There is a natural imbalance between boys and girls, with nature ensuring roughly 5% more boys are born than girls in order to compensate for boys being more susceptible to diseases as infants. Yet in many parts of the developing world, there is too much of a numerical gap between the sexes for it to be a natural phenomenon.
The increasingly availability of ultrasound and abortion has played a big part in the skewing of the sex ratio, as it is easier to abort a female foetus then to kill a female baby, especially if you know the sex of the foetus. Indian doctors once advertised the â€˜benefitsâ€™ of ultrasound technology with the slogan:
â€œPay 5,000 rupees today and save 50,000 rupees tomorrowâ€ (the saving was on the cost of a daughterâ€™s dowry).â€
Yet easier access to ultrasound and abortion isnâ€™t the only thing with affects the ratio. Dr. Monica Das Gupta argues that what also affects it is the desire for smaller families in better-off households. As real incomes rise there is less need to have large numbers of children, as the household doesnâ€™t require a large workforce. This means though that the pressure to have a boy becomes more acute, as if you plan to have six children a few girls donâ€™t matter, but if you plan for one or two children you â€˜canâ€™t affordâ€™ to have a girl, as you might not want to raise another child. China’s ‘one child policy’ has helped to reinforce this, with the country facing a severe shortage of females.
And what of the effects?
India and China now have tens of millions of young men without partners/wives. As historians point out:
Young men have been responsible for the vast preponderance of crime and violenceâ€”especially single men in countries where status and social acceptance depend on being married and having children, as it does in China and India. A rising population of frustrated single men spells trouble.
Nor is this idle speculation:
The crime rate has almost doubled in China during the past 20 years of rising sex ratios, with stories abounding of bride abduction, the trafficking of women, rape and prostitution. A study into whether these things were connected concluded that they were, and that higher sex ratios accounted for about one-seventh of the rise in crime. In India, too, there is a correlation between provincial crime rates and sex ratios. In â€œBare Branchesâ€, Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer gave warning that the social problems of biased sex ratios would lead to more authoritarian policing.
Countries close to China have also seen raids into villages, with smugglers and gangsters carrying off girls from native countries.
Yet in some ways the skewed ratio has begun to benefit surviving females. Girls in China are being seen as a more attractive prospect for parents because of the costs of raising a boy, and in India dowries paid by a girlâ€™s family are decreasing, while money paid by a groomâ€™s family to the brideâ€™s one is increasingly.
Will the situation improve over time? It is impossible to say, but the Economist points to the example of South Korea, which once had the worldâ€™s highest recorded discrepancy between male and female:
Between 1985 and 2003, the share of South Korean women who told national health surveyors that they felt â€œthey must have a sonâ€ fell by almost two-thirds, from 48% to 17%. After a lag of a decade, the sex ratio began to fall in the mid-1990s and is now 110 to 100. Ms Das Gupta argues that though it takes a long time for social norms favouring sons to alter, and though the transition can be delayed by the introduction of ultrasound scans, eventually change will come. Modernisation not only makes it easier for parents to control the sex of their children, it also changes peopleâ€™s values and undermines those norms which set a higher store on sons. At some point, one trend becomes more important than the other.
Letâ€™s hope that other countries see the same trends. People like Dr. Mitu Khurana are fighting against the tide, but the more who do it the easier it will become.