Gender Discrimination (22): Gendercide

The Economist has a front page story this week on “gendercide”, the millions of girls missing in the world, especially in India and China. Perhaps as many as 100 million girls have disappeared in the last decades because of

  • selective abortions encouraged by new medical technology (ultrasounds and fertility technology)
  • childhood neglect of girls (nutritional, educational neglect and neglect in health care)
  • prejudice, preference for male offspring and
  • population policies such as the “one child policy” in China.

Interestingly, the skewed sex ratios that result from gendercide (in some areas of China, 130 boys are being born for every 100 girls) are coming back to haunt the men that are responsible (although many mothers probably aren’t without fault either). Because of their relative scarcity, women have found an unlikely source of power. They have a competitive advantage in the marriage market, and can demand more in marriage negotiations, or at least be more selective when choosing a mate.


In my view, the word “gendercide” is somewhat overwrought because, contrary to genocide, the word that inspired the neologism of gendercide, there’s no centralized plan to exterminate women. Femicide would be a better term since it’s obviously only one of two genders that’s targeted, but it still sounds like a government organized campaign of extermination. Gendercide is the result of a combination of causes:

  • individual choices based on
  • plain prejudice against girls
  • cultural and legal traditions, or
  • economic incentives that have been formed by historical prejudice.

Perhaps girls still need a dowry, and poor parents may find it difficult to save enough and hence prefer a boy. Or perhaps they prefer a boy because the law of their country or tribe – inspired by age-old prejudice – says that only boys can inherit land or the family business. Again, the parents may prefer a boy for this reason, not because they dislike girls. Or perhaps tradition holds that girls marry off into their husbands families, and parents simply want to be sure to have someone in their home to care for them when they are old (“raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden”, is a Hindu saying).


The consequences of gendercide are mixed. It’s obviously horrible to the girls that are aborted or neglected to death. But, as in the “boomerang” case cited above, gendercide may ultimately empower women. However, the skewed sex ratios also spell trouble: the presence of armies of men who can’t find wives and have children (“bare branches” or “guanggun” they are called in China) may result in more sexual violence, depression, suicide, human trafficking etc. It’s estimated that in 10 years time, one in five young Chinese men won’t be able to find a bride. On the other hand, a shortage of women will encourage immigration, and immigration may help some women escape poverty, and perhaps will also result in more intercultural tolerance.


Economic development won’t stop it. In China and India, the regions with the worst sex ratios are wealthy ones, with educated populations. Even in some population strata in the U.S. sex ratios are skewed. When people escape poverty, fertility rates drop, and when families have fewer children, the need to select for sex only becomes more important in order to realize their son preference. In poor societies with high fertility rates, families are almost destined to have a boy at some point. Female children will suffer relative neglect and may die more often and more rapidly (skewing the sex ratios), but selective abortions aren’t much of a risk: families don’t really feel the need to limit the number of children (on the contrary often, because children are a workforce), and ultrasound technology for sex determination of fetuses isn’t as readily available as in rich countries or regions. When families want few children – as they do in more developed regions – or are forced by the government to limit their number of children (as in China), they will abort female fetuses in pursuit of a son.

Ultimately, only a cultural change will help. The son preference has to die out. Education probably will help, as it always does. Ending pernicious policies such as the one child policy will also help, but then overpopulation hysterics will have to be dealt with. This policy didn’t help stop population growth anyway. Other East Asian countries reduced population pressure as much as China without brutal policies.

Old customs and discriminating laws should also be abolished. Think of the dowry system, or inheritance rights. Stigmatizing abortion, especially sex selective abortion, will also help.

7 thoughts on “Gender Discrimination (22): Gendercide”

  1. You say, “When we accept that gender discrimination and the will to sustain patriarchy is the cause of the son preference and the missing girls phenomenon, then we are dealing with a human rights violation.” But what if the son preference is the result of economic circumstances? What if a son is what’s required for a family to feed itself? Can we really call that a human rights violation? And, if so, what human right?

    I know you don’t believe in overpopulation, but I and many others find the problem to be real and worrisome, and it presents human rights abuses of its own. We can discuss the merits and effectiveness of the China’s one child policy, but I think it must also be recognized that the problem left unchecked could spell much worse disasters than an uneven sex ratio. From the utilitarian perspective, the consequences of inaction ought to be considered as well.


    1. The particular cause of a human rights violation doesn’t make it less (or more) of a human rights violation. So if selective abortions or childhood neglect and subsequent mortality are caused by the son preference or by economic circumstances, that doesn’t change the fact that we’re dealing with human rights violations. At least in my view. I know you and many others believe abortion at least isn’t a violation of the right to life (I think you would accept that neglect is). I respect that view, and you know that I hold another view.

      You raise the interesting point of necessity: what if people are forced by certain circumstances to violate human rights? That can be the case for abortion (health and survival of the mother) and also in your example (economic necessity of having a boy). In my view, necessity doesn’t change the nature of the act, only the criminal liability.


  2. I’m glad you agree with my deontological perspective that the circumstances in which actions are taken does matter. For you, it’s only the criminal liability. But if someone has every right to do something, or is even forced to for their very survival, does it truly make them a human rights violator? If I kill someone in self-defense, my right to which is virtually undisputed, am I really a humans rights violator for protecting myself? That seems almost outlandish. No one would describe self-defense as a human rights abuse. I think most people would actually applaud it as a protection of rights.

    If that’s true, then I would think it’s also true of people who face starvation if they can’t have male offspring. Surely, neglect is a gross human rights violation, and I don’t advocate it under any circumstance. If we agree, for the sake of argument, that abortion is wrong, I still think it would be hard to say abortion is wrong when it necessitates the survival of a family. I certainly agree that abortion is not preferable, even if it’s not a violation of human rights. There are better outcomes. Of course, I think our primary concern ought to be with the underlying conditions that drive Asian families to prefer male offspring to female offspring. I don’t think it’s purely cultural.


    1. I agree with your point on self-defense. Your analogy between self-defense and the son preference, however, only holds when there are cases in which a family’s inability to realize it’s son preference leads to starvation. Which is, I think, stretching the point. Even if a family loses its entire “workforce” because all the girls are wedded off into other families and the family only has girls, and even if on top of that the family has to pay dowries, I don’t think families will starve because of that, at least not usually. They’ll have a horrible time, that’s for sure, but I assume the parents can still work for their survival and appeal to networks for help.

      And anyway, even if there’s a risk of starvation, that risk only becomes apparent afterwards, and can’t excuse prior abortion of girls. In other words, you can’t start aborting girls because of the off chance that having too many girls can perhaps cause starvation in some distant future (remember that girls can only pose a problem when they’re quasi adult, when they have to get married and pay dowries, when they leave the family home…).


  3. Beginning of December, a program aired on ABC 20/20 about India’s deadly secret. It was about 40 million girls who have vanished. All aborted before they could take their first breath. Their crime was that they were girls. As you know the gender ratios is India are terribly skewed about 914 girls per 1,000 boys. In Punjab it is about 833 girls per1,000 boys. Unfortunately this happens amongst the privileged and the educated also. The only woman who has brought cases against her in-laws and husband is Dr Mitu Khurana. Please watch her story and sign her petition for justice. Please give those 40 million girls silenced forever, a voice. Please forward this to as many friends as possible.

    After you sign the petition, there will be a request from the site for a donation. This donation is totally discretionary and does not in any way or form affect or benefit Dr Mitu Khurana. All she is asking for is your support (signing this petition) so that pressure can be put on the Indian authorities that the whole world is watching them in total disbelief as they make a young mother run around in vain for four years in search of justice.


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