The girl dearth

Update: I put this post up before a very long road trip. When I checked the comments on my smartphone 10 hours later at a truck stop things had clearly gone in an unproductive direction. So I closed comments. In the future I understand that it will not do for me to put up a post when I won’t be able to monitor initial comments, as excising inappropriate ones after the fact fragments the conversation too much. Live and learn.

For the record, I have no issues with being impolitic on the substance of matters. But thread-jacking as occurred below when there’s so much low hanging fruit to discuss is not acceptable. Speaking of which, in response to S. R. Datta’s mooting of the issue of hepatitis as the reason for sex ratio distortion in China, that hypothesis seems to have been rejected, including by the scholar who originally forwarded it. Obviously that may not be true generally, though let us note that sex ratio imbalances are well known from the historical record, and they often vary as a function of time and class (e.g., medieval European nobility seemed to exhibit son preference, while peasants did not, at least as adduced from the ratio of the sex of buried infants). I think the Trivers-Willard hypothesis may explain some of these trends across human history.

End Update

Several readers have pointed to the recent, unfortunately predictable, story coming out of the Indian census, Selective Abortions Blamed For Girl Shortage In India:

Dr. C. Chandramouli, India’s census commissioner, says the numbers don’t lie: The girls are missing.

Among children under 6 years old in India today, there are only 940 girls for every 1,000 boys. Worldwide, it’s around 986 to every 1,000.

Chandramouli says this is a continuation of a trend that was first seen clearly in the 2000 census — but the new figures show the problem is spreading.

“It has to be said that what was predominantly a North Indian phenomena of a few states has now spread across the country, and we see a uniform decline all over the country, so that is what is more distressing,” he says.

First, in the short term economic development can lead to the spread of practices through emulation of dominant elites. But, in the long term one can see a reversal of the preference for boys to girls. In Japan the shift occurred 20 years ago. In Korea the change is happening now. One hopes that the same switch will occur with China and India, though it seems unlikely that these nations will become as wealthy on a per capita basis as Japan or Korea in the near future, so it would have to be driven by non-economic factors as well (the drop in fertility in some nations preceded economic growth, to the surprise of demographers, so it can happen).

But it must be remembered that regional differences persist, as is evident in this map:Picture-189.jpgOn a personal note, my extended family in Bangladesh has been shifting to a norm of one or two children. My mother has also observed that in general my cousins are now expressing a preference for the first child to be a girl in case they only have one child (some of them are starting their families rather late in life).

This can’t of course explain what’s going on in Punjab, which has a relatively low fertility (though Haryana’s is not so low). But one aspect of the Indian dynamic which I wonder about is the noted pattern of bringing women from poorer areas to rebalance the adult sex ratio. This may be serving to block the eventual cultural equilibration of sex preferences which is necessary for a functioning society.

You occasionally read about the persistence of sex selective abortions in Asian Diasporic communities. I am curious though as to the prevalence of the practice, as well as inter-cultural differences. Does the intra-Indian variance persist in North America and Europe? I would bet it does, but I don’t know. Certainly a lot of economic background issues are collapsed in a relatively affluent consumer society with generous old age pensions. Finally, Diasporic communities oftentimes preserve the more archaic elements of the culture of origin due to an artificial stasis (e.g., foot-binding was last practiced among the Chinese of Malaysian Borneo in the late 1970s). It would not surprise me if, for example, the Punjabi communities of Vancouver retain the norms of “Old Punjab” longer than Indian Punjab itself does.

