World Bank Blames China, India for "Missing Women"

The World Bank’s annual World Development Report (PDF) estimates that 40% of the world’s “missing women” were missing at birth, and that China accounts for almost 80% of these. From The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time blog:

The report estimates that in 2008, the number of females who died at birth or before being born in China was 1.1 million, while in India the figure was 260,000. Northern India was identified as being particularly bad. In China, this is a significant increase from 1990, when the figure stood at 890,000.

The findings of the World Bank’s study are the latest indication that the cultural preference for boys over girls in both China and India persists despite the rising incomes of their populations.

If anything, the report notes that improved economic conditions are, for the time being, actually making things worse since “higher incomes have increased access to ultrasound technologies that assist in sex selection at birth.” Although it is illegal in both India and China to know the sex of a baby before it is born, the practice remains common.

Critics blame the preponderance of boys in China on the one-child policy. The nation now has about 120 males for every 100 females. While Chinese officials continue to stand by the policy, it faces pressure from a number of academics and foreign officials who worry that it is leaving China with an aging work force that could be less productive in coming decades and more expensive to look after. Officials have launched pilot programs in a few places toward liberalizing the policy. For example, under a pilot program proposed in China’s southern Guangdong province, a couple would be allowed to have two children if just one of the parents was an only child.

The rise in China since 1990 comes despite a dramatic fall of 62% in neonatal mortality over a similar period.

In an interview at Shanghai Scrap in June, Mara Hvistendahl emphasised the present role of selective abortion over other frequently cited factors, including the one-child policy, in feeding China’s gender imbalance:

Scrap: Focusing on China – it’s almost accepted gospel, for those not familiar with the issue, that infanticide, the one-child policy, and abandonment account for the country’s skewed sex ratio, and that abortion is only part of the mix. Yet you not only object to that formulation, you seem to imply that it’s both condescending and a gross distortion that obscures the real issues. Could you give a sense of how important each of those facts is, in fact, to China’s gender issues, and why they are only a small part of the overall picture?

Hvistendahl: That is the typical explanation given for China’s skewed sex ratio at birth, and it’s amazing how consistently it crops up in reports by news organizations and NGOs. I think abandonment is on the radar in the West because of our history of adopting children from China. But it is a relatively small part of the story in 2011, and infanticide happens very rarely today. Skewed sex ratios at birth are now found in many countries with no tradition of infanticide and no one-child policy. By and large, the gap is the result of sex selective abortion.

I think these local or cultural explanations persist in part because they’re easy. It’s easier to say this is a culture that has a tradition of killing girls than it is to interrogate our own role in bringing sex selection to Asia. Too often Western narratives about China explain what happens there as either the product of a monolithic government or an immutable past—as if China were not home to the same complexity and deep, varied history as the West.