There are 117 million missing women in the world today, according to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) (2012), many of them girls who have never been born simply because they are female. The primary reason is a preference for sons. While China is the major contributor to growing sex imbalances at birth, there are more than two dozen countries where sex ratios are unnaturally skewed toward males. Many of the major contributors are Asian – Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and India among them – but the problem exists in the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), parts of Latin America (El Salvador, Cuba, Puerto Rico), the Middle East (Lebanon and Libya), Europe (Albania, Serbia, Austria, Italy) and among certain groups in the United States (Asian-Pacific) and the United Kingdom (Indians) (Eberstadt, 2011).
Despite rapid economic growth in China that has generally improved the status of women, son preference is still strong. Sons are seen as carrying on the family name and traditions, adding to family wealth and helping care for elderly parents (Huang). Girls, on the other hand, are seen as vulnerable (their dishonor can bring dishonor to an entire family) and it is expected females will contribute less to the family as they become adults because they often leave home to live with their husband’s families (known as patrilocality).
Although there remain sex imbalances in India and elsewhere, the numbers in China dwarf the problem in other countries. There are approximately 118 males born for every 100 females in China. (Natural sex ratios at birth are approximately 104 to 106 males born for every 100 females.) In some pockets in central China, there are nearly 150 males born for every 100 females (UNFPA). China’s one child policy, which beginning in the late 1970’s allowed many families to have only a single child (the policy was ended in 2015), greatly exacerbated the problem, as has the wide availability of technology like ultrasound that allows expectant parents to find out the sex of their unborn child. As a result of skewed sex ratios, the number of prospective grooms in China is likely to exceed the number of unmarried women by 60 percent by the year 2030, and by 2050, there could be nearly twice as many men ready to marry as women (UNFPA). It is difficult to say what the result of such severe sex imbalances will be. Some social scientists believe sex imbalances in China may erode the traditional patriarchal family structure (if men are unable to marry), enhancing women’s status. In one sign that this may be happening, marriage rates in China are falling as more and more women delay marriage to complete their education and build their careers (Tsang & Tiantian, 2016). Others, however, believe women’s advancement may be curtailed if their roles as wives and mothers become more essential. Only time will tell how the situation will unfold.
Eberstadt, N. (2011). The Global War Against Baby Girls. New Atlantis, 33, 3-18.
Huang, H. (2012). The Missing Girls and Women of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Tsang, A., & Tiantian, Z. (2016, September 11). Marriage Falls in China, Transforming Finances and Families. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/12/business/international/china-marriage-falls.html
United Nations Population Fund (2012). Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current Trends, Consequences and Policy Implications. Retrieved from http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/documents/publications/2012/Sex%20Imbalances%20at%20Birth.%20PDF%20UNFPA%20APRO%20publication%202012.pdf