Uneven development, uneven sex ratios

Hey, you got your postmodern technology in my premodern ideology!

A new article in the Lancet shows convincing evidence of increasing sex-selective abortion in India. The evidence for sex ratio at birth shows an increase in the number of boys born when older children in the family are girls – the best (indirect) indicator that people with a preference for sons are having abortions when ultrasounds show a female fetus.

In a population where no one tampers with the sex ratio at birth, there will be about 104 boys born for every 100 girls – nature’s way of correcting for the tendency of the weaker sex (males) to die more. In India, that number is about 106 now. That’s not so bad, compared with some other countries, such as Vietnam (111) and Taiwan (109) — or China’s colossal 118. But when you look at the ratios among families having a second child after the first was a girl, or a third child after two girls, the ratios are much more extreme, and getting worse:

The new analysis, as far as I can tell, casts doubt on the optimistic description by Carl Haub at the Population Reference Bureau, who looked at trends in the overall sex ratio, rather than the ratio for specific birth histories. That’s where the evidence of increasing sex-selective abortion seems undeniable.

In a previous post I referred to an article by Christophe Guilmoto, who attributes skewed sex ratios to a confluence of three factors:  access to sex-selection technology, preference for male births, and pressure from low fertility. All this has been happening in India while fertility rates are falling, which – in the presence of son preference and sex-selection technology – only increases the pressure to abort female fetuses.

I look at this as an issue of uneven development within societies. Sex-selective abortion technology is not that sophisticated – it doesn’t require a high level of overall industrial development. Neither do falling fertility rates. The “preference” for sons – which indicates a whole syndrome of factors, including economic opportunity, education levels, religion, and state policy – is quite capable of surviving in the context of that kind of development.

Breaking out economically ultimately means empowering, employing – and educating – women much more. Which is why Guilmoto says South Korea’s sex ratios have been trending toward normal. That kind of development is more advanced in South Korea than in India. In India, the age at which women get married is a good indicator of their empowerment, although the patterns are complicated. But a recent analysis found an average age at marriage for women of just 17.4 (with a range of under 16 in some states to 21 in Kerala). That’s not good for the kind of empowerment that reduces the skewed sex ratio at birth.

Aside: A crazy complication in all this is the effect of imbalanced sex ratios on marriage rates – which then affect sex ratios. When there is a shortage of girls, marriage gets delayed. When marriage is delayed it puts downward pressure of fertility, which increases the influence of son preference. I think. (Guilmoto has another article that spins out these imbalances into long-term projections.)

5 thoughts on “Uneven development, uneven sex ratios

  1. I’d be interested in your take on this vis a vis China and Vietnam, where there is very high education and labor force participation of women, and yet the sex ratios get worse. Clearly rising sex ratios can even occur when women are “empowered.” So, then, how do you explain the South Korean case?


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