31 thoughts on “The girl dearth

  1. a study on sex imbalance and socioeconomic status conducted by two professors from harvard concludes that “the counterintuitive association between sex imbalance and socioeconomic status suggest that improvements in economic growth and educational achievements alone are unlikely to normalize the sex imbalance in india. targeted policies are required to offset the anti-girl pro-boy norms…”

    i used to argue once that regional differences that exist in abnormal sex ratios at birth is somehow important. it is not. for one if it happens only in one region of india it affects entire india, it is a national human problem and not just a regional one. secondly as chandrmouli has stated the practice is spreading. in some studies while pakistan fares worse than india, nepal, sri lanka and bangladesh are better. i wonder what role does religion as practiced and culture plays into this nasty, obnoxious problem.

    these studies have shown women from upper class, educated and employed are seeking sex selective abortions is trending higher. the trend is not anywhere like this among the rural poor. access to ultrasound may be a factor but there could also be other factors. access to nutrition seems a negligent factor.

    it would be interesting if someone were to conduct a study by interviewing the women who chose sons over daughters, their motivation. this is is difficult for obvious reasons; sex selective abortion is a crime in india. this is a stupid thing because ultimately it erodes women’s reproductive rights.

    ant-girl attitude thrives among indians abroad, to the extent where obstetricians are wary of giving out gender information in places like NYC and vancouver.

  2. From the map it looks like the higher the west asian genetic component among indians the more likely they are to be misogynous. The mongoloid tibeto-burman northeast looks the most enlightened, followed by the dravidian south. While the far northwest is the most barbaric and backward.

    Kashmir is a bit better than Punjab and Haryana probably because of it’s large Muslim population. Islam to it’s credit forbids female infanticide which used to be prevalent in Arabia also at that time.

  3. Laloo, So perhaps Hindu personal code should be modified to allow for polygamy, then the misogyny won’t take the form of sex-selective abortions, but instead of harems! Great thinking! ;-)

  4. It is simple, Indian men will import gold-digging women from pakistan, bangladesh & nepal. As if this is something new.

  5. Self_Correcting,

    I’ve seen that style of comment (that Indian men won’t find any women) often, but no one addresses one basic mathematical point. Indian men seek women who are 3-4 years younger, and the studies are comparing the male : female ratio for those born the same year. Since India’s population is rising dramatically, there are far more 24 year olds than 27 year olds, and perhaps more 24yr old women than 27yr old men. I haven’t looked at the fertility rate, but if each year there are 3% more born than the preceding year, then a 3-4 year gap would amount to 9-12% larger population for the younger group. That can offset the 5-10% smaller female population. With an age difference of 6-10 years, the population size may be 18-30% larger for the younger group, dramatically offsetting the 5-10% reduction.

    That said, I think it’s chauvinistic to frame the problem purely in terms of whether Indian men are inconvenienced or not. Gender balance should be striven for on its own merit.

    • That sounds like a Ponzi scheme to me (to rely on more women b/c of population growth).

      And, why is “gender balance” a goal? Female empowerment is far more important, in my view. And, female empowerment could come through scarcity.

      Also, the increasing gay male culture of North-West India will add diversity and perhaps cultural strength. I follow Richard Posner’s book “Sex & Reason” in predicting increased homosexual behavior in that region–as “search costs” for a hetero partner increase, more men will substitute to same-sex partner.

      @Saheli–If you’ve seen the huge abortion clinics in Washington state, set up for the Vancouver Punjabis, I think you would be more prone to view the problem as not reducible to biology.

  6. In my extended family the preference for small familes (1-2 children) took hold during my grandparents’ generation, and the vast majority of my cousins are girls, so a) I have little experience of the dynamics driving this and b) find it kind of baffling. It’s the women who take care of the elders in my family, and that pattern is so self-evident that I don’t see how any set of parents couldn’t see they’d be shooting their future senior selves in their arthritic feet to abort a girl child.

    But is there anything to the idea that certain diseases like Hepatitis and Malaria may change fertility in a sex-selective way? I thought that there was pretty good evidence that some of China’s disparity was due less to one-child-era abortions and more to the prevalance of Hepatitis there. Since we know so little about South Asian genomics, I’m assuming we know even less about South Asian biomics. Isn’t it possible something else is going on besides socioeconomics and culture? I’ve heard people say that in Bengal and the 1800s there was a huge rise in daughters, which had real economic consequences for the culture and led to some of the early progressive reforms in how girls were treated. But that initial rise was unlikely to be due to sex-selective abortions. So maybe it was due to something biological?

