Gendercide Awareness Video: The Basic Facts by Beverly Hill (President & Founder of the Gendercide Awareness Project)
Nobuko Horibe, director of UNFPA’s Asia-Pacific Regional Office, speaking at The International Forum on Skewed Sex Ratios.
Did You Know?
Demographers estimate that 117 million women are missing due to gendercide (also called femicide).
That is as many deaths as WWI, WWII, and AIDS combined.
Every year, we lose 2 million baby girls to sex-selective abortion and infanticide. That's 4 girls per minute.
In China alone, 66 million women are missing. That amounts to 10.3% of its female population.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is gendercide? The term gendercide refers to the elimination of females in certain parts of the world through selective abortion, infanticide, severe malnutrition and medical neglect. Despite its cruelty, the crime passes under the radar because it occurs within the privacy of the family unit against a voiceless victim.
Females of what age? Gendercide affects women of all ages but bears down especially hard on the youngest. In the last twenty years, sex-selective abortion has displaced infanticide as the primary method for eliminating baby girls.1 After birth, baby girls are more often neglected to death than actively killed, but families still continue to drown, smother, strangle, and abandon baby girls. Currently, we lose about 2 million baby girls per year to gendercide.2This is almost four baby girls every minute. During the early years of childhood, girls remain at risk.3 In China, girls under the age of five experience 42% higher mortality than do boys the same age.4 In Pakistan, they experience 66% higher mortality than boys.5 In India, the rate is 40%.6 This is highly abnormal and points to an unequal distribution of food and medical care. As girls enter their childbearing years, they become extremely vulnerable. Scarce medical resources are not directed to maternal care, with the result that mothers succumb during and after childbirth. Currently, 275,000 women die from childbirth and maternal injury every year,7 leaving their older children motherless. Almost all of these deaths are preventable, as can be seen in the example of Sri Lanka. Though very poor, Sri Lanka offers free maternal care, and its maternal death rates are close to those in western countries.8 Women in old age suffer from lack of assets. Because wealth is channeled through the men of the family, older women, particularly widows, are more likely than men to find themselves poor, cast out, and literally unable to survive.9
The most notorious forms of gendercide – dowry murders (or bride burnings) and honor killings – are inflicted on teen-age girls and young women. Roughly 50,000 dowry murders occur each year, along with approximately 5,000 honor killings. Although the number of women killed this way is dwarfed by other forms of gendercide,10 these killings hold special significance due to their sheer brutality.
How many women are missing? Twenty years ago, the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen studied countries with skewed gender ratios and calculated that there were 100 million missing women in the world as of 1990. His study appeared in the New York Review of Books that year.11 In October 2011, demographers at the United Nations Population Fund revised that number upward to 117 million.12
Haven't I heard numbers higher than that? Some scholars, reporters, and United Nations officers, have circulated the figure of 163 million. Christohe Guilmoto, a demographic expert, explains that this number, “does not correspond to ‘missing women’ per se but to the number of additional women these countries would have if they had the same population sex ratio as the rest of the world. A real estimate of missing women consists in comparing sex ratio by age between affected countries and the rest of the world. … Doing so indicates that there were in 2010 about 115 million women missing from the countries most affected by sex imbalances at birth and excess female mortality.”13
Where does gendercide occur?
East Asia – China, Vietnam, Singapore, and Taiwan
South Asia – India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan
West Asia – Turkey, Syria, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia
Eastern Europe – Albania, Romania, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia
North Africa – Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria
Sub-Saharan Africa – most countries
Asian-American communities within the U.S. and Canada14
Where is it worst? The number of women missing in a country can be measured in two ways – as either absolute numbers or as a percentage of the female population. In absolute terms, the world’s two most populous countries have the greatest number of missing women – 66 million missing in China and 43 million missing in India.15
When we look at percentages, it is evident that China, with 10.3 percent of its women missing, eliminates a higher percentage of its females than any other country in the world. India follows next, with about 7 percent missing, and then Afghanistan with 7 percent.16 It is worth noting that in Afghanistan, sex-selection technology is not widely available so most of these deaths occur after girls are born.
Why are girls so unwanted? In these societies, where there is little or no social security, parents look to their sons to support them in old age. Daughters generally leave their parents to live with their husbands’ families. The result of this “patrilocal” tradition is that daughters do not care for their own parents, but rather their husbands’ parents. China’s “one child only” policy has intensified the desire for that one child to be a son.
