Missing women of China

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Missing women of China is a widely known phenomenon referring to the unusual shortfall of female population resulting from cultural influences and government policy.[1] The term "missing women" was coined by economist Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, to describe a distorted population sex ratio in which the number of males far outweighs the number of females.[2] Female disadvantages in child survival throughout China reflects a long pattern of gender-based discrimination. Preferences for sons are common in China owing to males' ability to carry on family names, their wealth inheritance, and the idea that they are typically ones who care for parents once they are older. Limiting the ability for parents to have numerous children forces them to think of logical and long term reasons to decide between a male or female child.[3] Chinese parents are known to have favored large families and have preferred sons over daughters in effort to create more directed family resources.[4] The result of the discrimination and male preference is a shortfall of women and an extremely unbalanced sex ratio in the population of China.[5]

In December 2016, researchers at the University of Kansas reported that the missing women may be largely a result of administrative under-reporting and that delayed registration of females could account for as many as 10 to 15 million of the missing women since 1982.[6]


Amartya Sen noticed that in China, a country with a traditional discrimination against women, rapid economic development went together with worsening female mortality.[7] A significant decline in China's female population happened after 1979, the year following implementation of economic and social reforms under Deng Xiaoping.[7]

Sen concluded that there were three reasons why the environment for Chinese women had deteriorated, particularly since 1979:[7]

  • Compulsory measures—the one-child policy implemented in 1979 aimed to control the size of families,[7] and effectively meant a "one-child family" for most Chinese families—although there were some exceptions. (The policy was not enforced among the country's minority populations, and a number of exceptions among the majority Han populations.)[7] Given a strong son preference, these compulsory measures resulted in a neglect of girls and in some cases led to female infanticide. Female infant mortality soared in the early years after the reforms in 1979,[7] while some statistics imply that female infant mortality doubled from 1978 to 1984.[7]
  • A general crisis in health services arose after economic reform as previously funding for China's extensive rural health care programs had largely come from agricultural production brigades and collectives.[7] While the economic reforms abolished these traditional structures, they were replaced by the household-responsibility system, which meant that agriculture remained concentrated within the family,[7] while availability of communal facilities in China's extensive rural health care system were restricted.[7] In gender, the effect of a restriction in medical services was neutral, but in a Chinese rural society that looked up to men and down on women, the reduction in health care services significantly affect women and female children.[7]
  • The household-responsibility system involved a reduction of women's involvement in paid agricultural labor.[7] At the same time, employment opportunities outside agriculture were generally scarce for women.[7] According to Sen's cooperative conflicts approach ("who is doing productive work and who is contributing how much to the family's prosperity can be very influential"), the effect of this systematic change on women within the household was negative, because women had fewer bargaining powers in their families.[7] This reality motivated families to prefer boys over girls, which contributed to reduced care for female children.[7]


The causes of the high sex ratio in China result from a combination of strong son preference, the one-child policy, easy access to sex-selective abortion, and discrimination against and abuses of females.[8]

Chinese Historical and Traditional Culture: Son Preference[edit]

Son preference is traditional in Chinese Confucian patriarchal culture.[9] Sons are preferred for a number of reasons: people think sons continue the family line or carry on the family name (which is a huge deal in China), have a higher wage-earning capacity, provide ancestral worship, and are generally recipients of inheritance, while girls are often considered as an economic burden.[10][8][11] After marriage they typically become members of their husband's family and cease to have responsibility for aging or ill parents.[10][8][11]

With socioeconomic improvements, modernization and the rise in women's status, son preference has declined in many urban areas in China[12] but has persisted in some strictly traditional families and rural areas, reasserting itself under the one-child policy. The greatest shortfalls of females appear in parts of rural China where there are instances of 140 male births for every 100 female.[12]

One-child policy[edit]

