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UN Warns Gender Imbalances Growing in Asia

Mothers cuddle their babies as they undergo medical checkup at Cainta Town Hall at Cainta township, Rizal province east of Manila, Philippines, October 8, 2009.

Mothers cuddle their babies as they undergo medical checkup at Cainta Town Hall at Cainta township, Rizal province east of Manila, Philippines, October 8, 2009.

BANGKOK — A U.N. report on gender imbalances says the continuing preference for boy children, especially in India and China, is leading increasing numbers of families to use prenatal sex selection. Researchers warn that the phenomenon is gaining favor in more countries.

The new United Nations Population Fund report says gender selection practices are showing signs of increase in Southeast Asia, as well as Bangladesh and Afghanistan and Eastern European states of Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and Montenegro.

The report, released to coincide with an Asia Population Conference, says practices of sex selection have resulted in an alarming trend of “demographic masculinization” in regions and will adversely impact communities for at least five decades.

The selection of boy children has been driven by local cultures, access to medical ultrasound technology and official government policies limiting numbers of children to families.

The report says, "In 2010, researchers estimated the gender gap at around 117 million women “missing” - mostly in China and India. Researchers say that could mean by 2030 in those two countries there may be 50 percent more men than women among single people seeking to marry."

The report’s author, Christophe Guilmoto, a senior fellow at the Paris-based Center for Population and Development, says policy planners must focus on addressing the excess of male births in communities over the coming decades.

“These men will be young adults and they will find themselves outnumbering women. So of we consider that they were traditionally - especially in like India and China - expected to marry - then they will have a serious problem," he said. "They will what we call “marriage squeeze” and it will directly impact the probability or the ability of men to marry and especially men of lower socio-economic background.”

China is the major contributor to the growing imbalances with very high levels of boy children exceeding girls in Anhui, Fujian and Hainan provinces. The report says, in several areas, the sex ratio of second-tier births far exceeds normal levels with proportion of male births representing two thirds in some rural areas. Guilmoto says communities will face wide ranging problems.

“We’re talking about several millions of people as I say pile up on the marriage market. Millions of men who are unable to marry and we see them already in Shanghai, in cities in Eastern China and for whom it is very difficult; but we are going to see big time in 10 years with no comparison with what we see today,” Guilmoto added.

In India, while gender disparities are lower than in China because of higher fertility rates, the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh all report above average gender imbalances.

Arpita Das, from the Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences, says Indian women undergoing repeated abortions seeking a boy child, also place their health at risk - even infertility.

“In India, the sex ratio is very distorted and may be this is the reason for sex selection abortion; and if women [undertake] two or three abortions for the sex selection they my face the problem of their own fertility,” she said.

Deepti Singh, also from the Mumbai-based Institute says it has been a tradition for Indian women to favor a boy child.

“If they are having one girl child, then they really don’t want to go for another girl child, just because of son preference," explained Singh. "They want a boy because of traditional practices, because we have a tradition in India, boys should be born in a family. So this is the main reason for repeated induced abortions and especially if it’s a girl.”

Although abortion is legal in India, many women of poor background may seek a termination by non-registered health workers because of cost involved.

But speakers at the conference say wealthier urban women may undergo repeated terminations in a bid to have a boy child for status.

Singh says the practice of sex selection has continued in India, despite being banned. She says India’s tradition of a dowry for the husband’s family, despite being illegal, is another reason for women to end a pregnancy.

“Most of the sex selection abortions, we have to stop sex selection first of all which is actually banned but not really. This is a very important thing, but poverty is the one of the main reason because the dowry system is very prominent in India," Singh stated. "So people should be educated and poverty should be alleviated from this system.”

Guilmoto, from the Center for Population and Development, says the looming gender imbalances could hasten the breakdown of the current rigid social hierarchies preventing marriages between people of differing backgrounds and classes.

“Obviously, the marriage market will have to open up further. In India the strict caste regulation for marriage will have to go, the dowry system also prevailing in India will probably have to go because why would you pay to get married to a man when there is already a shortage of women? So it’s pure economics,"

Guilmoto says current traditions of family in regions - such as family name, inheritance rules, divorce rights - will also need to adjust as men are unable to marry or marry later in life.