Thursday, September 22, 2005

Sugar and Spice

Indian girlsIndia has a male-female ratio problem. Every Indian family prefers boys. For one thing, boys have the economic power in adulthood to take care of parents in their old age. For another, girls and their dowries and trying to marry them off are expensive propositions.

This seems contradictory to us, in our market-driven economy. For us, the value of a thing increases as it becomes rarer. However, in culturally-driven situations this rationale doesn’t necessarily hold sway. Women in India simply do not have the same status as men to begin with, and they certainly don’t have the earning power or the economic freedom after they marry to be able to take care of their parents. Once a woman marries she is under the thumb of her husband and her husband’s family. In some cases, she can be maneuvered into having to beg her family of origin for more “dowry money” even though she is already married and in theory has been accepted into her husband’s family at the asking price when the marriage took place.

Thus, as a result of cultural prejudice and India’s population control programs, there simply aren’t enough women to go around. As FuturePundit noted a few years ago:
     The adverse sex ratio has not increase the value of women by decreasing the supply. India’s population sex ratio worsened from 972 females per 1000 males in 1901 to 929 per 1000 in 1991. At the same time, women's status steadily eroded despite gains in some sectors by some groups. A ‘shortage’ of women does not lead to their increased value, but to greater restrictions and control placed over them. In China, practices such as kidnapping and sale of women, organized import of wives from other countries, etc., have been noted as a result of the shortage of women there. The same might be predicted for India.
Now the Indian government has come up with a scheme it hopes will ameliorate the situation. Here’s the carrot:
     In a bid to correct the male-female sex ratio while promoting population control, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has decided to waive fees and hand scholarships to all girls from single-child families until the post-graduation level.
It will be effective from the next academic session in all non-professional courses. Any single girl child of parents who have consciously adopted family planning measures after the birth of their single child would be eligible under the scheme.
In order to get around what it sees as the need to prevent a rise in population, the government will only offer this free education to single-girl households. In families where there are two girls, only one will receive a free education.

In some ways this is a clever scheme because it hits a vital nerve for all Indians. They revere education and make sacrifices to insure that their children — especially the boys — receive good schooling. By offering this to the parents of girls, they level the playing field somewhat.

But only somewhat. There is still the cultural preference for boys and there is still the drive to sharply curtail the population. Thus girl fetuses are aborted at an alarming rate, as they are all over Asia. Criminalization of sex-preference abortions has had no effect on this trend, nor will it, at least not until the underlying economic fears are addressed.

Japan offers proof of this. There, girls are well-educated and are economically free to support their parents. So guess what happens?
     In a surprising repudiation of the traditional Asian values that for centuries have put a premium on producing male heirs, surveys show that up to 75 percent of young Japanese parents now prefer baby girls. Daughters are seen as cuter, easier to handle, more emotionally accessible and, ever more important in this fast-aging society, more likely to look after their elderly parents.
And there lies the key for any real change in valuing one gender over another. In a culture where girl children are economically free in adulthood, the parents are cared for. In places like India and China the boy-child choice is driven by economic circumstances, too. Until “family values” about who rules whom in marriage changes, offering freebies for having girls is not going to make any long-term difference.

One final observation about the consequences, historically, for boy and girl children in rural agricultural societies in the West, societies similar to the rural agrarian features of India. This one is from Germany:
     The analysis of records from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries turned up a couple of hundred cases where one spouse died, leaving a number of living children. In this monogamous, Christian, agricultural society, if a young wife lost her husband she almost invariably became very poor. Any sons that she had were unlikely to compete adequately with boys from richer families, but her daughters…always had some chance of marrying up the social ladder. An investment in daughters in this particular social situation had an adaptive biological significance and, as evolutionary biology would predict, the sons of widows were 36 per cent more likely to die in infancy and childhood than the daughters. When men lost their wives, however, their economic status did not change and they often had the opportunity to remarry; the sons of widowers were no more likely to die young than their daughters.
Just goes to show that Cinderella stories have some biological basis, hmm?

Hat tip: Fjordman


airforcewife said...

The German analysis is absolutely fascinating, and take on the situation I had never even considered.

What I very much fear in the case of China, though, whom I believe has a far higher current female to male deficit, is that the natural tendency toward balance would be helped along by a overloaded testosterone ridden push to war.

hank_F_M said...


I heard this comedy routine on NPR once about China’s one child policy. The result of the policy is that everyone is an only child. A whole country of spoiled brats. It was a series of jokes about stereotypical only child behavior as national policy. Spoiled brats are not inclined to be cooperative. It was more scarry than the reports of the Chinese military build up.

In medieval folklore ferries were not inclined to do favors for humans but kept their word when they made a promise. I wonder what Cinderella’s mom did that the ferry godmother was obligated to help Cinderella?

cathyf said...

I've always thought that India looked more dangerous than China when it comes to the demographic explosion.

Indian family: 10 boys, 10 girls, 9 girls die from infanticide. Use the dowry money they get from marrying off one of the ten sons to pay the dowry for the surviving daughter. Other nine sons do not marry. Three live with their parents and married brother and his wife and children, contributing to the household. The other six go out and make trouble.

Chinese family: Boy is only child. Both his mother and father are only children. All four of his grandparents are only children. There aren't enough women to go around, so he never marries. But with all of these old people to support, he doesn't actually have time to take care of children, let alone go off and get into trouble.

