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Asian daughters

Missing persons
Feb 22nd 2001
From The Economist print edition


ENDANGERED DAUGHTERS: DISCRIMINATION AND DEVELOPMENT IN ASIA
By Elisabeth Croll

Routledge; 224 pages; $75 ($24.95 paperback) and £45 (£14.99 paperback)


Buy it at

Amazon.com
Amazon.co.uk

SOME big numbers are so frightening that a habitual reaction is to ignore them, deny them or optimistically assume that they are already dwindling. One such figure was produced in 1990 by Amartya Sen, who later won the Nobel prize for economics. More than 100m women, he claimed, were “missing”. Demographers have since quibbled with the arithmetic, but not with the underlying argument: that, in many countries, especially in Asia, there are fewer women than there should be, assuming normal patterns of birth and longevity.

Elisabeth Croll’s “Endangered Daughters” valiantly confronts the horror of that statistic and what it means in Asia—especially in China and India, that continent’s (and the world’s) most populous countries. In China the “one-child” policy that was introduced in the late 1970s soon proved unenforceable. Parents wanted sons too badly. Within a few years, most rural areas of the country had relaxed the rules to allow parents a second child, when their first was a girl. In India, too, “a daughter is said to arrive without an invitation”, while “the birth of a son is likened to ‘sunrise in the abode of the gods’.”

Among the grimmer consequences of this gender bias, infanticide, mercifully, seems less common than it was. But as techniques for determining the sex of a fetus improve and spread, sex-selective abortion is more prevalent. Surviving daughters are at greater risk than sons of neglect or abandonment, and face bigger obstacles to education and health-care.

Ms Croll’s book synthesises the demographic evidence of the scale of the gender imbalance with ethnographic and anthropological research on how it has come about. The discrimination against daughters is, in one sense, easy to understand. A son is an investment in the family business, and in a parent’s own old age; a daughter is an investment in somebody else’s. You feed and clothe her, and then lavish money on a wedding and a dowry in order to offload her to another family, whose sons she will bear. As Ms Croll puts it, in East and South Asia, “child-care is still primarily practised and represented as a means of securing parent-care in old age”: filial piety and ancestor-worship, in other words, are useful substitutes for an old-age pension provided by the state.

But “Endangered Daughters” shatters one common assumption in the rich world about such unappealing “traditional” values in poor countries: the notion that development will make them disappear. In practice, prosperity, better contraception and government campaigns and coercion do cut fertility rates; yet the ratio of surviving males to females climbs, even in such rich places as South Korea and Taiwan. When families have fewer children, the premium on the gender of each child seems to rise. In the early 1990s, 114 South Korean boys were born for every 100 girls, a higher ratio even than in China (about 111:100).

Attention has been paid to the looming social problems this worsening imbalance will bring—all those newspaper articles featuring fat, pampered little Chinese “emperors” or agonising about the prospect of so many millions of single, sexually frustrated young men. “Endangered Daughters” is a helpful corrective, reminding us that the real sufferers are the girls who survive the discrimination that has marked them since before their birth—and the many who never reach adulthood at all.








More articles about...

Human rights

Websites

Click to buy from Amazon.com: “Endangered Daughters: Discrimination and Development in Asia”, by Elisabeth Croll (Amazon.co.uk).

Amartya Sen’s essay “Population: Delusion and Reality”, which addresses (among other things) gender imbalance and family planning in China and India, is available online.




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