ROME, JULY 3, 2011.- Sexual discrimination isn't limited to the workplace. In many countries around the world unborn baby girls are being singled out for elimination.
Journalist Mara Hvistendahl chronicles the origins and extent of this in "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, And the Consequences of a World Full of Men," (Public Affairs).
Worldwide, on average 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. Males are more likely to die young so this slight imbalance at birth ensures that equilibrium is maintained. The dramatic situation in China and India was revealed in data cited in the book that puts the current level of male births at 121 and 112 respectively.
In 2005, French demographer Christophe Guilmoto calculated that if Asia's birth ratio had remained at its natural level the continent should have an additional 163 million females. This is more than the entire female population of the United States, Hvistendahl noted.
It's not just an Asian problem. The same tendency is present in the Caucasus -- Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia -- and also in the Balkans, according to the book.
This is happening at a decisive demographic moment, Hvistendahl argued. The reduction in the number of females is taking place in a time of significantly reduced population growth. The current generation is the largest that many developing countries will have in the coming decades.
It is also a generation being born at a time many of the countries experiencing this artificial gender imbalance have significantly improved their standard of living. Social scientists have long assumed that the prospects for women will improve as countries get richer, and instead, the reverse has occurred.
In fact, this assumption blinded demographers to what was happening, Hvistendahl observed. Even as cheap ultrasound machines were being introduced many assumed that sex selective abortion would soon disappear. Even today the United Nations population projections assume that couples will very soon have equal numbers of boys and girls.
One of the main themes of the book is Hvistendahl's attempt to trace the causes of this imbalance. In contrast to others who stress the traditional cultural preference for boys as being the driving factor she points to other, additional factors, such as the push for population control.
After all, she pointed out, people in nearly all cultures express a preference for boys and yet sex selection does not take place everywhere.
The link with population control is also evident in the fact that there is a strong correlation between countries that have recently moved to low fertility and significant numbers of missing girls.
Over the last few decades the population control movement turned people into numbers, and parents in developing countries were encouraged to have small families. The idea that reproduction should be controlled led to the mentality of children as some sort of manufactured good, she explained.
Starting in the 60s, the U.S. business and cultural elites began pressuring for population control, which they considered necessary to ensure economic success in developing countries. Western economic aid was often linked to the adoption of population control.
This wasn't the first time Western pressure was applied. In India the British documented the practice of female infanticide, and put it down to primitive cultural traditions. Later studies, Hvistendahl explained, examined the land and tax policies of the East India Company in the nineteenth century and concluded that they had increased the pressure to kill females.
It was true that in some castes girls were being killed before the British arrived, but as the reforms brought in by them were extended infanticide spread to other groups.
In more recent times in 1967 Disney produced a movie for the Population Council called "Family Planning." Translated into 24 languages it portrayed Donald Duck as a responsible father of small and wealthy family. Without family planning viewers were told, "the children will be sickly and unhappy, with little hope for the future."
The assumption that sex selection is mainly due to traditional culture is also contradicted by the finding that sex selection typically starts with the urban, well-educated level of society. These are the first to gain access to new technology such as ultrasound machines.
The 2001 census in India showed that women with high school diplomas or above had 114 boys for every 100 girls. Among illiterate women the ratio was just over 108/100.
Another example is the situation in China's county of Suining, halfway between Shanghai and Beijing. Starting in the 90s the county has enjoyed strong economic growth, enabling parents to afford the bribe to ultrasound technicians for an illegal sex determination.
At the time Hvistendahl visited the going rate was $150 for a report on a baby's gender. In 2007 government statistics put Suining's birth ratio at 152 boys for every 100 girls.
The same pattern holds true in Albania. From 2004 to 2009 the economy has grown by an average of 6% a year. Fertility has dropped from 3.2 children per woman in 1990 to 1.5 in 2010. And United Nations figures put the ratio at 115 boys to 100 girls or higher.
The book also considered the accusation that it is men who see daughters as inferior and oblige their wives to abort if the child is female. This does happen in some cases, but Hvistendahl affirmed that the decision to abort is most often made by a woman, either the wife herself or her mother-in-law.
She cited research that shows women often undergo sex-selective abortion to fulfill their "duty" to have a male child and in this sense it is described as "empowering."
This preference for boys is an attitude that persists even in Asian populations in Western countries. In the United States a study of couples of Chinese, Korean and Indian descent revealed that for the first child there is a normal sex ratio. But for couples who already had a girl the sex ratio for the second birth was 117/100 and if they already had two girls the chance that the third would be a boy jumped to 151/100.
Why this occurs amongst couples living in very difference circumstances in the U.S. compared to their country of origin is poorly understood, said Hvistendahl. One clue, however, is that the fertility rate among Asian Americans is among the lowest of any minority group, at 1.9 children per woman.
Hvistendahl also considered what will be some of the consequences of a skewed sex ratio in the future. Clearly, there will be tens of millions of men unable to find a bride. Already, as the first generation of affected by this imbalance is growing up there has been an increase in sex trafficking, bride buying and forced marriages.
In South Korea and Taiwan men go on a "marriage tour" of Vietnam to obtain a wife. Men from the wealthier regions of China and India buy women from the poorer regions.
As well, a surplus of single males could well mean societies that are more unstable and violent.
Sex-selective abortion is not so common in Western countries, but some fertility clinics offer the possibility of preimplantation sex selection as part of IVF treatment. Many countries do prohibit this, 36 according to information cited by the book, but in the United States there are no such restrictions.
As IVF spreads throughout the world developing countries are also turning to it for sex selection. "In China and California alike, mothers have become their own eugenicists," said Hvistendahl. A tragedy that will have serious consequences in coming decades. (John Flynn, LC, Zenit)