As illustrated in previous blog posts, women could play a major role in development if societal barriers to education and employment were eliminated. However, these barriers are especially difficult to overcome, as they are molded by centuries of discrimination and unequal treatment. The act of ‘gendercide’ has been particularly difficult to overlook.
As the name implies, gendercide is “gender-selective mass killing.” The act can refer to the targeting of both males and females; however, the targeting of female infants, or female infanticide, has become deeply embedded in numerous cultures throughout the world. In East Asia specifically, this custom has come as a result of a cultural favoritism for boys over girls. Reasoning varies by region; however, does tend to be primarily economic. Girls are regarded as “liabilities” to the family and the prospects of having a male child are welcomed as a result.
For example, girls typically require dowries paid to the husband’s family (which though now illegal in India, is still common practice). After which, girls are then considered a part of their husband’s family. The male child is then more likely to stay and care for his family when older and, unlike a female, will earn an income. Female infanticide has thus become a measure families take in order to ensure future stability for the family, and one that creates an overwhelming preference for boys.
This has resulted in highly skewed sex-ratios. The natural ratio at birth is 950 girls per 1,000 boys. In India, the 2001 national census found only 927 girls aged 0-6 for every 1,000 boys. In the past decade, this number has dropped significantly to 914 girls per 1,000 boys. The most skewed regions happen to also be among the wealthiest of India. The wealthy tend to prefer smaller family sizes. When only having one or two children, the desire for a male child then becomes a higher priority. For this reason, until recently, many attributes an increase in wealth to an increase in female infanticide.
While studies in India have shown a correlation between skewed sex-ratios and rising incomes, trends in South Korea have been somewhat different, presenting a glimmer of hope for India. In the 1990s, South Korea’s sex-ratios were close to that of India’s. However, since reaching a GDP per person of $12,000, the country has been able to dramatically improve its sex-ratio.This has also been attributed to “non-deliberate” cultural changes in South Korea which are more open to female education and government initiatives that fight discrimination.
This similar trend has been recently observed in India. An article in The Economist, “The daughter’s return”, presented an Indian sample survey study by Surjit Bhalia and Ravinder Kaur. It demonstrated a new sex-ratio for India which challenged those gathered by the previous national census. From 2004-05, the sex-ratio at birth was 924 girls per 1,000 boys. This however rose to 977 girls per 1,000 boys in 2011. In contradiction to previous assumptions, Bhalia and Kaur determined that this rise was largely the result of increased income per person. What they termed the “mature middle class” (annual income of $3,200) no longer preferred sons because access to education and changing perceptions through the media emphasized the value of having girls. Similar to the South Korean case, “the forces of modernity first exacerbated prejudice—then overwhelmed it.”
The lingering problem may be that India cannot be expected to reach the same income level per person as South Korea for quite some time. As such, waiting for cultural changes to gradually take place may not be the best course for India. There is no doubt that the value of girls needs to be better realized. While national governments have made attempts to stop female infanticide practices, their impact thus far has been weak.