China implemented its one-child policy from 1979 onwards, whereby a couple can only have one child and couples that violate the policy face penalties.[13] This policy aims to restrict births, and to encourage most families to have only one child, especially in urban areas. However, the policy was not enforced among the country's ethnic minorities, and a number of exceptions were made among the majority Han population.[10] The one-child policy was designed to control population throughout China, emphasizing limitations for families and creating deprivation among couples. The implications resulted in increased underreporting of female births, female infanticide, sex-selective abortion, and the underreported adoption of baby girls.[14] Families not only risk their health but are at risk for punishment by law as well as health institutions who participating in sex-selective abortion. Increased abandonment of babies, especially females has greatly added to the phenomenon of "missing women" throughout the country. Xuefeng Chen, director of the Chinese Children's Center in Beijing, stated "it is undeniable that single children will create a different society, we must first enhance single children's opportunities and abilities at social communication, interaction and development." Single children in China are deprived of the experiences undergone by their mothers and fathers. The well-being of children who are in only-child households are considered to be at risk and participate in typical stereotypes of single-children, such as being spoiled, selfish and unsociable.[15] The one child-policy has been called the "most momentous and far reaching in its implication for China's population and economic development." Chinese women's reproduction is viewed as a feature of social modernization and sacrifice for political implications. Reproductive rights have been co-opted by the government as a guide towards social modernization.[16]

Given strict family-size limitations and a preference for sons, girls have become unwanted in China because they are considered as depriving the parents of the possibility of having a son,[11] while a deeply rooted son preference makes many families want a son.[10] With the progress of prenatal sex-determination technologies and induced abortion, the one-child policy gradually turned into a one-son policy.[11][17] Some view such a policy as disrespectful of pregnant women and discriminatory against them, as the policy forces some women to undergo an abortion.[18]


Under the tradition of son preference and the one-child policy, missing females in China are formed through sex-selective abortion, discrimination in care for females, and non-registration of girls at birth.

Sex-selective abortion[edit]

The combined factors of son preference, the one-child policy and the availability of prenatal sex-identification technology have allowed prenatal discrimination to spread since the mid-1980s in both urban and rural areas in China where abortion is legal.[12] This technological progress leads to a large excess of male births.[19] About 37–45% of China's missing females may have been missing at birth.[20] According to China Statistics Press 2013, the sex ratio at birth in China was 111 in 1990, 117 in 2001, 121 in 2005 and slightly declined to 119 in 2010.[21] China's huge population translates these ratios into large numbers of excess males, which has contributed a large proportion of the global statistics on missing women.[22] Nevertheless, some commentators argue that sex-selective abortion may have some benefits.[23][24] Firstly, access to prenatal sex determination has probably increased the proportion of wanted births in the form of sons, reduced relative discrimination against girls and reduced female mortality after birth. India, South Korea and China have all reported lower female mortality in the last decade.[23][24] Secondly, in terms of the next generation, imbalanced sex ratio may help to control population growth.[23] Thirdly, the scarcity of women in society leads to girls being highly valued and their social status increased as a result.[23][24] Such improvements in women's status also lead to a reduction in son preference with fewer sex-selective abortions and ultimately the attainment of a rebalancing of the sex ratio.[24]

Female infanticide at birth[edit]

Although it has been shown that newborn girls have a biological advantage over newborn boys in surviving the first year of life,[25] premature mortality incurred by infanticide and the abandonment of newborn girls along with neglect of their healthcare and nutrition has been seen in China. These practices result in a female infant mortality ratio that is far higher than that of males.[26] Female infanticide is the intentional killing of baby girls due to a preference for male babies and from the low value associated with the birth of females."[27] Sen points out that the phenomenon existed historically and still remains in a number of Third World countries.[28][29] The Great Chinese Famine during 1959–1961 prompted many families to choose female infanticide to save food to secure their families.[10][30] In September 1997, the World Health Organization's Regional Committee for the Western Pacific claimed that "more than 50 million women were estimated to be 'missing' in China because of the institutionalized killing and neglect of girls due to Beijing's population control program that limits parents to one child."[27]

