Off Balance

Law and Order

by Samantha Chu. Originally published by our partner site, World Policy Blog.

For some Taiwanese men, the writer Mara Hvistendahl observes, an all-inclusive vacation package to Vietnam means a “flight, hotel room, and, of course, a wife.” This occurrence is one manifestation, among many, of a growing sex imbalance in Asia. Young men, numbering in the millions, are coming to a marriageable age and finding that potential wives are scarce. The consequences are visible: one area in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam has earned the nickname “Taiwan Island” – as so many of its young women have been sold as brides to Taiwanese men.

Taiwan Island’s story, among others, is documented by Hvistendahl in her book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. On June 9, Hvistendahl, a Beijing-based correspondent for Science, shared her disquieting observations during a book launch hosted by the World Policy Institute and Women’s Media Center.


Hvistendahl’s project, which began as a magazine article, started with her investigation into China’s unnaturally high ratio of 119 boys for every 100 girls. When Hvistendahl interviewed women in China’s Jiangsu province, she was astonished that even women she considered to be strong-willed and dominant figures in their households were aborting female fetuses. As she dug deeper, Hvistendahl’s project expanded, as she found that the sex imbalance is spreading in other countries—including Azerbaijan, Albania, Nepal, Vietnam, and, notably, India. Therefore, China’s one-child policy, regularly blamed for exacerbating a skewed sex ratio, cannot fully account for at least 160 million “missing” girls in Asia alone, not counting the Caucasus region.

Academics and observers widely agree that a skewed sex ratio can have far-reaching consequences. A society with more men than women could be at an increased risk of domestic violence. Heightened demand could serve as the impetus for more sex work and human trafficking. Academics have even speculated that a population with an unnaturally large proportion of young, unmarried men – the demographic responsible for a majority of violent crimes – could pose a threat to national security and stability. In addition, men are already disproportionately represented in institutions of authority worldwide, even without taking into account the sex imbalance; take the speculation even further, and a heavily skewed sex ratio could continue or even intensify political repression of women.

Sex-selective abortion, made possible through the widespread availability of ultrasound technology to determine the sex of a fetus, is the factor most directly responsible for this imbalance. The “stopping rule,” or the tendency of families to stop having offspring after producing a male child, worsens the problem, especially because fertility rates historically drop as countries achieve higher levels of economic development. (Female infanticide, often the most graphic and memorable instance of “unnatural selection,” has become far less common, only resorted to in extreme cases.)

The Chinese government has recognized the grave effect of sex-selective abortions. Recently, it criminalized the use of ultrasound technology to determine gender before birth. This solution, however, cannot be thoroughly enforced, especially because ultrasound scans are cheap, widely available, and have beneficial uses such as ascertaining the health of the fetus. For prenatal sex selection to be eliminated, China would have to ban prenatal technology altogether.

Anyway, sex-selective abortion is simply the instrument of enforcing a deeply-rooted social bias in favor of men, and the sex imbalance is just a symptom (albeit one worthy of attention) of socioeconomic and cultural realities that favors boys over girls—even in countries with increasing levels of economic development. Families desire boys because they can serve as heirs and pass on the family name in most societies. Men regularly achieve more financial success than women in traditionally patriarchal countries, and are better able to financially support their parents in old age. Women, on the other hand, leave for their husband’s household upon marriage, and sometimes cost a dowry to marry off.

As Hvistendahl noted in her talk, the gender imbalance is essentially a “transitional phenomenon”—meaning that as governments realize the negative impact of having fewer female citizens, and societies become more hospitable to female socioeconomic success, the sex ratio should equalize. Yet, ironically, existing barriers to female political, economic, and social success have been raised even further with the advent of technologies, like ultrasound scans, that are intended to benefit everyone.

But now that these methods have been introduced, what can be done to prevent their unintended negative consequences? Countries can regulate the way these tools are used, but that’s treating the symptom rather than getting to the root of the problem—the enduring biases against women that motivate sex selection in the first pace. Governments concerned with the possible results of gender imbalance—increased violence, domestic instability, sex trafficking, and so on—undoubtedly must try to reduce gender selection in the short term. But the restoration of a natural gender ratio will not happen without profound changes in attitudes toward women.

Samantha Chu is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of flickr user Joan Vila]

Asia, China, Gender, Human Trafficking, India