Missing Sisters

In parts of the world, parents terminate pregnancies if they know they’re expecting a girl, which has produced some drastically skewed gender ratios. In regions of China and India, where the situation is most extreme, anywhere from 108 to nearly 130 boys are born for every 100 girls. As a baseline, the ratio in the United States is 105 boys to 100 girls, for a variety of biological reasons. According to estimates, more than 80 million girls who should have lived in China and India were never born.

“A lot more boys are being born than girls,” says Anju Malhotra, a population researcher at the International Center for Research on Women in Washington, D.C. “It’s very dramatic. And it’s getting worse.”

Called the missing girl phenomenon, the practice of killing girl babies and fetuses dates back centuries not just in India and China, but also in Taiwan, Korea and other countries—mostly in East Asia but also on other continents, including, according to The Economist, in the Caucasus and the western Balkans. Some reasons are cultural: Men, for example, might be the only ones who can traditionally worship ancestors or perform funeral rituals. There are powerful economic reasons, too, with dowries that bankrupt families and traditions that compel women to care for the parents of their husbands instead of their own. From the moment she’s born in cultures like these, a daughter becomes a burden to her family.

Historically, parents killed baby girls after birth. Now, ultrasound machines and other reproductive technologies offer another option: abortion. In places with a strong preference for sons, young girls are also much more likely to die from neglect. They don’t get the same nutrition, health care and vaccinations their brothers get, Malhotra adds.

To stop girls from going missing, India has instituted a variety of policies, from banning ultrasounds to putting money in the bank for people who birth daughters—plus extra cash if the girl remains unmarried by age 18. Public relations campaigns offer slogans like, “My Daughter, My Wealth.” For its part, China hasn’t budged on its one-child policy, but the country has made it illegal to find out the sex of a fetus without a medical reason, and it offers insurance and help with school and housing for families that have only daughters.

There is some hope in the experiences of Taiwan and South Korea. In these countries, sex ratios worsened as fertility rates dropped in the 1970s. But prospects there are getting better for girls now, possibly because women with fewer kids are working more, earning money and gaining rights, while benefiting from more progressive laws.

“When you have that kind of fundamental structural change in policy, so many doors open to women,” Malhotra says. “It really comes down to the value of daughters.”

EMILY SOHN is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesDiscovery NewsSmithsonianHealthBackpackerScience NewsU.S. News & World ReportMinnesota Monthly and other publications.