As an attempt to keep its population under 1.2 billion, China has carried out a policy limiting couples to one child. Female infanticide was common in traditional China as families favored sons to care for them the rest of their lives. The government has implemented policies in attempt to help with the situation such as creating a single-child policy but has had almost reverse effects. Daughters are viewed as "marrying out" and leaving their families, whereas men are financially loyal to their families. Girls are in return viewed as a burden to raise, among many neighboring countries to China. The Quan Han Shu mentions that no festivities were held when a daughter was born into a prosperous family, and the poor people did not even rear their children.[31] In a recent Chinese natural survey in 2003, thirty-seven percent of young women, predominately urban, said they had no gender preference and forty-five percent reported their ideal family would consist of one boy and one girl.[32] The elimination of female infants has contributed to the phenomenon known as, "missing women". Female infanticide, sex abortions, drowning, and withholding of health care and nutrition are possible consequences of the restrictive one-child policy.[33]

Poor health care and malnutrition[edit]

Neglect Health care and nutrition of girls and women contributes to missing women. Discrimination against daughters post-birth leads to poor health care and malnutrition, and eventually premature death.[34] In terms of female adults, early-life conditions directly influence their health and mortality.[35] According to Chinese traditions, the period of zuo yue zi, the first 30 or 40 postnatal days, is an essential convalescence for mothers to ensure their future health.[36] If they are not given support or taken care of within this period of time (e.g., some rural women do heavy farm work within zuo yue zi), potential risks include health complications and possible early death.

Contraceptive Use[edit]

In an attempt to call for birth control to control the countries population in 2015, the Chinese government expanded to the use of contraceptive use. "20 years ago if you went to the rural villages, you could see the slogans on the wall that read, 'if you have one child, IUD please, if you have two children, sterilization please,'" describes Kaining Zhang, a research physician at the Yunnan Health and Development Research Association. "There is still a very strong influence [from that] policy."[37] The attitudes towards reproductive heath have dramatically changed throughout the country. Sexual health was oftentimes something kept private and not openly discussed. A survey conducted by Renmin University in 2015 states that more than half of the respondents think premarital sex is acceptable. The traditional views on sexual health, contraception are rapidly changing affecting primarily the young an unmarried generation.[38]

China has one of the highest rates of contraceptive use in the world, even in comparison to other Asian countries. Among 84.6% women who are currently married or in union are using a form of contraception. The United States has a lower rate of 78.6%. Japan, a neighboring country has reports as low as 54.3% prevalence. The one-child policy enacted in 1979 is the primary contributor of increased contraceptive use.[39] In attempt to really decrease the population, China's family planning policies actually emphasize birth control and many forms are available both in urban and rural areas for free.[40] The strict implications of the one-child policy did allow for many women to receive birth control methods however it typically only benefits those who are married. The young population who is not covered are not married and therefore fall into the gap of unintended pregnancy.[41] The National Population and Family Planning Commission did however oversee China's views by making improvements with the increased access to birth control, and also sex education. Providing women with the access and social support of contraceptive use not only allows for population control, but allows families to analyze their option before considering abortion options. The International Family Planning Perspectives states, "the effect of sex preference on childbearing is becoming stronger as fertility declines, because couples must achieve their desired number of sons within a smaller overall number of children." Although contraceptives aren't always related to sex preference, "an improvement in the status of women and female children should be helpful in reducing son preference and improvement in maternal and child health and family planning services should be helpful in reducing the number of abortions in the country."[42] Access to prenatal sex determination will lead to an increase number of wanted births, leading to less discrimination against girls and a lower overall female mortality rate. Fewer sex-selective abortions and reduced son will reduce son preference and create less participation in sex-selective abortions which would ultimately level the imbalanced sex ratio.