In addition, the cost of marrying a daughter can be prohibitive. In India, for example, the cost of a dowry and a wedding can add up to several years of family income. Viewed this way, the birth of a daughter is an economic catastrophe.
What happens when men greatly outnumber women? For Women: Sex trafficking is the flip side of the gendercide coin. In Asia, girls are kidnapped, lured or sold into prostitution, with local governments making little effort to stop it. Often, local police protect the sex traders and frequent the brothels. In addition, an unsavory trade in “brides” sells women to buyers in an arrangement indistinguishable from slavery. In certain cases, a poor family may buy a girl to serve as “bride” to all the men in the household. The world becomes a dangerous place for women, with abduction an ever present risk.17
For Brides: One might think that when men compete for a limited number of women, women’s power and prestige increases. However, the opposite is true. Because women are scarce, bachelors turn to ever younger girls as brides. Young girls are married off to much older men, sometimes even before the girls reach puberty. Once married, these girls have no time for education or paid work. Their older husbands and in-laws, eager for heirs, press them into childbearing as soon as possible. These girls give birth before their bodies are ready, resulting in high rates of maternal death and injury.18
For Bachelors: A population surplus of young men, mainly lower class, develops. These men never marry, have families, or become part of society. The Chinese call them “bare branches” or “floaters.” In China, these men have shorter life expectancies than married men.19
Scholars Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer have found that historically, when large-scale female infanticide occurred in Asia, surplus men formed an underclass of drifting, low paid workers with strong proclivities for violence and crime. When work was unavailable, they plundered the land. Predictably, the “bare branches” spent heavily on drinking, gambling, and prostitution. In both China and India, these historic patterns are re-emerging. Outbreaks of crime, violence, and vice, traceable to unassimilated young men, are erupting in regions where sex ratios are most skewed.20
For Society: Social turmoil is a constant threat in societies with surplus males. It takes nothing more than an economic contraction to ignite the kindling. Historically in China and India, when famine struck regions with surplus males, the young men organized and rebelled, throwing off their overlords and taking their lands. In China, such uprisings led to the establishment and overthrow of the Ming dynasty.21 The maverick scholar Gunnar Heinsohn claims that in the Middle East today, a “male youth bulge” fuels Islamic militance.22
Research also suggests that such societies can be governed only by authoritarian regimes.23 If true, prospects for democracy in Asia look dim. According to Hudson and den Boer, by the year 2020 China will have about 30 million “bare branches,” and India will have another 30 million.24
In short, a healthy sex ratio pacifies a society and makes it a more desirable place to live. There is a very direct correlation between the prosperity of a society and the rights enjoyed by its women.
Has there been an official response to gendercide? Yes, the United Nations (UN) monitors missing women and sex ratios at birth through its Population Fund and its Development Program, issuing reports on a regular basis. The agency United Nations Women funds two endeavors: one for gender equality and the other to prevent violence against women. In so doing, the agency tackles these problems indirectly. The issue of gendercide comes up regularly at UN conferences, but neither conferences nor resolutions have had much impact on the ground. In short, the UN does a good job of monitoring the problem but has thus far been less effective in behavior changes.
In 2008 the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Indian leader to speak about the issue, calling it a “national shame.” A few doctors were prosecuted for sex determination. Billboards went up to persuade parents to keep their daughters, and in certain states, parents who gave birth to daughters received small securities that they could cash when their daughters reached eighteen.25 It is hard to know if these measures were effective; Indian sex ratios at birth are still abnormally high, but they seem to have reached a plateau (as opposed to getting steadily worse).26
Chinese officials, too, have spoken of the problem and experimented with billboard campaigns and monetary rewards for parents of girls, usually at the local or provincial level. In 2006, the program of monetary rewards, Care for Girls, was implemented on a nationwide scale. It gave $31 to parents who kept their daughters. Scholar Mara Hvistendahl notes that it has yet to make a difference in the sex ratio at birth.27 In fact, China recently released its 2010 sex ratio at birth – 118 male births for every 100 female births. This is the worst yet recorded in China.28
Why should I care about gendercide 'over there' when there are so many problems right here? This is a legitimate question. First, think about the sheer size of the atrocity. The number of victims claimed by gendercide exceeds the number of deaths in World War I and World War II combined. It surpasses the number killed in all the genocides of the 20th century. Gendercide has eliminated more people than the AIDS epidemic or the great flu epidemic of the early 20th century.29
Second, consider that when earthquakes, floods, or famines occur around the world, we generally rush to help. But the ongoing decimation of women doesn’t make sensational headlines, so we tend to ignore it. Gendercide is an atrocity much like slavery in the American South; at the time many believed slavery was wrong yet also believed nothing could be done about it. It was a small number of visionaries who convinced others that slavery could be eliminated. We do not need to go to war to stop gendercide. We can address it peacefully. But let’s not find ourselves on the wrong side of history by failing to act.
