has Killed More People Than Both World Wars

In recent decades, tens of millions of parents globally have opted for sex-selective abortions, or have killed or abandoned female newborns. Is the world finally beginning to face up to the consequences of 'gendercide?'

Dafna Maor
Dafna Maor
A girl in a kindergarten in Beijing.
A girl in a kindergarten in Beijing. Credit: Reuters
Dafna Maor
Dafna Maor

In June, residents of a poor enclave of Beijing heard the sound of a crying baby emerging from a public restroom, and called the police. The responding officer saw tiny feet sticking out of a drainpipe, and acted quickly. He stuck his hand into the pipe and pulled out a newborn baby girl. The cleaning person there told the police he had seen a young woman leave the place shortly before.

Poverty and lack of government supportare the usual factors cited as reasons for babies being abandoned in China, but out of the thousands of babies that end up discarded each year, most are girls. Indeed, China, the world’s emerging economic superpower, is the country in which the most systematic destruction of female infants takes place. The numbers, rates and consequences are horrendous, and far reaching.

When people think of mass killings, what comes to mind are usually the stories of the Tutsi in Rwanda, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the “disappearing” of millions of members of the Indian nations in North America. But the destructive practices which have been taking place globally over the last two decades have eradicated close to 120 million female human beings and fetuses from the face of the earth – and yet it is a problem rarely discussed or reported.

In the last few decades, tens of millions of people have chosen to abort or exterminate female embryos, or kill baby girls, and to try instead to conceive boys. The babies are either murdered at birth, or left to die of starvation or exposure.

This phenomenon of gendercide, a term coined by American feminist and philosopher Mary Anne Warren in 1985, occurs mainly in Asia, and in the Caucasus and Balkan states. Its consequences are already echoing around the world: The shortage of women in the populations of certain countries creates large concentrations of “involuntary bachelors,” bride-theft and human trafficking, and is closely correlated to high crime rates and violence.

“One-hundred-and-seventeen million women – it’s more than the total death toll in both world wars. No one knows about it,” says Beverly Hill, president and founder of the Gendercide Awareness Project, which organizes educational activities, raises funds and promotes advocacy on behalf of women and girls. (Her figures are confirmed by various UN and scholarly studies.).

Nature strikes a gender “balance” with a birth ratio of 105 males to every 100 females: The larger number of boys compensates, as it were, for the shorter life expectancy of males and their greater susceptibility, at a young age, to disease. Changing this natural balance takes massive intervention, as has been attempted in Asia and elsewhere. In the years 1985-89, the ratio in China was 108 boys to 100 girls, just a little higher than the natural rate. But in the years that followed, the gender imbalance began to grow, peaking, in 2004, at 121 boys. “China has shown improvement since then,” Hill explains, in an interview with TheMarker.

The most recent data, from 2011, still show 115.7 boys to 100 girls being born there. India, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia have rates ranging between 110 and 116 boys, to 100 girls.

‘Bare branches’

In Africa, the poorest continent, rife with patriarchal cultures, where girls are given less resources than boys, the gender ratio at birth isn’t so distorted. Why is that?

A young girl in Madkheda, Madhya Pradesh state, India.Credit: AP

“Gendercide takes various forms. Abortions are rare in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan. But in Afghanistan there’s a huge number of ‘missing’ women,” says Hill, referring to women whom one would expect to see as part of the population, according to the natural statistics. She adds, by way of explanation, that there is a relatively high rate of women dying in childbirth, much mistreatment of widows and elderly women, and in general a lack of property and other rights among women in such cultures. “They don’t survive to a ripe old age, sometimes because they don’t have access to food and shelter. Women suffer severe discrimination throughout their lives.”

After decades of gender selection during pregnancy or at birth, the makeup of the population in the countries where gendercide is practiced has been distorted. The number of women is much smaller than it would have been without sex-selective abortions, or had baby girls not been murdered. In China, there are 66 million “missing” women – 10 percent of the current female population. In India the number is estimated at 43 million.

In China, men who can’t find women to marry are called “bare branches,” and they are a cause for worry: Research shows that in a society where there is a surplus of unmarried young men, there are also unusually high rates of violence and crime. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicted in 2010 that by 2020, 20 percent of Chinese men would not find anyone to marry. In the 20 years that gendercide has been practiced in China, the national crime rate has doubled. Bride-napping, trafficking in women, rape and prostitution are now among the most common crimes.

The preference for girls in China might be partly explained by the one-child policy – which, because of larger demographic concerns, was suspended by the government this past November – but it doesn’t explain the skewed gender situation in India, Armenia or Hong Kong. A 2012 United Nations report, “Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current Trends, Consequences and Policy Implications,” sheds light on what the main causes of gendercide are in various places around the globe.