Before the 1-child rule, Chinese women averaged 6 children apiece. The Party encouraged the population explosion. Mao said, "Every mouth to feed comes with two hands to work." (Which is ironic, of course, since it's one of those things that's true in capitalism but not in communism...) The Chinese population is still growing because without such widespread desperate poverty, ideology-caused famines, etc., the average life span is increasing, but no matter how rich you are you still die eventually anyway, and China is facing this huge demographic train wreck when those huge birth cohorts reach dotage and need to be cared for.

Another factor that is relevant here is that it appears that a lot of the gender imbalance in China is from a natural cause. (Hepetitis B infection causes imbalances in rates of births. The mechanism is not well understood -- either a different risk of miscarriage with boy or girl fetuses, or girl sperm are killed off by the infection or something. But it is a well-studied phenomenon that populations which have high rates of infection have gender imbalances, and vaccination programs bring the genders back into balance.) Certainly there is some infanticide, and some sex-selecting abortion going on. But it's not nearly so widespread or socially acceptable as in India.

It's one thing to not value women as much as men. It is a whole order of magnitude different to support mass slaughter of girl babies. I claim that China has not crossed that rubicon yet, while India is on the other side.

cathy :-)

Dymphna said...


The fairy godmother was probably a stand-in for a maternal spinster aunt. They ususally watch over their sisters' children with somewhat more care than would a brother. Simply a mater of what we're hard-wired to pay attention to.

Dymphna said...

Airforce wife and Cathy--

they estimate China had 165,000,000 forced abortions. That's not even dealing with infanticide, though the latter is not as widely practiced as it once was.

I hadn't heard about the imbalance due to hepatitis B infection. The more we learn about teh ramificatons of personal and social health ramifications, the more awed I am

krishna_kirti said...

During the time I was in Gujarat, the state government there extended to all women the facility to attend university virtually for free. (I think everything but the books were free.) Many women took advantage of this, but many didn't.

I would say that not all women who had the opportunity for advanced education were interested in it. If a young girl wants to be a career housewife and mother, society supports it, and in India having a life-long, stable, and happy marriage is a reasonable expectation. (And I should also note that many women take both the education and marriage.)

Abortion and dowry harassment are, of course, social ills that any civilized society must curb. At the very least these indicate a widespread devalument of life.

As to Indian women being "under the thumbs" of their husbands, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, if that is axiomatically considered a bad arrangement, then what more can be said? But I think that the traditional Indian (esp. Hindu) relationship between husband and wife can be a bit of an enigma to outsiders.

One acquaintence of mine, an elderly South Indian brahmana, at one time happened to be the general manager of Bokaro Steel, which participated in a Soviet-Indian joint venture in steel production. He was highly educated, and so was his wife. Both of them were elderly; they were easily my grandparent's age. One time my wife and I went to his house for a visit, but he was out. His wife was present, and on that occaision she entertained us and told us about their life. On account of me being an Anglo-American, she felt obliged to fill me in on their way of life.

One thing of note she mentioned is how the husband is considered to be the representative of God--pati-parameshvara. "Parameshvara" is a word for "God", and "pati" means husband. Literally, it means "God in the form of the husband." So for women, there are manners and rituals centered around this concept of the husband as God. Both she and her husband were gentle people, educated, and cultured, and this view of seeing the husband as God was simultaneously an incontrovertible part of their lives, and they were content with that view.

I realize that kind of view is perhaps inconceivable to those of us who are used to a high level of individual and social egalitarianism, but then many other aspects of Hindu society are pervaded by the concept of God as directly represented in objects of this world.

Perhaps the most recognizable manifestation of this is the guru. In Hindu society, the guru is considered directly God. Of course, there is an intricate theology behind this, but generally the custom, backed by mainline Hindu theology, is that the guru is given all the respect one might give God Himself if He were to appear before us.

Other aspects of Hindu culture also reflect various Deities in ordinary objects. One thing you will commonly find in workshops, whether it is a carpenter's workshop or an automechanic's workshop, or whatever, is a picture of Vishvakarma, the architect of the demigods. Not only is the picture worshiped, but so are all the tools. Printing presses are commonly worshipped by their owners, as are a businesses's accounting books, as is virtually anything considered vital to happiness and welfare. In short, Hindu culture is quite explicit about venerating God through worldly features; the husband is but one of these features through which God is worshipped.

As to the goodness or badness of a surplus of men in India, culturally, India has always perceieved itself as having a higher male-to-female ratio, long before the advent of efficient birth control. Life-long bachelors have always been common in India, many of them adopting a life of renunciation. Celibacy is something Hindu culture supports and venerates. As late as the 1960s and early 70s, the census bureaus in India estimated the number of renunciates--people who had taken some form of sannyasa (vow of life-long celibacy)--numbered around 3 million. And these are just the ascetics.

Aside from however a surplus of men has come about (and this is in no way an endorsement of any kind of vicious activity that might contribute to it), I would say that a surplus of men is not necessarily a problem. Monks, nuns, and other celibates across civilizations are renowned for their peacefulness, and celibacy, I might add, is not the exclusive practice of ascetics.

I would say that whether or not the surplus men in a culture are problematic depends as much on the culture as anything else. Perhaps the culture is the most important factor in making this determination. Celibacy, something best learned from childhood, implies a high degree of self-control; self control implies restraint. Without restraint there can be no possibility of peace.