China says it will pay rural families who do not abort female babies. The move is part of an effort to reduce a growing imbalance in the number of girls and boys born in the country.

Under the new program, rural families that keep their baby girls will receive free health insurance. School fees for girls also will be cut and families whose only child is a girl will be eligible for special housing, jobs and training.

The National Population and Family Planning Commission's "Care for Girls" program will spend millions of dollars across the country to help protect girls and end gender inequality.

The new policy reflects concern over the country's growing gender imbalance. Many families desperate to have sons are aborting unborn girls. Other girl babies are abandoned or receive so little care that they die young.

In some provinces, there are as many as 130 boys for every 100 girls. In most parts of the world, about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. Chinese officials note the imbalance could translate into over 30 million unmarried and potentially unhappy men by the year 2020.

But Siri Tellier with the UN's Population Fund says the issue is about more than just marriage. "This is not just a question of the boys not being able to find girls to marry. That's sad, but that's not, I think, the problem," she said. "I think the main worrisome thing is what this says about people's attitude toward girls."

Chinese officials say the imbalance is caused by a strong cultural preference for boy babies, particularly in the countryside, where boys are expected to grow up to care for aged parents.

Ms. Tellier says providing better health insurance for poor adults could help change the way girls are valued. "If the main reason they want sons is the fear of what will happen in their old age, and the pension in their old age, then definitely, that should be one component," she says. "And, that is one component of this new system."

The pilot program will not change China's restrictive family planning laws. Families in cities are allowed only one child while rural families may have a second child if the first is a girl.

Beijing denies its one-child policy has contributed to the gender imbalance and promises the government will improve conditions for China's women.