The Missing Girls of India and China

What Women Really Think
Aug. 24 2009 11:47 AM

The Missing Girls of India and China

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The New York Times Magazine published a special issue yesterday devoted to women in developing countries. The entire issue is extremely well done, but I was particularly intrigued by an article about the "daughter deficit" in India . The gender imbalance in China and India-due to cultural preferences for sons that caused parents to abort daughters and even resort to infanticide-is something that's been written about for several years. But contrary to popular assumptions, the "daughter deficit" is more the fault of the rich than of the poor. What's more, when women are given more power, they sometimes use it to favor boys.

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According to Times writer Tina Rosenberg:

What unites communities with historically high rates of discrimination against girls is a rigid patriarchal culture that makes having a son a financial and social necessity. When a daughter grows up and marries, she essentially becomes chattel in her husband’s parents’ home and has very limited contact with her natal family. Even if she earns a good living, it will be of no help to her own parents in their old age. So for parents, investing in a daughter is truly, in the Hindi expression, planting a seed in the neighbor’s garden. Sons, by contrast, provide a kind of social security. ... [W]ealthier and more educated women face this same imperative to have boys as uneducated poor women-but they have smaller families, thus increasing the felt urgency of each birth. In a family that expects to have seven children, the birth of a girl is a disappointment; in a family that anticipates only two or three children, it is a tragedy.

Technology that allows parents to know the gender of their fetuses before birth has enabled some Indian and Chinese parents to abort girls. Although this is technically illegal, the laws are loosely enforced. I appreciated that Rosenberg didn't offer up any facile solutions to this immense problem. She admits that, "In the short and medium terms, the resulting clashes between modern capabilities and old prejudices can make some aspects of life worse before they make them better."

Photograph of an Indian girl by Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.