It was the Great Helmsman – aka Mao Zedong – who first coined the phrase ‘Women hold up half the sky’, and so it seemed appropriate to quote him today as it is International Women’s Day. Especially as China together with many other Asian countries, now has a skewed gender balance – 160 million girls who should have been born do not exist.
For some years demographers have been saying that the male/female ratio for much of the world is out of synch. If nature was left to its own devices 105 males would be born for every 100 females, that is normal. However, there is no getting away from the fact that in large parts of the world sons are prefered, and that is at the root of the problem.
In some parts of China 152 males are now born for every 100 females. Similar figures apply to India, Vietnam and other countries in the far East as well as in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe.
I must admit that here in a major city in China I am not really aware of the gender imbalance, but I am told that in the deep countryside it is dire. Tales of bride-napping and unofficial polyandry are not unknown.
Why has this happened? China critics in the West are quick to shriek ‘one-child policy’, but India has no one child policy, and if anything its gender ratio is even worse.
I am no expert, but it seems to me that this has come about as a result of the combination of modern medical technologies such as amniocentesis or pre-natal ultrasound, and traditional cultural preferences. In the past a couple might have continued to produce children until they achieved the wished-for son; now, when they can be certain of having a son, they will stop having other children.
Here in China, the powers-that-be are concerned about what is happening and now it is absolutely forbidden by law for any ultrasound operator to tell the prospective parents the sex of the foetus, there are extremely heavy penalties for breaking this law.
What will this imbalance mean for the future of societies? Millions of unmarried men, a rise in the testosterone level of a society resulting in more aggressive societies therefore more prone to conflict? Who can say.
One person who may be able to shed some light on this thorny problem is the journalist and author Mara Hvistendahl. Based in Beijing for the past ten years, she writes for Science magazine and her recently published book ‘Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men’ makes for fascinating, if disquieting, reading. She is speaking at The Bookworm International Literary Festival later this month, and I am lucky enough to have snagged a ticket.