Third, we care because we do have the power to help some, if not all, women. A little education or a micro-loan can work wonders for a woman, enabling her to grab a wee slice of the economic pie. Women who make money become more valued in their communities, and unlike many men, they use their earnings to provide for the health and well-being of their children.
Is there any reason for hope? Yes, the example of South Korea stands as a beacon of hope. Twenty-five years ago, when sex-selective technology became easily accessible, the sex ratio at birth (SRB) in South Korea shifted dramatically in favor of boys, with 115 boys born for every 100 girls. Technology provided new means to ancient ends. At the same time, however, South Korea began educating girls, passing equal opportunity legislation, and revising its patriarchal family laws. Attitudes changed, and in 2007, South Korea registered a perfectly normal SRB of 106 boys for every 100 girls.30 (In developed countries, a normal SRB ranges from 105 to 107.)31 Although South Korea is still missing women due to its past practices,32 it points the way for other economically advanced countries, such as Taiwan.
In less developed countries, a bottom-up approach may prove more effective. Although most countries have banned infanticide and sex-selective abortion, the laws have largely been ignored. Enforcement is difficult, and there is little will to do it. Change cannot be mandated from the top; it must arise from below as communities slowly begin to value their women.
For this reason, programs that train, educate, and provide micro-financing for women seem to be the most effective antidote to the gendercide crisis. In their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the husband-wife journalist team of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn catalog stories of Asian and African women, sometimes themselves oppressed, who overcame tremendous odds to improve the lives of other women by establishing shelters, schools, hospitals, and small businesses. Kristof and WuDunn call these women “social entrepreneurs.” Once these indigenous programs took root, western donors often provided crucial cash to expand them.
The authors also relate stories of poor, brutalized women (often women sold into prostitution), who escaped or defied their oppressors and rebuilt their lives. Well run aid programs, both indigenous and western, catalyzed these turnarounds by offering help at critical moments. These women learned new trades and earned money, garnering hard-earned respect and becoming engines of change for other women in their communities.
As a result of their experience in the developing world, Kristof and WuDunn came to believe that with small amounts of assistance, women can engineer their own bottom-up emancipation. To do this, they need three things. First, they need assistance with schooling. Not only does education prepare girls for better jobs, but also it delays marriage and prevents girls from being trafficked. Second, women overseas need micro finance – tiny loans of cash or materials (such as seeds, or goats) that they use to launch small businesses and then repay. When women contribute to a family’s income, they win greater autonomy and decision-making power at home, and sometimes, the grudging respect of their husbands. Finally, these women need help with reproductive and maternal healthcare. They must be able to avoid AIDS, limit their children, and deliver safely.
With such progress occurring at the grassroots level, top-down government measures are more likely to succeed. Scholars and journalists in both China and India have sounded the alarm regarding the destabilizing effects of sex ratios in their countries. Both governments have tried to promote new attitudes toward women, but with little effect.33
Yet certain women in the developing world have shown how plucky and determined they can be. In the face of beatings, rape, imprisonment, and death, these women have reached to help others. If we extend their reach by giving wisely for education, microfinance, and healthcare, we can accelerate the pace of change. For a list of well selected organizations that work in the trenches on behalf of girls and women, please see http://www.halftheskymovement.org/partners.
Every year, we lose two million baby girls to sex-selective abortion and infanticide. During the 15 minutes you’ve spent reading this, 60 girls have disappeared.