  7. I am ashamed our Punjabis are like this towards females..it is like the novel Skeena by Razia Fauriq, women are just chattels

  8. I would think religious attitudes toward abortion also would be relevant in determining the number of sex-selective abortions. This at least is my kneejerk explanation of Kerala’s having a relatively good sex ratio: because Christianity overtly preaches against all abortion, for any reason, a state with a higher proportion of Christians will have fewer abortions, including fewer sex-selective ones.

    • PG, Christianity is not one religion–the beliefs and practices vary even within Europe (one contiguous geographical region.)

      Wanderer, it is not just punjabis–all of India can share the shame. If you’ve ever been female and grown up in India you will know the sorts fo attitudes that prevail.

      Saheli, where do I begin. Preference for the males in India manifests itself in myriad ways and sex-selective abortions is just a recent one. Most Indian boys have been brought up by denying an Indian girl something. If it was not material resources, it was self-esteem. Indian men may pout but the truth is they are spoiled rotten little mamas boys. Yes all of them.

      Men have not very interested in this issue–not till it has recently been pointed out that brides would be scarce.

      • “Christianity is not one religion–the beliefs and practices vary “

        Wrong. Christianity in Kerala is very interesting — and you cannot compare it with post-industrial Christianity. The Christianity you see in Kerala took root in 500AD and is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The practices are orthodox and very conservative. When the Portugese colonized in the 1600, they converted many Syrian Christians into Roman Catholics. After they were displaced, Syrian Christian came in force. Seriously, do people not read books anymore!

        Basically, it is idiotic to not attribute the low abortion rate to the orthodox Christian values in Kerala. Kerala also has a strong communist entity — as strong as that in West Bengal. Both are intellectual sites, which also accounts for hgher education rates for both boys and girls in Kerala and Kolkata.

    • Religious faith definitely plays a role. Abortion is considered haram in Islam–unless it takes place to save a mother within 2 months of conception (I am fuzzy on some details from various hadiths. These details vary from country to country, obviously, because Islam is practiced differently from region to region). Regardless, 2 months is not enough to know what gender you have. Even the least practising Muslims I know — the ones all hip and happening — consider abortion haram, which is an interesting insight into the “culture” of Islam beyond religiosity.

      I am guessing that Hinduism — like Chinese-enforced securalism aka communism — does not have any directives against abortion.

      The reality is that most of India lives in horrific poverty, and most are farmers or in small agrarian society. In such a society girl is a burden. That’s how it works in REAL India, not the one being courted by US military and corporations. Having a girl means a hefty dowry, which takes up a lifetime to save. Then a girl becomes the property of her husband after marriage — and is given away literally. It is a lousy investment in that mindset.

      But what is disturbing is the fact that even “wealthy” immigrants and middle class are aborting their girls. I guess that that’s because a girl is still seen as a temporary guest in her parents’ house until she is married off.

      This is unscientific, but my Muslim families from Arab countries and Pakistan and Bangladesh often have two daughters or a daughter and son. Many of the Hindu families I know who work in the tech company here have two sons almost exclusively. That’s curious because I assume they come from the Bangalore region because of their names.

      Anyway, Kerala and Bihar regions disparity from the rest of India is not surprising. Strong Christian presence in Kerala, Muslim in Bihar. Abrahamic religions are pretty blunt about abortion.

      It’s important to note that infanticide of girls in India is an even larger problem. Girls are much more likely to die in infancy because of lack of care, neglect, and malnutrition.

      What are the numbers for infanticide along gender lines in Pakistan, Kashmir, and Bangladesh…and Sri Lanka? Is the Sri Lankan Buddhist Sinhalese gender ration similar to Tamil Hindus?

      • Two points, Fajita,

        One, your speculation that Hinduism is not opposed to abortion is false: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinduism_and_abortion That said, casual empiricism does suggest higher rates of female infanticide in some areas than others, so worth inquiring into more, but not so simple.

        Two–female infanticide/abortion is not the problem. It is a symptom of misogyny. (Do you really care about an embryo?!, in spite of what your religion says?) Even if Hindus have more abortion, Muslims have burkha, polygamy, cousin-marriage etc. Nobody is in the clear here. Yet all these are just symptoms–the problem that needs to be solved by Hindus, Mulisms, Sikhs, etc. is misogyny.

