In Asia, Millions of Baby Girls Are Lost to Pre-Natal Sex Selection

Societies that discriminate against girls are harming themselves. Photo: ADB
Societies that discriminate against girls are harming themselves. Photo: ADB

By Shanny Campbell

The lack of female children being born in many countries does widespread damage to society and the economy.

Perhaps the saddest indication of discrimination against women and girls are the millions of baby girls who are simply not born every year due to pre-natal sex selection. On the average, for every 100 baby girls born in the world, we should expect between 104 and 107 baby boys to be born. This is called Sex Ratio at Birth or SRB. 

It’s now 23 years since Amartya Sen drew the world’s attention to India’s missing women. And since then, SRB has been used as a kind of barometer to gauge the son-preference in any given country. India, for example, has an SRB of 1.12. This means in any given year, 260,000 baby girls are simply not born. Yes, we have all heard about India and People’s Republic of China (PRC) also with its 1.1 million missing girls per year. What about Armenia – that has a relatively small population – which SRB is 1.11 or 153 missing girls per year and Georgia that has SRB of 1.1 or 174 missing girls per year? Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has SRB of 1.13 or 807 missing girls per year while Vietnam has SRB of 1.12 or 7,657 missing girls annually. That’s a lot of missing girls every year, which could accumulate to 117 million by 2010 according to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). 

Little girls are survivors – around 25% more likely on a level playing field to survive childhood than their male counterparts.

What are the implications for countries of this deficit of women? In a perfect market economy (stop laughing!) the forces of supply and demand would in effect make the relative scarcity of women push up their value. Imagine a world where bidding wars would ensue for eligible brides, where women, not men would have multiple spouses, and when it came to child birth, parents would insist that given their value, daughters should stay in their maternal household and the groom could join them – for the right inducement, of course. Many men would face the problem of never marrying and entering old age without children to look after them. 

As interesting as this scenario would be (it would make a great movie plot), practically it’s not going to happen. It just so happens that little girls are survivors – around 25% more likely on a level playing field to survive childhood than their male counterparts. They also have higher rates of survival than males in all other age groups, particularly countries at war or where young men drive motor vehicles – with notable exceptions for countries with high maternal mortality rates. The worst news of all however is that pre-natal sex selection probably only accounts for about 15% of what we could call ‘gendercide’ throughout a girl’s life. Anderson and Ray estimate in this paper that of the 25 million missing women in India, only about 12% were missing at birth. A further 25% die in childhood, 18% at reproductive ages, and 45% at older ages. This paints a depressing picture of gendered child malnutrition, gendered access to health care, insufficient attention to maternal health and gendered neglect of the elderly. 

There is a small glimmer of hope though. One country managed to halt the trend of girls missing at birth – which as we have seen, is probably just the tip of the iceberg. That country is South Korea, which reduced its SRB from 116.9 in 1990 to around 107 today. An interesting paper by Chung and Das Gupta (2007) finds the explanation in broad based development triggering ‘normative changes’ across the whole society, rather than improvements in individual or household incomes. Industrialization and urbanization reduced the importance of lineage, increased the chances of success based on talents rather than patronage, increased women’s social networks and inheritance by women became less problematic when assets were not land based. And wow, look at South Korea go. Others take note.