The problem of Asia’s disappearing women

Asia is the only continent where men outnumber women – and the problem is predicted to get worse, with potentially serious social consequences. What’s going on? asks Simon Wilson

Aren’t equal numbers of both sexes born?

Not quite. When outside intervention does not upset the natural balance, around 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. Significant differences from this rate are uncommon: the lowest current boy/girl birth ratio is in Rwanda (101:100) and the highest, excluding Asia, is Surinam (108:100). At all stages of life, a marginally higher death rate among males tends to remove even this small surplus to even up the sexes. At the moment, according to French demographer Isabelle Attane, Europe is the most feminine continent, with 92.7 men per 100 women in the year 2000, while North America (96.9 per 100), Latin America (97.5) and Africa (99.8) all have a fairly even split of males and females. According to Attane, women tend slightly to outnumber men so long as both genders are treated equally. However, in huge swathes of Asia – where China and India, together with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia account for some three billion of the planet’s 6.5 billion people – the natural balance appears to have been upset. Asia is the only continent where males outnumber females, by 103.9 to 100.

What has happened in Asia?

Gender-selective abortion, poor treatment of girls compared to boys, the inferior status of women and poorer sanitary conditions have all combined to contribute to a disproportionately high death rate among females. But the most important of these factors is selective abortion of female foetuses – despite it being illegal in India and (since 2005) in China. As late as the early 1980s, babies were born in normal proportions in both China and India. But since then, the traditional, culturally ingrained reasons for preferring boy children have combined with modern medicine – ultrasound scans, amniocentesis tests and safer abortions – to cut the number of girls being born. That trend has been compounded by the overall fall in the birth rate and China’s one-child policy: if you are only going to have one child, the prevailing wisdom goes, better make sure it’s male.

Why do Asians want boys?

Because, notwithstanding the ongoing process of modernisation and economic growth, many Asian countries are still radically patriarchal and patrilineal societies where women are typically socialised into submissive, low-status, roles and only sons can continue the family line. In societies where old-age pensions are close to non-existent, parents know that boys can provide for them in old age, whereas girls will have long since been required to go and look after a husband and his parents. In the words of an old saying in China, to raise a daughter is “to cultivate another man’s field”. In India, where parents of girls must pay the husband’s family an expensive dowry – illegal, but still a fact of life in rural areas – bringing up a girl is “watering a neighbour’s garden”.

So just how many girls are missing?

It’s bad in India, where there are 111 boys born per 100 girls – rising to 126 in Punjab and 125 in Haryana. The shortage of women in areas such as these has led to a thriving illegal market in trafficked women from other parts of India, sold to men unable to find wives. But it’s even worse in China, which adopted its one-child per family policy in 1980. Since then, the male/female ratio has risen inexorably, from 108 boys born per 100 girls in 1982, to 112 in 1990 and 118.5 in 2005.

This figure masks a marked split between the rich coastal cities and the impoverished interior. In Shanghai, the gender ratio at birth matches the world norm of 105:100. But in Jiangxi and Guangdong the figure, even on 2000 data, was an astonishing 138 males born per 100 females. According to Chinese academic Li Xiaoping, in some rural districts of Anhui province, the ratio is 170:100, rising to 200:100 for a second child.

What does this mean for China?

In terms of social stability, it is potentially disastrous. Last week, the Beijing government published the results of a massive two-year study by 300 demographers, which predicts that (assuming the current birth rate of 1.8 babies per woman) China’s population will grow by 300 million before peaking at 1.5 billion in 2033. It also predicts that the number of people of working age (15-64) will increase from 860 million in 2000 to one billion by 2016 – more than the total number of working age people in all the rich, developed economies put together.

But, ominously for China, it also concludes that by 2020 China’s men will outnumber its women by some 300 million. One in ten men aged between 20 and 45 – some 30 million people – will not be able to find a wife. Even according to the official Chinese news agency, a generation of single, frustrated, undersocialised young men with no one to go home to in the evenings is a recipe for social instability. And an unstable China in ten years’ time will not just be a Chinese problem.

So what can China do?

In the short term, it can more rigorously enforce the ban on telling parents the gender of their child, which is routinely flouted by doctors eager for extra income. In the longer-term, China is likely to ‘import’ millions of foreign brides from poorer neighbours, such as Vietnam – a big change for a traditionally insular and racially homogenous people. In addition, the government will need to make better state provision for the elderly. This month, Beijing has rolled out a modest pension scheme that rewards farming couples who stop at one child or two daughters – lessening the pressure on them to have sons. The pension is payable at the age of 60 onwards and is 600 yuan a year, around a third of the average rural income.

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