There is a little-known battle for survival going in some parts of the world. Those at risk are baby girls, and the casualties are in the millions each year. The weapons being used against them are prenatal sex selection, abortion and female infanticide — the systematic killing of girls soon after they are born.
According to a recent United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) State of the World Population Report, these practices, combined with neglect, have resulted in at least 60 million "missing" girls in Asia, creating gender imbalances and other serious problems that experts say will have far reaching consequences for years to come.
"Twenty-five million men in China currently can’t find brides because there is a shortage of women," said Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute in Washington, D.C. "The young men emigrate overseas to find brides."
The imbalances are also giving rise to a commercial sex trade; the 2005 report states that up to 800,000 people being trafficked across borders each year, and as many as 80 percent are women and girls, most of whom are exploited.
"Women are trafficked from North Korea, Burma and Vietnam and sold into sexual slavery or to the highest bidder," Mosher said.
Mosher, the first American social scientist allowed into China, puts much of the blame on Beijing's one-child policy, which took effect in 1979.
The policy encourages late marrying and late childbearing, and it limits the majority of urban couples to having one child and most of those living in rural areas to two. Female infanticide was the result, he said.
"Historically infanticide was something that was practiced in poor places in China," Mosher said. "But when the one-child policy came into effect we began to see in the wealthy areas of China, what had never been done before in history — the killing of little girls."
In recent years, female infanticide has taken a back seat to sex-selective abortion or female feticide, due to the advent of amniocentesis and ultrasound technology as well as other prenatal sex selection techniques, many of which are now readily available in clinics and doctors’ offices.
"We feel it's a serious problem that everybody should be concerned about and aware of," said Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee. "This is a form of abortion that, from our point of view is especially egregious. Abortion is claimed to help women; obviously in these cases, females are the direct victims, because women in these cultures are not valued.
"In our family we adopted a Chinese baby," she continued. "There have been thousands and thousands of them adopted since China’s one-child policy created this overabundance of baby girls in orphanages."
How bad are the imbalances between males and females in Asia?
Generally, the normal sex ratio at birth (SRB) is between 103 and 105 males per 100 females, and in rare cases 106 or a bit more than that.
Countries that are known to have or have had higher sex ratio at birth numbers include South Korea, which peaked at 115 in 1994, Singapore where the SRB registered 109 in 1984 and China, which has seen the numbers increase over the past two decades.
Published reports in China show the gender ratio for newborns in 2005 was 118 boys for every 100 girls, and in some southern regions like Guangdong and Hainan, the number has reached 130 boys for every 100 girls.
The 2000 Chinese census put the average sex ratio at 117, with Tibet having the lowest number at 103 and Hainan registering the highest at 136.
Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., attributes the large sex-ratio imbalances in places like China to a combination of factors: an enormous and enduring preference for boys reinforced by the low socioeconomic status accorded to women; the use of rapidly spreading prenatal sex determination technology for gender-based abortion; and the rapid drop in fertility in different populations, making the outcome of each birth even more important.
"The one-child policy intensifies this problem, but if that policy stops and fertility levels stay at one or two, the problem won’t entirely go away," Eberstadt said. "When the average number is down to one or two, there is an incentive for parents to meddle with the outcome. In places where fertility levels are high, there are few signs of sex selection."
In his presentation before the World Youth Alliance in New York City last April, Eberstadt warned that "The Global War Against Baby Girls" is expanding.
"There are gender imbalances in almost every East Asian country, but Japan," said Eberstadt, who has also noted alarming irregularities in Western Asia in places like Cyprus, Qatar and Pakistan, as well as in some countries on the African continent, including Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
Indian Girls Bear Dowry Burden
In India, where the child sex ratio is calculated as the number of girls per 1,000 boys in the 0-6 years age group, the problem is severe. The 2001 Census shows there are only 927 girls per 1,000 boys, representing a sharp decline from 1961 when that number was 976. In certain parts of the country there are now fewer than 800 girls for every 1,000 boys.
"India is a very mixed bag," Eberstadt said. "In some parts there are no signs of any unnatural imbalances; in other parts the numbers are grotesque."
For instance, 2001 census reports show that Punjab and Haryana reported fewer than 900 girls per 1,000 boys.
"The problem is more prevalent in the northern and western states, where prosperity, rapid fertility decline and patriarchal (male heads the family) mindsets combine to put girls at risk," said Ena Singh, the assistant representative at UNFPA.
Like China, there is a strong son preference for various socio-economic reasons, such as the son being responsible for carrying on the family name and support in old age. Furthermore, in some sections of India it is believed that only sons can perform the last rites for parents.
In addition to sharing a strong son preference, both India and China lack a national social-security system. As it is assumed that a daughter will become a part of her husband’s family, parents must rely on their sons to take care of them.
Since the 1970s, India’s government has promoted a two-child family as "ideal." While no formal laws exist, the general fertility decline in the country has led to smaller families, with couples still preferring to have at least one son. But the government has done more than just suggest this number.
