Female Infanticide in Asia

An Asian woman carries her baby on her back
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In China and India alone, an estimated 2 million baby girls go "missing" each year. They are selectively aborted, killed as newborns, or abandoned and left to die. Neighboring countries with similar cultural traditions, such as South Korea and Nepal, have also faced this problem. 

What are the traditions that led to this massacre of baby girls? What modern laws and policies have addressed or exacerbated the problem? The root causes of female infanticide in Confucian countries like China and South Korea are similar to, but not exactly the same as, predominantly Hindu countries such as India and Nepal.

India and Nepal

According to Hindu tradition, women are lower incarnations than men of the same caste. A woman cannot obtain release (moksha) from the cycle of death and rebirth. On a more practical day-to-day level, women traditionally could not inherit property or carry on the family name. Sons were expected to take care of their elderly parents in return for inheriting the family farm or shop. Daughters had to have an expensive dowry to get married; a son, on the other hand, would bring dowry wealth into the family. A woman's social status was so dependent on that of her husband that if he died and left her a widow, she was often expected to commit sati rather than going back to her birth family.

As a result of these beliefs and practices, parents had a strong preference for sons. A baby girl was seen as a "robber" who would cost the family money to raise and who then would take her dowry and go to a new family when she got married. For centuries, sons were given more food in times of scarcity, better medical care, and more parental attention and affection. If a family felt like they had too many daughters and another girl was born, they might smother her with a damp cloth, strangle her, or leave her outside to die.

Effects of Modern Technology

In recent years, advances in medical technology have made the problem much worse. Instead of waiting nine months to see the baby's sex at birth, families today have access to ultrasounds that can tell them the child's sex just four months into the pregnancy. Many families who want a son will abort a female fetus. Sex determination tests are illegal in India, but doctors routinely accept bribes to carry out the procedure. Such cases are almost never prosecuted.

The results of sex-selective abortion have been stark. The normal sex ratio at birth is about 105 males for every 100 females because girls naturally survive to adulthood more often than boys. Today, for every 105 boys born in India, only 97 girls are born. In the most skewed district of Punjab, the ratio is 105 boys to 79 girls. Although these numbers don't look too alarming, in a country as populous as India, that translates to 49 million more men than women as of 2019.

This imbalance has contributed to a rapid rise in horrific crimes against women. It seems logical that where women are a rare commodity, they would be treasured and treated with great respect. However, what happens in practice is that men commit more acts of violence against women where the gender balance is skewed. In recent years, women in India have faced increasing threats of rape, gang rape, and murder, in addition to domestic abuse from their husbands or their parents-in-law. Some women are killed for failing to produce sons, perpetuating the cycle.

Sadly, this problem seems to be growing more common in Nepal as well. Many women there cannot afford an ultrasound to determine the sex of their fetuses, so they kill or abandon baby girls after they are born. The reasons for the recent increase in female infanticide in Nepal are not clear.

China and South Korea

In China and South Korea, people's behavior and attitudes today are still shaped to a large degree by the teachings of Confucius, an ancient Chinese sage. Among his teachings were the ideas that men are superior to women and that sons have a duty to take care of their parents when the parents grow too old to work.

Girls, in contrast, were seen as a burden to raise, just as they were in India. They could not carry on the family name or bloodline, inherit the family property, or perform as much manual labor on the family farm. When a girl married, she was "lost" to a new family, and in centuries past, her birth parents might never see her again if she moved to a different village to marry. Unlike India, however, Chinese women do not have to provide a dowry when they marry. This makes the financial cost of raising a girl less onerous.

Effects of Modern Policy in China

The Chinese government's One-Child Policy, enacted in 1979, has led to gender imbalance similar to India's. Faced with the prospect of only having a single child, most parents in China preferred to have a son. As a result, they would abort, kill, or abandon baby girls. To help alleviate the problem, the Chinese government altered the policy to allow parents to have a second child if the first one was a girl, but many parents still do not want to bear the expense of raising and educating two children, so they will get rid of girl babies until they get a boy.

In some regions of China in the last decades, there could be roughly 140 men for every 100 women. The lack of brides for all of those extra men means that they cannot have children and carry on their families' names, leaving them as "barren branches." Some families resort to kidnapping girls in order to marry them to their sons. Others import brides from Vietnam, Cambodia, and other Asian nations.

South Korea

In South Korea, too, the current number of marriage-age men is much larger than the available women. This is because South Korea had the worst gender-at-birth imbalance in the world in the 1990s. Parents still clung to their traditional beliefs about the ideal family, even as the economy grew explosively and people became wealthy. As a result of increasing wealth, most families had access to ultrasounds and abortions, and the nation as a whole saw 120 boys being born for every 100 girls throughout the 1990s.

As in China, some South Korean men began bringing in brides from other Asian countries. However, it is a difficult adjustment for these women, who usually don't speak Korean and don't understand the expectations that will be placed on them in a Korean family—particularly the enormous expectations around their children's education.

Prosperity and Equality as Solutions

South Korea, however, became a success story. In just a couple of decades, the gender-at-birth ratio has normalized at about 105 boys per 100 girls. This is mostly a result of changing social norms. Couples in South Korea have realized that women today have more opportunities to earn money and gain prominence. From 2006 to 2007, the prime minister was a woman, for example. As capitalism booms, some sons have abandoned the custom of living with and caring for their elderly parents. Parents are now more likely to turn to their daughters for old-age care. Daughters are growing ever more valuable.

There are still families in South Korea with, for example, a 19-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son. The implication of these bookend families is that several other daughters were aborted in between. But the South Korean experience shows that improvements in the social status and earning potential of women can have a profoundly positive effect on the birth ratio. It can actually prevent female infanticide.