Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Tuesday, May 15 2012
Males are quickly beginning to outnumber females in the world. And while single women looking for mates might find that news encouraging, the fact is that the global gender imbalance may have frightening consequences for society – and women.
In her book, “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, And the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” Mara Hvistendahl, an American journalist who has lived in China for years, warns of an epidemic of gender-selective abortions. She says a combination of cultural preferences for boys plus easy, more inexpensive ultrasound technology that allows women to learn the sex of their fetuses, has contributed to the disappearance of an estimated 160 million females from Asia’s population – a number equal to the entire female U.S. population.
But gender imbalance isn’t restricted to South and East Asia. It is impacting the Caucasus countries, Eastern Europe and even some groups in the United States.
“For as long as they have counted births, demographers have noted that on average 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This is our natural sex ratio at birth,” she writes. But males are more likely to die young, evening out the ratio.
While China’s one-child policy may explain why more male babies are born there than females, that doesn’t explain the disappearance of girls in Albania or Azerbaijan.
Hvistendahl and other experts, such as Lena Edlund, an economics professor at Columbia University, warn of a number of dire consequences, even an upsurge of human trafficking. According to forecasts, by 2013 one in 10 Chinese men of marriageable age will lack a female counterpart. By 2020, in northwest India an estimated 15 to 20 percent of men will lack female counterparts.
The U.S. Department of State’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons report listed the ever-growing gender imbalance as a cause of increased sex trafficking. When the report came out in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out that human trafficking “is a crime with many victims: not only those who are trafficked, but also the families they leave behind, some of whom never see their loved ones again.”
“Trafficking has a global impact as well,” she continued. “It weakens legitimate economies, fuels violence, threatens public health and safety, shatters families and shreds the social fabric that is necessary for progress.”
The report explains that gender imbalance is resulting in more forced marriages, forced prostitution and trans-border marriages where women in poor areas are married off to men in richer regions. Edlund points out that some poor families in Southeastern countries see advantages for having daughters that they can sell, resulting in fewer mates for poorer men. She suggests that this might result in confining women to a permanent underclass. In a paper she wrote, she claimed that “son preference can propagate social stratification by sex, stratification that in turn has further consequences for marriage patterns.”
Edlund suggests that if “parents prefer married children to unmarried children and sons to daughters, sex choice can consistently result in the birth of daughters into low-status families and sons into high-status families. Effectively, intrafamily discrimination against daughters could be replaced by interfamily discrimination.”
Hvistendahl says the sex ratio imbalance is becoming more urgent thanks to increasing availability of pre-implantation technologies, which allow couples to select the sex of their babies discreetly. “South Korea is leading the way in Asia, but other countries are quickly catching up.” Sex selection is now offered in Cyprus, Thailand, Jordan, Egypt, Brazil and Russia, as well as in China and India where it is illegal.
The acceptance of sex selection in the U.S. is growing, “particularly in contrast to Europe where social sex selection is largely illegal.” A Gallup poll last year showed that if Americans could have only one child, they would prefer a boy rather than a girl by a 40 percent to 28 percent margin, with the rest having no preference. Gallup reported that that ratio hasn’t significantly changed since it was measured in 1941.
But technology has changed, making it easier for couples to realize their dreams. And while the U.S. birthrate will not significantly impact the global gender imbalance, Hvistendahl contends the U.S. bears some responsibility for the situation in Asia. In the 1970s, noticing the population boom in Asia, U.S. foreign policy initiatives focused on birth control in developing countries. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank and other organizations poured money to control what was seen as a population explosion. She points out that in India, population-control advocates from the Ford Foundation and other agencies in the 1960s and 1970s saw sex selection as a way to lower skyrocketing birthrates. In addition, much of the technology that makes ultrasounds more accessible is produced in the United States.
As a result of the frightening projections of global gender imbalance, last fall the United Nations made a new commitment to gender equality. As Brian Lee, executive director of All Girls Allowed, which works against China’s One-Child Policy, says, “We’re seeing a snowballing effect.” The gender gap problem is no longer seen as a human-rights issue, but an economic issue.
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Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.