"In India it has been done state by state, village by village," Mosher said. "There have sterilization campaigns and there is enormous pressure. Villages that won’t comply have been denied fertilizer, access to irrigation water, etc."
Complicating matters even further in India is the dowry system, where families pay large sums in order to marry off their daughters. Although prohibited in 1961, newspaper reports illustrate the continuing phenomenon. This can be very expensive for families, adding to the perception that girls can be a financial burden.
Abortion is legal in India under certain conditions, but sex-selective abortions or female feticide is a crime.
In 1994, the government enacted the Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PC & PNDT), which prohibited those conducting such tests from telling or otherwise communicating to the woman or her family the sex of the fetus. The law was amended in 2003 to prohibit sex selection before or after conception.
"In recent years, prenatal sex selection and female feticide in India has increased," Singh said. "Though it is against the law for ultrasound technologies to be used to detect the sex of the child, it is still done illegally."
In 2006 a doctor and his assistant in the northern state of Haryana were sentenced to two years in jail and fined for revealing the sex of a female fetus and agreeing to abort it. It was the first time medical professionals were sentenced to jail time under the (PC & PNDT) Act. Three years earlier, a doctor in Punjab received a fine. Singh estimates that hundreds more cases are being investigated across the country and taken to court.
Experts who have analyzed the National Family Health Survey 2 (NFHS2) estimate that about 300,000 girls go "missing" in India each year. Other studies have put the number between 150,000 and 500,000.
While many people see this as a problem of the poor, analysts say it is more prevalent among those in the wealthier and educated segments of society.
Men in parts of India are also beginning to have difficulties finding brides, causing some to leave the country to do so.
"Hindu girls are being smuggled and purchased from poor countries like Nepal and Bhutan to be brides for Indian men," said Bernard Dickens, professor emeritus of health law and policy at the University of Toronto Law School.
Combating the Problem
In recent years various Indian state governments and media houses have launched initiatives to address the gender imbalances, including "Save the Girl Child" campaigns.
Last February, the Indian government announced its "cradle scheme," whereby orphanages would be set up to raise unwanted baby girls. Other incentives include tax rebates on ownership of properties and reserving seats for female candidates in villages, districts and at municipal levels.
Community groups, corporations and individuals have also started various efforts to enhance the status of the girl child. In March 2007, politician Sonia Gandhi, chairwoman of the United Progressive Alliance, spoke out against female feticide and the need for gender equality at the at the International Women’s Day celebrations in New Delhi.
Lara Dutta, UNFPA’s goodwill ambassador, a popular actress and Miss Universe 2000, has also been working extensively with young people to raise awareness about the issue.
China too has enacted laws in an effort to meet its goal of lowering the sex ratio at birth to normal levels by 2010.
In 1994, the Mother and Child Health Law of the Peoples Republic of China outlawed the practice of sex identification of the fetus and sex-selective abortions without medical requirements. This was reaffirmed in the 2002 Population and Family Planning Law.
Officials also started the "Care for Girls" campaign to promote equality for men and women and economic support is being offered to girl-only families in the countryside.
"Raising awareness is important," said William Ryan, a Asia and Pacific regional information advisor for the United Nations Population Fund. "I think the effort to emphasize equality of the sexes and the value of women in society will help reduce the problem in the long run."
China Holds On to One Child
However, China has pledged to keep its one-child policy in place until the year 2050, a policy which it admits is "related" to the large sex imbalances in the country.
"The implications are potentially disastrous," Mosher said. "The answer is economic development, not restricting the number of people."
This year, the United States sponsored a resolution at the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women that called for eliminating infanticide and gender selection. The resolution was withdrawn due to opposition from several countries, including China and India; however, the issue of prenatal sex selection was included in the final conference document.
Interestingly South Korea was one of the countries to support the resolution. Like China and India, it too has had its own problems with sex imbalances; however, progress is being made.
If the imbalances continue, Adam Jones, executive director of Gendercide Watch, sees another possible outcome.
"Because of the disparity, surviving women have greater market value," he said. "As a result, it may become more economically viable for families to have girl children, thus reducing rates of female infanticide and sex selection."
As China and India work toward solving their problems, Eberstadt points out that three large European countries are also showing disturbing signs.
"Greece, Macedonia and Yugoslavia betray some hints of prejudicial death rates for little girls in the post-war period," he said. While the numbers are very small, he notes they are "nonetheless curious and unusual.
"In the western hemisphere, Venezuela and El Salvador both have unnatural death rates for little girls and now also display unnatural sex ratios at birth," he continued.
Published reports point to problems among some immigrant groups in Canada as well. And even in the United States, Eberstadt said, some Asian-American populations have begun to "exhibit sex ratios at birth that could be considered biologically impossible."
"Since the mid-1990s, the issue of female infanticide and sex selection has been highlighted in several conferences and in several U.N. documents," said Samantha Singson, chief U.N. liaison for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. "Unfortunately the issue isn’t getting as much attention as we feel it deserves."