The first is a preference for boys. Patriarchal family structures, where women have a minor social, economic and symbolic status – and as a result fewer rights – encourage this preference. The second cause is the proliferation of prenatal technology for sex selection. The third is a general decline in fertility, which leads people to take measures to insure the children they do have are males.

Preference for boys is rooted in tradition and economic rationales. In China, boys take on the family name and often do hard physical labor (though some women do too). A married woman joins her husband’s family, and her own family thus loses a pair of working hands. In India, the custom of giving a dowry, in which the family of the bride essentially pays the groom’s family for her, is another incentive to have boys. In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran, over the past decade, there have reportedly been thousands of cases of murder, or suicide, of brides who were abused by their partners’ families because of the demand that they pay more. Indian law prohibited the dowry as a precondition to agreeing to marriage in 1961, but the ritual is still observed.

In the 21st century, are economic factors the main driver of gendercide – are people who are poorer and less educated more prone to sex selection?

“Sex selection at birth is occurring in epidemic proportions in richer places as well,” explains Beverly Hill. “In the Caucasus – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – it’s very common, as well as in the former Yugoslavia and central Europe – Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo.”

In the wealthier states and provinces of India, the gender ratio favoring boys is even higher. “It’s a paradox and a mystery, that in India the higher on the economic ladder you are, the worse the sex ratio at birth is. It’s not a problem of poverty and ignorance. The poor discriminate against girls and women, but they don’t have access to [prenatal] scans or abortions. There is no question that the worst ratio at birth in India is among the elite, especially in north India, in contrast to the south.

“It’s a global problem. The Asian diaspora in the United Kingdom, for example, suffers from a distorted gender ratio. The immigrants take with them the preference for boys. But by the second and third generation, this dies out. Even in the United States, certain Asian groups show a higher rate of boys to girls at birth.”

An girl drinks water from a roadside tap in the northeastern Indian city of Siliguri.Credit: Reuters

At its most basic level, the main factors behind this phenomenon, Hill says, “are rooted in culture and religion, and they are too deep to uproot. It has become a cultural preference: People think that boys are superior creatures, and women are inferior and dirty. Traditional societies value the family name; the sons perform religious ceremonies when the parents die. In China, villagers believe that sons are better suited than daughters to honor the ancestors. These factors are more important than we think. Modern people just don’t think this way.”

Sole ‘success’ story

Twenty years ago, it was South Korea that led the horrific parade of destruction of its female population. The most democratic and advanced of all Asian states, South Korea brought the ratio between male and female births to a record of 63:37. The cause was technological: The introduction and spread of the use of ultrasound scans in Korea helped to make the act of “elimination” – via medical abortion – simpler, cleaner and less guilt-inducing than breaking the neck of a baby or dumping her in the toilet. But then, something happened.

“Korea brought the ratio to an almost normal level,” says Hill. “It’s the biggest success, or the only success story.” Still, she says, the gender ratio is very distorted in the general population.

How did Korea solve the problem?

“Following the Korean War, South Korea implemented a series of reforms: a legal reform that fixed the patriarchal system, giving women property rights and more. There was an educational reform that allowed girls to get primary and secondary education. Later, when all these girls had education but couldn’t get jobs, Korea opened the labor market to women.”

This process took many years, and only a few years ago did the birth ratio reach normal levels, and is now approaching 105-100. The change in mentality was palpable: Between 1985 and 2003 the rate of Korean women who said they must have a boy dropped from 48 to 17 percent.

Korea was successful in changing social norms, but there are other steps that can be taken: for example, China and India outlawed sex-selection abortions. Humanitarian aid organizations and the government even pay to support girls. “In China villagers with two girls receive financial aid. Couples with one daughter are now allowed to have a second child, and if it’s a girl they get a pension.”

These measures have influence, but it is limited. “It helped cut the ratio down to 115, and then there’s resistance, and you need more resources and effort,” says Hill.

The Gendercide Awareness Project helps poor women in India make a living from knitting baby booties and other crafts. The Invisible Girl Project helps in financially supporting abandoned or at-risk girls. These and other groups have their work cut out for them when it comes to dealing with gendercide, because there is still precious little awareness of this phenomenon in the affected countries, and elsewhere, despite its decades-long, harrowing impact.

Governments in Asia have also begun to be concerned about their so-called missing girls. By 2100 the population of China, according to predictions, could plummet to 700 million, from its current 1.3 billion, in part due to the many years of gender distortion.

How seriously are countries like India and China about addressing gendercide?

“They take it very seriously,” says Hill. “There are university departments in China that research and advise the government. There’s also more acceptance of media reports.

“The question is: Are they worried enough to invest enough money into fixing the problem,” she adds. “The answer is unclear.”



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