  9. Why don’t Hindus and Sikhs fear the karmic consequences of killing female fetuses and infants, like Muslims fear Hell if they do?

  10. @Shilpa,

    Muslim men don’t keep women in harem when they practiced polygamy. Secondly, Hindus are more likely to practice bigamy/polygamy than Muslims in India (while some even prefer to have side mistresses with no attachments rather than marrying them and respecting them as wives). The Westernized Indian men who live/come to study in America have no problems treating Western women as flesh to savor and some even have 7-8 sexual partners. What kind of harem is that? It is the same educated Indian elite who condemn Muslims as backward who are using the latest modern technology to engage in sex-selective abortion in the West.

  11. Muslim men don’t keep women in harem when they practiced polygamy.


    I don’t know what you mean by that, unless you are using “harem” in a way not defined in an English-language dictionary. Clarify, please?

    Secondly, Hindus are more likely to practice bigamy/polygamy than Muslims in India


    Again, don’t know what you mean. Hindus can’t practice polygamy in India, unlike Muslims. Yes, Hindus can have mistresses, etc. but that is not what is meant by bigamy/polygamy.

  12. Shilpa, calm down. We get it: you hate Muslims. It’s clear. Now take a deep breath. Relax.

    If we want the troll game, I can come back with Hindus have bride burning, dowry, ostracized widows (yes, to this day. Leave your middle class taxi and walk around India a bit). Hindu girls and women spend most of their lives cooking and cleaning and being glorified maid servants to her husbands family, so don’t act like Hindus only mistreat their girls in utero.

    I’m not interested in your trolling. Don’t engage with me with you Muslim-bashing idiocy.

    We’re not talking about millions of Indian girls wiped out because of abortions. Stick to the topic.

    • I don’t understand why you view my objections to your Islamic triumphalism (“this female infanticide is a Hindu problem we Muslims are above”) equates to me hating Muslims. Anyway, you are taking this off-topic, so I am done with you.

  13. Actually fajita, i think you’re the one that needs to take a deep breath–and perhaps do a little background reading rather than making unevidenced assertions as you did above:

    “I am guessing that Hinduism — like Chinese-enforced securalism aka communism — does not have any directives against abortion.”

    “Anyway, Kerala and Bihar regions disparity from the rest of India is not surprising. Strong Christian presence in Kerala, Muslim in Bihar. Abrahamic religions are pretty blunt about abortion.”

    It is the silly religious character anointed on this topic by laloo here:

    Laloo | April 15, 2011 7:41 PM | Reply

    Why don’t Hindus and Sikhs fear the karmic consequences of killing female fetuses and infants, like Muslims fear Hell if they do?

    that led her down that track. You proceeded to heap on as you did in your most recent comment. You can talk about bride burning and dowry all you want, but all are banned by law (the former virtually non-existent and the latter in fact resulting in many wrongfully jailed men). Curiously, practices such as female (or male for that matter) circumcision and stoning along with death for adultery are absent—are there strong abrahamic injunctions against these too?

    The point is Shilpa was reacting to the religious character injected into the discussion. So either you hate hindus, or you’re just defending those who do? Do you see the problem with your line of reasoning?

    Let’s get back to the topic, set aside these religious matters (on either part) aside, and focus on the key issue of ending female infanticide. It has serious socio-economic and national ramifications that all Indians must be mindful of and tackle. No society has celebrated the mother like Indian (and for that matter hindu) society–it is time people demonstrate this respect to future mothers along with current ones.

    • Oooh, our resident Muslim basher is back to pat Shilpa on the back. Is rob far behind? Let’s get Yoga Fire and Boston Mahesh in here, and you’ll have a party on. Cheers, trolls.

      This is why I stay very far away from Sepia…

  14. Shilpa, you’re rabidly paranoid. Look at the numbers. Muslims and Christians and Buddhists are not aborting their girls. Hindus and Sikhs are. If you see someone noticing that as Islamic triumphalism, I suggest you’d be happier combing through YouTube videos ranting about oogeey-boogey Mozlems comin’ to keeel yous.

