24 August 2011

Two articles on women in Asia

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this disturbing but very engaging article on Longreads called Where have all the girls gone?.

How did more than 160 million women go missing from Asia? The simple answer is sex selection — typically, an ultrasound scan followed by an abortion if the fetus turns out to be female — but beyond that, the reasons for a gap half the size of the U.S. population are not widely understood. And when I started researching a book on the topic, I didn’t understand them myself.

Written by Mara Hvistendahl and published by Foreign Policy in June, it discusses how Western governments and their agencies have promoted policies of sex selection in Asian countries over the last four decades.

As it turns out, Western advisors and researchers, and Western money, were among the forces that contributed to a serious reduction in the number of women and girls in the developing world. And today feminist and reproductive-rights groups are still reeling from that legacy.

In India, meanwhile, advisors from the World Bank and other organizations pressured the government into adopting a paradigm, as public-health activist Sabu George put it to me, “where the entire problem was population.” The Rockefeller Foundation granted $1.5 million to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the country’s top medical school, and the Ford Foundation chipped in $63,563 for “research into reproductive biology.”

In 1975, AIIMS doctors inaugurated sex-selective abortion trials at a government hospital, offering amniocentesis to poor women free of charge and then helping them, should they so choose, to abort on the basis of sex. An estimated 1,000 women carrying female fetuses underwent abortions. The doctors touted the study as a population control experiment, and sex-selective abortion spread throughout India.

The outcome of this effort two or three decades ago is having a devastating impact on the society of these Asian countries today:

Meanwhile, as American politicians argue over whether to cut Planned Parenthood’s U.S. funding and the Christian right drives through bans on sex-selective abortion at the state level, the effects of three decades of sex selection elsewhere in the world are becoming alarmingly apparent. In China, India, Korea, and Taiwan, the first generation shaped by sex selection has grown up, and men are scrambling to find women, yielding the ugly sideblows of increased sex trafficking and bride buying.

The entire article is well worth a read. There’s little that can be done to fix the demographic situation in these countries now, but we will have to work out how to deal with the consequences and perhaps we can learn to avoid making the same mistakes with reproductive policies in the future.

On a very closely related topic, the Economist this week has a leader, Asia’s lonely hearts, describing how “women are rejecting marriage in Asia”:

Marriage rates are falling partly because people are postponing getting hitched. Marriage ages have risen all over the world, but the increase is particularly marked in Asia.

A lot of Asians are not marrying later. They are not marrying at all. Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried; probably half of those will always be. Over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single; most will never marry. In some places, rates of non-marriage are especially striking: in Bangkok, 20% of 40-44-year old women are not married; in Tokyo, 21%; among university graduates of that age in Singapore, 27%.

The leader is just a short summary of a much more detailed briefing on Asian demography, which I’d recommend reading if you find this issue as fascinating as I do. They’ve assembled a lot of evidence about the situation, discuss several potential causes, and predict some of the problems that will need to be addressed as they appear over the next decade or two.