Non-registration of female babies at birth[edit]

In order to leave themselves opportunities to have sons and avoid paying penalties on over-quota children, some parents in rural areas of China usually do not register their female babies.[43] This will lead to a shortfall of girls registered as residents. Some of the missing women in China result from this under-reporting or non-registration of baby girls.[43]

Consequences of the phenomenon[edit]

Wifeless men[edit]

Since prenatal sex determination became available in the mid-1980s, China has witnessed large cohorts of surplus males who were born at that time and are now of marriageable age. The estimated excess males are 2.3, 2.7, and 2.1 million in the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively.[27] Over the next 20 years, a predicted excess of 10–20% of young men will emerge in large parts of China.[27] These marriageable-age husbands-to-be, known as guang gun (光棍), translated as "bare branches" or "bare sticks", live in societies where marriage is considered as part of an individual's social status.[10][27] Prenatal sex determination along with China's traditional preference for sons over daughters has left millions of men to compete over a limited number of brides, a phenomenon known as the marriage squeeze.[44] On occasion, families would adopt female infants as a way to secure a future bride for their sons. These girls would be raised by their adoptive families to learn how to care and serve their future families.[45]

An additional problem is that since women tend to marry men in higher socioeconomic groups than their own, the shortage of women in the marriage market will leave the least desirable, the poorest, and uneducated men with no marriage prospects.[12]

Some commentators worry that those left wifeless men may be marginalized[12] as being single is barely socially acceptable in a Chinese cultural context.[46] These wifeless men's lives could be seriously influenced by how the public view them.[46] They may have senses of loneliness, self-failure and uselessness and be prone to psychological problems.[12] There is also a possibility of these young men emigrating out of mainland China to other countries with more women (like Ukraine, Russia, and most of the West), if the problem continues to persist.[12]

An alternative viewpoint suggests that the shortfall of women might have some positive effects on society.[47] Facing declining possibilities of finding wives, men among the surplus cohort are more eager to improve their competitiveness in the marriage market.[47] Some are more willing to take unpleasant or dangerous hard work, thereby providing more labor.[47] They hope that the wealthier they become, the more competitive they will be in finding a wife.[47]

Propensity to violence[edit]

The future social effect of the guang gun remains a topic of concern. The majority of Chinese think that the guang gun are likely to affect criminal behavior.[48] An early commentator predicted that, "such sexual crimes as forced marriages, girls stolen for wives, bigamy, visiting prostitutes, rape, adultery... homosexuality... and weird sexual habits appear to be unavoidable."[10] Annual province-level data for the years 1988–2004 has showed that a 1% increase in the sex ratio is followed by a 3% increase in violent and property crime rates, meaning that unmarried men might account for part of the rise in crime.[49] Conversely, marriage reduces male criminality.[49] A study in China found that people share the same concerns: 65% of 7435 people of reproductive age think crime will increase, 53% are worried about the less safe streets, 60% consider these excess men as a threat to societal stability, and 56% believe the imbalanced sex-ratio will result in an increase in prostitution and trafficking.[12]

Opposing voices argue that no evidence appears to support these worries. After comparing high and low sex ratio areas, crime in areas with more men was tend to be no higher than areas with low sex ratios.[12] Also, in comparison with other countries, the crime rates are relatively low in China.[24]

Sex trafficking of women[edit]

Experts believe that the continuing skewed sex ratio in China leads to an increased demand of women for brides by guang gun and a decreased supply of eligible women.[43] The shortfall of women in China has contributed to through women in China being bought and sold, which is a crime in China.[43] Most abducted women are between the ages of 13 and 24.[43] Among these abducted women, most are traded as brides in rural areas of China.[43]

Abandonment of infant girls[edit]

Under the one-child policy, some Chinese parents in rural areas abandon their very young daughters in order to increase the possibility of raising a son.[43] More than 95% of babies in state-owned orphanages are healthy baby girls, while a high percentage of these abandoned girls die within couple of months because of the poor conditions and health neglect in orphanages.[43] Those parents who abandon their girl children leave their children either not far from their homes or close to public places to make sure that the babies can be found.[43] According to an official in Liaoning province, "Every year, no fewer than 20 abandoned baby girls are found in dustbins and corners."[43]

Prevalence of sex workers[edit]

One potential problem with a large number of wifeless men is that many millions of Chinese sex workers appear to represent a broad range of backgrounds.[50] Although prostitution is illegal in China, there may appear expansion of female sex workers to meet increased demand of wifeless men.[50] In China, the female sex work industry has flourished in the 20th century.[50]

