Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Thursday, 26 April 2012
Thursday, 26 April 2012 15:04

Gender Imbalance and the Value of Women

As a teacher in Taipei, I am often shocked by how many boys there are in my classes, particularly when compared with the number of girls. The first few times I thought it was coincidence, but after teaching in many different schools, I came to realise there was a bit of a pattern. Roughly two thirds of the students overall were boys.

On realizing this I wondered whether this could simply be explained by the fact that parents try to give their boys a better education than their girls, but that didn’t seem to be the case since, when I asked the boys, they said that their sisters all went to cram schools too.

I stumbled upon the more likely reason for the skewed numbers purely by accident. Upon taking a new class, I asked the students about their families. I found that almost all the girls had younger brothers, but not older brothers. When it came to boys, they often had an older sister, although it wasn’t as common as the girls having a younger brother. From then on, I made a point to ask the girls, and was very surprised to see that, if a girl said she had siblings, I could guess that it was a younger brother and be right almost every time.

It is no secret that in traditional Chinese culture, boys are preferred to girls. There are various reasons for this. Traditionally, boys were more useful for doing manual labour and therefore could be put to practical use more often. The other main reasons are spiritual and cultural in origin. The Chinese believe that only sons are capable of making small offerings to their deceased ancestors during festivals such as Tomb Sweeping Day, and therefore the parents in a family without male children would be uncared for in the afterlife, since they would be unable to receive offerings.

The cultural reason for the preference of boys is much more complicated to analyse from a foreign perspective than the two reasons above. It has to do with the concept of what we could call “outside versus inside” in Chinese culture. To simplify massively, the Chinese have traditionally seen anybody inside their family unit as insiders, people to be cared for. Those outside the unit are outsiders, and while they might still be befriended and relied upon, they never quite qualify as family. The issues derived from this thought are twofold. First, when a girl marries, she becomes a part of the other family, and becomes an “outsider”. She becomes part of the husband’s family group. Thus, a female daughter is often seen as a temporary member of the family, whereas a son will always be a part of it. The second problem is that girls don’t carry on the family surname, which is passed on through males. Therefore, the only way to guarantee one’s lineage, which is of utmost importance to the Chinese family, is to have a son. Interestingly enough, it is believed that prior to the Shang dynasty, Chinese passed on their surnames in a matrilineal fashion, through the female line of the family instead of the male. The fact that the character for surname, 姓, includes the radical 女 , meaning woman, further supports this. Why, then, is the modern concept of surname so intrinsically linked with boys?

So, how exactly is this related to my introduction about the demographics of school classes? It’s quite simple really. The reason for almost all the girls having a younger brother is that, if the families don’t get a son the first time around, they will try again, whereas if they do have a son, the majority will stop having children, due to the expensive costs of raising a child (made even more expensive in Taiwan because of certain traditions regarding the mother after giving birth).

This leads us into the main point of this article. What to do, say, when you have a daughter first, and then conceive another daughter? This poses quite a dilemma for most families. Going for a third child could be a possibility, but the economic cost would be a severe burden and there is still no guarantee that it would be a boy. Traditionally, there was no way of knowing the gender of the baby before birth, so the ancient Chinese used several methods that they believed would influence the gender. An offering of flowers to the goddess Mazu was believed to change the gender of a baby from a girl to a boy. Similarly, removing the nails on a deceased relative’s coffin (previously loosened or unscrewed) with one’s teeth, a predominantly Hakka tradition, was believed to encourage masculine births, because the pronunciation for "lick nail" sounds similar to "add son" in both Hakka and Mandarin Chinese. Finally, it was also believed to be possible to influence the sex of the baby by eating certain foods the week before it was due, which varied depending on what sex was desired. These traditions are all still put into practice today.

Unfortunately, nowadays, couples faced with the problem of not conceiving a boy have an “easy” solution: having an abortion as soon as the sex of the baby is known. This is by no means just a problem in Taiwan, but is also all too common a problem in China and India, as well as a minor issue in a few other countries. Aside from the obvious ethical dilemma, it is extremely irresponsible from a demographic point of view.

The current ratio of boys to girls born in China is estimated to be around 120 boys to 100 girls. The world sex ratio at birth is usually estimated at 105 boys to 100 girls, and in any given country, anywhere between 101 to 107 boys per 100 girls is deemed acceptable and normal. Taking this into account, we can appreciate just how extraordinary the Chinese sex ratio at birth is. While Taiwan’s ratio is likely significantly lower, due mainly to the lack of state family planning policies, this is still a huge problem. Eventually, when all these children grow up, how will they be able to find spouses of their own? Sure, the ones that can afford to move abroad might consider that option, but for a large amount, there will be very little hope of finding a wife. The irony of this is that the main reason for wanting boys in the first place is to carry on the family name. If those boys have no girls to form a family with, then the family name is doomed anyway, after only one generation.

Photo by  Hubert Kilian

The problem with selective abortions is it’s very hard to determine the exact reason why a family might want to abort. In China, it is now illegal to scan for the sex of the baby before it is born, but there is a whole black market built upon illegal gender scanning. These kinds of policies are clearly not enough. In Taiwan and in China, what is needed is a general shift in the perception of girls’ value in society. In Taiwan, a country where women have the same rights as men and are capable of holding just as high positions and having similar opportunities to succeed, what sense does it make for a family to deny their daughter the chance of proving just how great she could be based on family name? This is one of the prejudices that need to change if women are to be treated as equal to men.

Currently, it is all the rage to talk about terms such as Renewable Energy, Sustainable Development, and a long list of etc. This is exactly what societies with heavy discrimination against baby girls need to practice: “Renewable Birth” and “Sustainable Demographics”. People need to realise that the effects of what they are doing will be devastating in the long run. They need to be aware that rationalizing it away as “we are only one couple doing this” is not a viable choice when everyone else is thinking the same. The governments are also at fault here and need to abandon their laissez-faire attitude in favour of a proactive approach which recognizes the gravity of the situation, with projects to increase the perceived value of women in society and economic incentives to those families that choose to have baby girls.

The saddest part of it all, for me, was seeing the effects this devaluation of women has on the little themselves, rather than in the big economic or demographic picture. I remember seeing a little girl, only five or six years old, the only one in a class of twelve students, having to walk all the way across the school to another classroom just to find other girls to play with at break time. For her it was normal, what she had always had to do to play. But this attitude, the one that sees the gender imbalance as normal, is precisely what has to change. Otherwise, in the future, the problem will become much more serious than a girl having trouble finding friends to play with.



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