Where have all the girls gone in China?

by Bob Herbert, New York Times, November 1997

There has never been the kind of international outcry that there should be over the girls who are missing from the population of China. The world has largely closed its eyes to this immense tragedy.

A cultural preference for boys and China's ruthlessly enforced childbearing restrictions have resulted in the wholesale destruction of girl babies through gross neglect, abandonment, infanticide and, in recent years, the targeted abortion of female fetuses.

Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist from the University of California at Irvine who has studied this probem for a number of years, described the situation as "frightening." In a paper that she co-wrote two years ago with the demographer Jiali Li, Ms. Greenhalgh said that little girls were being eliminated from Chinese society "on a massive scale."

An American who did volunteer work at an orphanage in Guangzhou, formerly Canton, reported witnessing the disposal of the bodies of abandoned girls who had died at the orphanage. She said they were carted out in wheelbarrows, tossed into a dumpster and ultimately taken away by municipal garbage collectors. The volunteer said she was devastated by the sight.

No one knows how many girls have been lost but the demographic data show that the toll has been enormous. There is now a profound imbalance in favor of boys in the number of small children in China.

Normally the number of boys and in a society is roughly in balance. However, the sex ratios tend to be skewed in favor of boys in those cultures with a heavy preference for boys. In China, according to William Lavely, a demographer and professor of international studies at the University of Washington, the ratios of boys to girls have risen dramatically, even for a society that prizes boys, and are at "very alarming levels now."

Citing statistics from a Chinese sampling in 1995, Layely noted that among 4-year-olds there are 115 boys for every 100 girls; among 3-year-olds, 119 boys per 100 girls; among 2-year-olds, 121 boys; among 1-year-olds, 121 boys; among children less than a year old, 116 boys per 100 girls.

What happened to all those girls?

Lavely said there was no doubt that the number of sex-selective abortions was increasing, but he noted that differences in the mortality rate for girl babies and boy babies were a substantial factor. The census data, he said, suggest "that the infant mortality rate for girls relative to boys worsened in the 1990s."

"People are treating girl babies differently than boy babies," he said, "and in some cases taking very active steps to end their lives."

A report compiled by Lavely said census figures showed that "about 5.8 percent of girls born in 1989-90 went 'missing' from the population. Of these, at least 19.5 percent are missing due to female mortality in excess of (that) expected, and 80.5 percent are missing due to other unknown causes."

"For the 1995 birth cohort," said Lavely, "9.6 percent.of girls are missing, of which 15 percent of the missing are due to mortality and the other 85 percent are due to unknown causes."

The so-called "unknown causes" have filled many observers with dread. Susan Greenhalgh describe Lavely's statistics as "very troubling."

When the government imposed its one-child-per-family policy in 1979, its intent was not to impose a death sentence on large numbers of girl babies, although that result should have been foreseen. There is now evidence that Government officials are making an extremely belated attempt to bring the problem at least partially under control. The use of ultrasound scanners to determine the sex of a fetus has been restricted and additional steps are being taken to curb the deliberate killing of children.

A report by the State Family Planning Commission is promoting the idea that the birth of a girl "is just as good" as the birth of a boy, and is calling for efforts "to eliminate the phenomenon of abandoning or drowning baby girls."

There was some improvement in the ratio of boys to girls in 1994-95. A greater international spotlight on the problem would probably accelerate the improvement. But compared with matters like trade, technological advances and the treatment of dissidents, the slaughter of girl babies can be a tough sell.