The number of female sex workers in China increased from 25,000 in 1985 to 420,000 in 1996.[50] It was estimated by the Chinese Public Security Bureau that there were 4–6 million sex workers in China by 2000.[50] The U.S. State Department estimated in 2001 that there were 10 million sex workers in China.[50]

Potential risk of HIV[edit]

In recent years, surplus men have come into the HIV risk sphere.[50] Research suggests that the combined effects of sexual practices, sex work, and surplus males probably have effects on HIV transmission.[50] As a result, young, poor, unmarried surplus men could become a significant new HIV risk group.[50] Before these men find wives, they may be at greater risk of infection with HIV from female sex workers in urban areas.[50]

According to the police surgeon and municipal health officer for Shanghai, the spread of sexually transmitted infection has a close relationship with young unmarried men.[50] For most unmarried migrant workers in China, there is a substantial gap between HIV knowledge and infrequent condom use.[51] Based on a sample of 506 migrants, about half of them had multiple sex partners and 89% of these migrants did not use condoms.[50]

Fertility rate[edit]

In 1965, fourteen years before the one-child policy was implemented, China's fertility rate was 6.39 births per women. After the one-child policy in 1979, the fertility rate dropped to 2.75 births per women and quickly continued to fall in the years to come.[52] Initially, China's goal was to get the fertility rate down to the replacement level of 2.1 births per women, but the fertility rate continued to fall and it is now at 1.6 births per women.[53]

Demographers warn that fertility rates this low can hinder the development of a country and China has started to change their policies in order to increase their fertility rate and avoid any future adversaries. In 2015, the Chinese government decided to change the one-child policy and implemented a two-child policy.[54] Some researchers argue that son preference along with the one-child policy are one of the many contributing factors to an imbalanced sex ratio that has left millions of unmarried men unable to marry and start a family.[55]

Scholars and journalists from outside of China argue that simply dropping the one-child policy will help raise the number of girls born into China and thus raise the future fertility rate. Even though the two-child policy is now in act, couples are still choosing to remain a single-child household due to expensive childcare and women's increasing hesitance to leave their careers to raise a family.[56]

Aging population effects[edit]

Large numbers of missing women also contribute to the problem of population ageing in China.[57] Since females and males together are responsible for the social reproduction,[57] a shortfall of women will lead to a reduction in the number of current and future newborns, ultimately accelerating the aging problem in China.[57] According to forecasts, based on the current sex ratio the elderly population in China will increase by about 3% annually for the next 30 years.[58] People over 65 in China will account for 15% of the population between 2025 and 2030, while those over 60 will account for a quarter of the population in 2050.[58] This rapidly increasing elderly population will also aggravate the social burden of the pension insurance system.[58]


Change in laws and policies[edit]

To control the imbalanced sex ratio, which is caused by the combined effects of son preference, sex-selective abortion and one-child policy, the Chinese government has taken some effective measures.[59] Laws forbidding infanticide, abandonment, and neglect of female children already exist.[23] There are also penalties for trafficking and kidnapping.[23] The Chinese government has also published laws forbidding foetal sex determination and sex-selective abortion.[12]

China has recruited unmarried young males from poor backgrounds into the People's Liberation Army and into the paramilitary People's Armed Police.[10] These armed personnel who were poor and unmarried males from China's rural areas have helped government maintain social stability in 1989.[10]

Improving women's status can also help reduce the sex ratio at birth.[59] The Chinese government pays more attention to women's legal rights, especially their economic development.[59] More emphasis has been placed on forming laws and regulations for women's economic status, education opportunities, inheritance of family property, willingness of marriage, and old-age supports.[59]