1 Valarie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population; Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 2005, pp. 109-113, 171-172. See also, Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men; Philadelphia, PA., Public Affairs (in the Perseus Books Group), 2011. 2Bare Branches, pp. 112-113, 157. 3Bare Branches, pp. 114-119. 4 Christophe Guilmoto, “Sex Ratio Transition in Asia” in Population and Development Review 35(3): 519-549 (September, 2009), p. 528. 5Bare Branches, p. 55. 6 Unicef, 2007, cited in Rita Banerji, “Female Genocide in India and the 60 Million Missing Campaign,” in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, Issue 22, October 2009, item 5. 7 Rafael Lozano, MD … Christopher JL Murray, MD, “Progress towards Millenium Development Goals 4 and 5 on maternal and child mortality: an updated systematic analysis,” The Lancet, Volume 3/8, Issue 9797, pages 1139-1165, September 24, 2011. 8 Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide; Vintage Books, 2010, pp. 109-122. 9Bare Branches, p. 122. See also, Rita Banerji, items 9-10. 10 In 2007, the United Nations Population Fund estimated that about 5,000 honor killings occur every year. See Half the Sky, p. 82. The number of dowry murders, or bride burnings, was estimated at 50,000 for the year 1990. These deaths are often reported as kitchen fires. See Bare Branches, p. 121. 11 Amartya Sen, “More Than 100 Million Women are Missing,” The New York Review of Books, December 20, 1990. 12"United Nations Population Fund,” Dispatch, October 5, 2011 and Christophe Z. Guilmoto, Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current trends, consequences, and policy implications; UNFPA Asia and Pacific Regional Office, 2012, p. 47. 13 Christophe Guilmoto, Senior Fellow in Demography, Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement, personal communication, August 22, 2011. A review of methods, models, and assumptions used in these calculations is available at Klasen and Wink, Missing Women: A Review of the Debates and an Analysis of Recent Trends, 2002. 14 Klasen and Wink, Missing Women: A Review of the Debates and an Analysis of Recent Trends, 2002, p. 19. For data concerning the United States, see Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund, “Son-biased sex ration in the 2000 United States Census,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), April 15, 2008, vol. 105, no. 15, pp. 5681-5682. 15 Christophe Z. Guilmoto, Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current trends, consequences, and policy implications; UNFPA Asia and Pacific Regional Office, 2012, p. 47 16 Christophe Z. Guilmoto, Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current trends, consequences, and policy implications; UNFPA Asia and Pacific Regional Office, 2012, p. 47 17Half the Sky, pp. xi-60 and Bare Branches, pp. 202-206, 214, 237, 241-243. 18Bare Branches, pp. 204-205. 19Unnatural Selection, p. 223. 20Bare Branches, pp. 203, 234-241, and Unnatural Selection, pp. 221-223. 21Bare Branches, pp. 207-227. 22 Gunnar Heinsohn, Sohne und Weltmacht: Terror im Aufstieg und Fall der Nationen; Munich, Piper, 2008. Heinsohn’s often idiosyncratic views are reviewed by Goran Therborn in New Left Review 56, March-April 2009. 23Bare Branches, p. 259. Hudson and den Boer cite Christian G. Mesquida and Neil I. Wiener, “Human Collective Aggression: A Behavior Ecology Perspective,” Ethology and Sociobiology, Vol. 17, No. 4 (July 1996), pp. 247-262, and Laura Betzig, “Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Cross-Cultural Correlation of Conflict Asymmetry, Hierarchy, and Degree of Polygyny,” Ethology and Sociobiology, Vol. 3, No. 4 (1982), pp. 209-221. 24Bare Branches, pp. 124, 181. 25Unnatural Selection, pp. 225-229. 26 Monica das Gupta, Woojin Chung, and Li Shuzhhuo, “Is There an Incipient Turnaround in Asia’s ‘Missing Girls’ Phenomenon?” World Bank, Policy Research Working paper 4846, 2009. 27Unnatural Selection, pp. 226-227. 28 Valerie M. Hudson, “China’s Census: The One-Child Policy’s Gender-Ratio Failure,” World Politics Review, 04 May, 2011 29 Klasen and Wink, pp. 2-3. 30 Christophe Guilmoto, “Sex Ratio Transition in Asia,” Population and Development Review 35(3): 519-549 (September 2009), pp. 524, 536. 31 Klasen and Wink, pp. 14-15. In developing countries plagued with malnutrition, a normal SRB is lower – closer to 104. Maternal malnutrition results in a disproportionately large number of male fetuses being either miscarried or stillborn, thus lowering the sex ratio at birth. 32 United Nations Development Program, see the Asia-Pacific Human Development Report called Power, Voice, and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific, 2010, p. 42. 33Bare Branches, pp 249-254 and Unnatural Selection, pp. 225-229.