    Ridiculous comments about harems and burkhas are ridiculous.What is the counterpart to that: That adult Hindu women are prancing around free and liberated in mini-skirts? No, they wake up at dawn and slave over a mud stove until night. Physical abuse at the hands of their mother-in-laws are common. It is a life of slavery. Life in India is not a Bollywood movie.

    Intellectual conversation about trends depicted clearly on a map and argued and talked about endlessly by people like Nick Kristoff and Amartya Sen for decades is not your forte.

    • I suggest you’d be happier combing through YouTube videos ranting about oogeey-boogey Mozlems comin’ to keeel yous.


      I’ve had family members killed by what you call “oogeey-boogey Mozlems” but I don’t feel the need to be as crass as you on a South Asian forum. Keep it classy, fajita.

  15. Thank you, Satyajit Wry!

    Not to be too navel-gazing, b/c obviously the major problem to be solved is this female infanticide, but as a second-order question, does anyone have any advice (or links to discussions) as to how an ABD might broach this topic in India? I spend 7-8 weeks in India every summer, but I find Indian politics (both in terms of elections, gender, etc.) so toxic that it difficult to connect with people there on these sorts of issues. Obviously there are “social service” groups, but they are often linked to political org’s with rather (to me) odious connections (Hindutva, Islamism, Communism . . . ). Maybe my nana is right–I should spend more time on US politics–but then why are my parents shipping me off to India every summer?!

    Yours in ABCD’dom, Shilpa

  16. Fajita, your comments speak for themselves—just type “Nilufar” (the old resident hindu basher) under Name and be done with it…

    “Shilpa, you’re rabidly paranoid. Look at the numbers. Muslims and Christians and Buddhists are not aborting their girls. Hindus and Sikhs are.”

    Facts, sir/m’am/it, would go along way to shifting this from an all you can eat hatefest to educated discussion. Either post links to back up your statements (something you had trouble with above) or call it a night…

  17. Oh for crying out loud, I can’t believe I’m wading into this amazing troll fest but

    a) I’m not prone to believing it’s biology, I just want to note that biology shouldn’t be ignored, especially when it’s obviously people looooove their cultural triumphalism, regardless of the direction. I was very shocked by the Chinese Hepatitis study.

    b) as a very religious Hindu, I was raised being extremeley pro-life, and it was only after some deep reflection about the true limits of the separation of church and state did I become politically pro-choice. When it comes to myself, I’m still pro-life, I’m just not willing to argue for legally imposing that thinking on someone else. The opening chapter of the Bhagavad Gita has Arjun citing ‘the killing of unborn children’ as one of the signs of the social morals gone all to hell.

    Shockingly, most people are not necessarily representative of the full implications of their identified religion, whether Abrahamic or not. So why don’t we stop the cultural triumphalism altogether and focus on evidence-based ways of stopping this problem. Anyone have one of those at hand?

  18. evidence-based ways of stopping this problem. Anyone have one of those at hand?


    How about making block-grants of some size from Delhi related to sex-ratio? That is, reward progress on reducing female infanticide/abortion with $$ from the center.

  19. “Even if Hindus have more abortion, Muslims have burkha, polygamy, cousin-marriage etc.”

    You forgot casteism, untouchability, devadasism, not to mention sati and human sacrifice (banned by the brits but still occasionally practiced).

    I don’t see how you can discuss sex selective abortions among desis without considering the religion of the people who are doing it. This is a clear failure of the hindu and sikh religious authorities.

    Similarly you can’t discuss modern day terrorism without considering the religion of the jihadis. How stupid would that be?

  20. It does appear that Hindus and Sikhs have more sex-selective abortions than Muslims. I don’t have my head in the sand on that. My point is that sex-selective abortion is not the issue to focus on. It is one symptom of misogyny. That symptom is worse among the Hindus,while other symptoms are worse among other groups. But misogyny is what needs to be tackled, not its symptoms. Breeding girls for subservience in harems is not better than aborting female embryos.