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Friday, November 07, 2003

South Asia - The Mystery of the "Missing Women," High Population Growth Rates, and The Limits of Choice

Indianwomen.jpg In the 1990s, India and its non-Communist neighbors on the Asian subcontinent -- Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal -- followed the advice of UN experts and "pro-maternal choice" advocates, and bet heavily on a laissez faire approach to population control. This approach, which emphasizes education, family planning, maternal control, and the voluntary use of contraceptive devices, was supposed to be more humanitarian than the coercive approach that had been adopted by China, and briefly by India itself, in the 1970s. That approach had relied heavily on forced sterilzations, IUDs, and abortions, and heavy-handed ceilings on the number of children per family.

A decade later, as recent research on this region's demographics makes clear, both these approaches turn out to have serious limitations. For different reasons, they have both facilitated very high levels of infanticide against infant girls. And the laissez-faire approach has also utterly failed to restrain South Asia's population growth rate, which remains among the highest in the developing world. To transcend these problems will require the state to intervene, but in a much more intelligent way, by providing positive incentives to parents to "do the right thing."

Private Choice, Collective Insanity. To begin with, the voluntary approach to population control has not succeeded in reducing the overall populaton growth rate fast enough. As this The New York Times report indicates, population growth in India, and for that matter, in the whole South Asia region, continues at a very strong pace -- 1.7 percent a year. While this is below the 2 percent average recorded by South Asia in the early 1980s, it is 40 percent higher than the average for the rest of the developing world, and more than 2.3 times the population growth rate in China.

There are many factors responsible for these persistent growth rates, but among the most important are the relatively limited voluntary prevalence of contraceptives -- just 28 % of women in Pakistan and 49 percent in South Asia as a whole, compared with 82% in China, where the use of contraception was heavily subsidized and, indeed, mandated.

All told, South Asia now contains more than 1.35 billion people, a fifth of the world's population, compared with China's 1.28 billion. India alone is well on its way to displacing China as the world's largest country by the year 2020, absent a nuclear war or some unforeseen famine or epidemic. All these people are living on a land area just two-fifths the the size of the US or China, so this means intense pressures on living conditions, labor markets, and the environment.

Sexual Infanticide In both South Asia and China, another pathological byproduct of current family planning approaches, on top of cultural traditions, has been to reinforce one of the most abhorrent ancient forms of sexual discrimination. This is the age-old practice of eliminating what the Chinese called "the maggots in the rice" -- terminating pregnancies or new-borns, once it is determined that a child is a girl.

In the aggregate, the magnitude of this sexual infanticide activity is astonishing. To arrive at a very rough estimate, we've examined the World Bank's latest (2002) figures for the average "population sex ratio" -- the percentage of a country's total population that is female. For the developing world as a whole, excluding China, India, and the rest of South Asia, the average is 50.4 percent. But for China and South Asia it is 48.5 percent. The World Bank reports that India and China both have have almost identical rates, at 48.4 percent, but both rates appear to be dropping. A Chinese census in 2002 reported, for example, that the sex ratio for live births is now just 46.7%. As shown in Table 1 below (scroll to the end) , this implies that for these countries to record the same average sex ratio as other developing countries, South Asia and China would need to have almost 100 million more females in their populations than they currently do. So where are they?

The odds of conceiving a female child are 50-50 in the population at large, and certainly do not vary by country. Furthermore, life expectancy for women in all these countries actually exceeds that for men by at least 2-3 years -- so long as the women are allowed to be born in the first place, and are not snuffed out in their cribs.

So the only plausible explanation for these sex ratio differentials in South Asia and China is that something is killling off unborn and just-born girls at an extraordinary rate. Since there do not appear to be diseases or other health factors that discriminate against female children in this way, the only conceivable explanation appears to be willlful infanticide by the parents themselves, under the influence of cultural institutions like the dowry, unprincipled medical counselors and abortionists, and the state.

This is hardly an entirely new observation; other observers, like the World Health Organization, have also (rather quietly) observed that, for example, in China's case there appears to be at least 50 million women who are "missing" from the population statistics, compared with the sex ratios that one observes in other countries. But there is new evidence (see below) that the magnitude of this pathological activity may be on the increase.

The "sexual infanticide" explanation is supported by recent UN field studies that show that it is indeed a widespread practice. For example, an October 2003 study by the UN Population Fund reported a growing problem of sex-selective abortion and infanticide in India. The study found that the sex ratio for the country as a whole had declnied from 48.59% in 1991 to 48.11% in 2001, and that in some states, like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, the ratio had fallen “drastically" to 44 percent -- less than 800 girls for every 1,000 boys. Interestingly, the study also found declining sex ratos even in the country's most affluent districts of Delhi, where prospective parents use all the latest medical technology, including pre-conception gender selection practices, amniocentesis and late-term abortions, to support their curious, culture-bound preferences for male babies.

There have also been numerous press reports that corroborate similar findings with respect to China. In China's case, the impact of traditional preferences for male children was undoubtedly further aggravated by the notorious "1 child per family" that was introduced by the CP in 1979. In addition to increased infanticide and sexual discrimination, this system also produced a huge underground market in "unregistered" children, and has been widely criticized for its punitive nature.

So there are real dilemmas here, both for advocates of "choice" and "regulation" alike. Fans of "free choice" have to explain how we can square unfettered individual choice in these matters with the important goals of reduced violence and discrimination against women, as well as with the goal of securing aggregate rates of population growth that are sustainable in the long run. Fans of "regulation" have to explain how they can provide positive incentives for couples to make better choices, without using such the heavy hand. Ultimately, of course, everyone would like to leave the state out of these delicate, private matters. The problem is, that doesn't always seem to work.


Table 1: Asia's "Missing Women," 2002

Category Population%Women Female Population
High Income Countries964,738,60050.71% 489,218,944
India 1,048,279,00048.41% 507,471,864
Other South Asia304,708,41048.94% 149,118,930
China/ South Asia Total2,633,962,410 48.48%1,276,838,889
All Other Developing Countries2,602,674,99050.35%1,310,446,857
World6,201,376,00049.61% 3,076,502,634
"Missing Women:" China/ South Asia***-1.87%99,418,297

***Assuming that the China/ South Asia sex rato would otherwise equal the average in other developing countries

© Submerging Markets (2003)

(c) James S. Henry, 2003. Not for reproduction or other use without express consent of the author.

November 7, 2003 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Female infanticide is ugly but it is not, as your correspondent says, "curious", quite the contrary. It is perfectly logical and even mandated, for the cultural and economic reasons he gives. It cannot last for rarity will make female children more valuable. And it is a peculiarly effective, if brutal, form of population control. Quality of life is a more real problem. Women are the key to the future. Lack of respect, let alone equal treatment, will continue to hold these countries back, culturally and economically, as in the Muslim world and Africa. (Read the UN report on the disastrous showing of Arab countries.) Bringing back the 100 million missing women would not solve this problem. On the contrary it would exacerbate it.
So what is the solution? Education and birth control. What are the US Government's policies? Ban support for contraception and spend such money as there is, and then some, on acquiring a military presence in (ie re-colonising) countries of strategic value.
Gee, thanks Mr Bush. Or maybe that's what you want? It certainly fits with the supremacist agenda of your neo-con buddies. But don't tell us you care for women's rights or for the future of the world.
Joe Roeber

Posted by: Joe Roeber at Nov 13, 2003 10:52:46 AM


Posted by: Alex Estevenez at Feb 18, 2004 11:25:34 AM