In Search of the “70 Million Missing Women”

Light of truth

Job Kozhamthadam, SJ

Sex Ratio Imbalance and Its Alarming Consequences

Just like the advent of life, the arrival of sex is an important milestone in the long path of evolutionary development. In the past, much less now, most religions and cultures had a dim and dismal view on sex, fencing it off with taboos and admonitions – most of them with no evidential foundation. But today evolutionary science considers sex an important player in the development of living beings. Genetic diversity that adds colour and beauty to the different species, a high level of natural disease resistance, speeding up of the evolutionary process, etc., are some of the recognized benefits arising from sexual difference among living beings. However, it is important to note that these benefits can lead to a healthy and wholesome world only if there is a harmonious balance between the two sexes. The sad fact today is that this carefully cultivated happy balance has been upset through human selfishness and short-sightedness and, the world’s two most populous nations – China and India – are left with over “70 million missing women,” thereby creating a huge gender imbalance, with formidable repercussions in the years ahead. This short paper is an attempt to highlight some of the issues involved due to this serious imbalance, and some suggestions to forestall, or at least minimize, the fallout.

The Problem
Two important concepts in this context are ‘sex ratio at birth’ and ‘population sex ratio,’ the first being the number of male births for every 100 female births, and the latter the number of males for every 100 females. Some estimates put the sex ratio at birth approximately at 105. The small excess of males is wisely planned by nature since males are more vulnerable to disease and death at the earlier stages. The population sex ratio also initially kept the same harmonious balance, being between 98 and 100. Under these circumstances the human race enjoyed happy and harmonious life and development. The alarming deviation from this harmonious balance came to the notice of the world community through the pioneering work of the Indian Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in his 1990 essay in The New York Review of Books, where he called attention to the “100 million missing women.” The exact number is hard to fix, but the all-important message is loud and clear: There is a frightening excess of male population in the world with all its unwelcome consequences. Millions of men will be forced to remain bachelors, particularly in India and China. A study of Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer in 2005 projects that by 2020 India will have a surplus of 28 to 32 million men in the age-group of 15-35. Christopher Guilmoto’s study of 2012 gives 40 million single men in India by 2080. A similar predicament he foresees for China as well. The writing on wall is unmistakable: This sex imbalance is a time bomb just waiting to explode, particularly in India and China!

Some Causes
Any interference with the normal smooth functioning of Mother Nature always leads to disastrous consequences. Selfishness and short-sightedness seem to be the root cause of this menace of sex ratio imbalance. This malaise takes the form of son-preference, prenatal sex determination tests for destroying female foetuses, postnatal wilful neglect of baby girls, infanticide, etc. Certain government policies also contributed to this tragedy. The one-child policy of China and the two-child norm of India are well known examples. The practice of dowry, although illegal in many states, is another contributing factor.

Son-preference seems to be the most potent source of this problem. Rooted in human selfishness, nurtured and nourished by many unjust social customs, out-dated practices and irrational taboos, this attitude has been often enforced widely in many societies, particularly in India and China. Unfortunately developments in science and technology such as prenatal sex-determination have facilitated this evil in recent times.

Some Serious Consequences
Male Marriage Squeeze
This scarcity of brides makes millions of males hapless victims of a heartless marriage squeeze, in the sense they are forced to remain bachelors, for no fault of theirs. Not only does this sad predicament lead them to frustration and depression, their self-image also will take a severe beating. Equally damaging is the stigma attached to life-long forced bachelorship. In Haryana, the Indian State with the most dismal sex-ratio (877), a farmer remarked: “With age, single men become a subject of ridicule among friends who have ‘settled down.’” As Ravinder Kaur in light of long study and reflection on this situation writes, “The importance of marriage to the vast number in the populous, socially traditional societies in China and India cannot be overemphasized, despite movements trying to loosen the hold on marriage and allow freedom of sexual preference.”

Damage to Personal Growth
The marital bond between an adult male and female is not just a matter of simple physical union. It has deep-rooted significance and value. We humans are created imperfect, but perfectible. Society and interpersonal relationship play a vital role in this process of perfecting. Man and woman are complementary in many ways, each bringing something precious to enrich the other. Indeed, a good marriage bond can and should become a source of mutual enrichment and growth. Sadly, an unmarried man is deprived of this much-needed opportunity.

Damage to Family Life
There is hardly anything more beautiful and enjoyable than a good, peaceful, loving and caring family life, although modern mode of living is robbing many families of this blessing. Marriage squeeze deprives millions of men of this nature-given delight and right.

Rise in Ill-treatment and Injustice to Women – Kidnapping of Women for Marriage, Trafficking, etc.
Whenever there is scarcity, using unfair methods to snatch what is available is a foregone conclusion. This indeed is happening in India, particularly in states where the sex ratio is low. In December 2017 it was reported that about 90,000 persons, vast majority of them young girls, were kidnapped in India! This number is expected to rise, if the present scenario continues.