From 2005, 600 Chinese yuan per month is given as a pension to parents in rural areas who have daughters.[8] In 2000, in order to establish a better survival environment for girls in Chaohu city, Anhui province, the "Chaohu Experimental Zone Improving Girl-Child Survival Environment" was established and implemented in 2003.[59] The main activities were "establishing specialized organizations, conducting trainings, punishing those found to be committing non-medical sex-selective abortions and infanticide, advocating for regulations and laws addressing gender equality, holding focus-group discussions for mothers-in-law, helping women to participate in socioeconomic activities by providing economic support, encouraging active male participation in the improvement of women's status, enhancing the social-security system, and popularizing uxorilocal marriages (in which husbands marry into wives' birth families), in addition to other activities."[59] The outcomes after three years was encouraging: the sex ratio at birth declined from more than 125 in 1999 to 114 in 2002.[59] Based on this program, in 2003, the Population and Family Planning Commission initiated a campaign called "Care for Girls" to encourage couples to consider the advantages of having girl children.[59] The results were also significant: a survey in 2007 showed that son preference had decreased in participating areas and the sex ratio at birth in the rural of Shanxi province fell from 135 in 2003 to 118 in 2007.[8]

Two-child policy[edit]

At the beginning of 2017, the Chinese government modified its family planning laws to finally allow married couples to have a second child. In 2016 the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China reported that live births in national hospitals numbered 18.46 million and that the fertility rate reached 1.7 percent, the highest rate since 2000. The effect of the new policy to relax birth-planning regulations has debunked 400 million averted births. Since the policy has been enacted, 261.4 million unregistered people who have lived at their residence for at least 6 months were found.[60] The policy change has taken pressure off parents to participate in sex-selective abortion or even avoiding registering female babies at birth, as they now have room for two children. The implementation of the two-child policy has given families room to grow but also control population in the country, in a managed and more humane way.[61] Although the two-child policy was implemented, the 35-year old social policy is unlikely to take part in a baby boom, in attempt to spark economic growth. The country is believed to be a true single-society even when given the option to take part in extending their family count.[62] The two-child policy is not expected to serve as a baby boom, rather a moderate increase in fertility among Chinese women. There are still effects resulting from the one-child policy which the two-child policy is intended to attempt to reverse, including population aging, reduction in sex ratio birth, more oppressive elements of child policy, contributions to economic growth and allow freedom to couples to have their desired number of children.[63]

Policy responses[edit]

Although there is extensive damage to the gender ratio throughout the country, it is still possible to implement change to benefit future generations of the country.[64] According to the Canadian Medical Association, it is crucial to both outlaw sex selection and fix the primary issue of son preference. Many laws already forbid fetal sex determination throughout countries in Asia, including China, but still continues to be a problem. Establishing responsibility to those performing illegal acts such as abortion is one step closer to ensuring a healthy, family oriented society. Holding doctors, clinics and establishments accountable by law is believed to make astounding differences in the sex preference.[65]

Son preference as a whole, is largely challenging in the country. It is primarily important to spread public awareness though campaigns, media, and posters including advantages of females. The results of many campaigns such as the "Care for Girls" campaign on China, by the National Population and Family Planning Commission, encourages female births and requests participation from many neighboring countries. In one of the participating counties in Shanxi providence, the sex ratio birth was reduced from 135 in the year 2003 to 117 just three years later.[66] The country must implement a less traditional form of gender approach and encourage women for higher status positions in society. The Chinese government is essential in improving their gender and social rights. In 1992, the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women ensured women equal rights among politics, culture, education, work property rights and even marriage. Evidence shows that a country who supports higher status of women leads to a less traditional view of gender and lowers the level of son preference. All these socioeconomic improvements have led to a steer away from traditional views of women to a more modern approach, working to end the gender gap in entirety.

Change in attitudes[edit]

Although China's sex ratio at birth is still one of the highest in the world, growing evidence has shown that son preference in China is declining.[8] In recent interviews, many young Chinese adults expressed the view that they do not care about the gender of their future child, even though son preference was common in their parents' generation.[8] A recent study showed that among the 66% claiming to be gender indifferent, 13% (10% urban 16% rural) prefer a boy, and 21% (22% urban and 18% rural) want a girl.[12] Hesketh points out that with the consideration of advantages of raising girls, including that they are easier to care for, easier to find a spouse for, and take good care of aging parents, gender indifference and girl preference increase in comparison with previous son preference.[12]

See also[edit]



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