HIV and Other Terrible Contagious Sex-related Cases on the Rise
Scarcity of women surely leads to the booming of prostitution and related sex-industry. Naturally AIDS and other incurable and life-threatening diseases will be on the rise.

Rupturing of the Stability and Sanctity of Family Life
Our India is still blessed, by and large, with stable and, in many ways, sacred family life. As a person who had the privilege of living in India and the affluent West for many years, I can confidently say that an average Indian leads a more happy life than an average person in the materially affluent countries. Reasonably happy family life is the primary reason for this fortunate state of affairs. But this situation is under threat now. Expert study reveals that in India fraternal polyandry (wife sharing by brothers) and leviratic marriage (marriage of widows to their husband’s brothers) are re-emerging. These developments do not augur well for Indian family life.

Law and Order Problem
It goes without saying that law and order in the country will be another serious casualty. Violence against women will be on the increase. Suspicion on one’s wife, strict surveillance on her movements, stringent restrictions on her freedom, etc., can be expected.

Toward a World without Missing Women
Son-preference has been at the root of the problem of “missing women.” This custom is based on the mistaken fear that a girl child is a liability to the family – financially, socially, physically, intellectually and psychologically. This was, to some extent, true in a prescientific, agrarian, rural society. In such a society muscle power and physical strength had the upper hand, and women scored low in this respect, and had to confine themselves to household activities. However, today with developments in science and technology, urbanization, global growth in trade and commerce, greater opportunity for education, greater mobility, better communication and international travel, etc., the scenario has changed tremendously. The traditional claims to male superiority are collapsing one by one. Evidence is mounting that women are as good as men in all these aspects, except perhaps in physical prowess. But in a technological society physical power hardly counts. Intellectually, several scientific studies have shown that women have a superior brain than men. It has been found that women score better than men in IQ tests. Psychologically, it is true that at times women can be more vulnerable to depression and related complications, but studies show that when it comes to enduring pain and facing certain adversities in life, women often score higher. With the advances in education and the explosion of the job market, many women are finding lucrative jobs, and hence they need not be a financial burden at all; in fact, they are becoming very much financially independent. The social field, however, still needs more attention. For instance, the dowry system and some of the marriage customs put heavy burden on the bride’s family. Also the family name and family tree continues through the male. This tradition needs to be reconsidered in light of modern scientific facts. Scholars point out that the tradition of giving the child the father’s surname rather than the mother’s arose because of the old incorrect Aristotelian belief that the father was the real generator of the child, the mother played only the ancillary role of housing and nourishing the foetus. Today we know the mother contributes the same number of 23 sex chromosomes as the father for the generation of the child. In fact, the father has a lesser role since once the zygote is formed, the total responsibility of caring for the child is with the mother. If so, why should the father’s name be appended to the child’s, not the mother’s? I think that making these and related evidence-based scientific facts known to society, and making appropriate changes in the mind-set and attitudes of society is a necessary step towards correcting the irreparable harm son-preference has done to humanity and the world. These attitudes and accompanying practices are millennia long and so deeply entrenched in society that making any change is a herculean task. But some steps will have to be taken along this line. These considerations show that the rationale for son-preference is on very sticky ground.

Developing a Comprehensive Programme to Improve the Self-Image of Women
The women also need to take certain steps to show to society that they are in no way inferior. For this they need to have a healthy and positive self-image. Because of the long years of oppression and subjugation the self-image of women has taken an almost irreparable beating. Concrete and effective steps will have to be taken to remedy this situation. Social workers, counsellors, community leaders, etc., can be of immense help in this area. Insisting of inclusive language is another area that needs attention. Effective conscientization programmes also are the need of the hour. Bringing to the attention of women the success stories of Joan of Arc, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale, Madame Curie, etc., in the past, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Chanda Kochhar, Kiran Mazundar-Shaw, Stacey Cunningham, etc., at the present can assure them that success and greatness are within their reach, and boost up their morale. This point can serve as an antidote to all forms of male chauvinism that fuels son-preference.

Insisting on Women’s Education
Good education is the key to enlightening the minds of women, raising their consciousness towards their inalienable place in society and empowering them to stand for their legitimate rights and privileges. There is no doubt that decline in sex ratio is directly related to good, all-round education. The State of Kerala is the best illustration for this point. Kerala has the highest female literacy rate (92%) and has the highest sex ratio (1084), whereas Bihar has very low female literacy rate (53%) and poor sex ratio (912). Once women are well educated, they get employed, and become no more a financial liability.

Our discussion tells us that the tragedy of the “100 Million Missing Women” is human-made; if Nature were left to itself, it would not have happened. We cannot change the past, but the future we can. At first look this problem looks like an injustice only to women. Our short study shows that if this situation is not tackled immediately, on a war-footing, we will have a world not only of “missing women,” but also of “frustrated men.” Let us wait no more for this catastrophe to happen.

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