A look at China’s missing women

8 Mar

In 1979, in conjunction with a number of economic reforms, the Chinese government implemented the One Child Family Policy. The aim of the policy was to constrain the then rapid population growth, in order to facilitate China’s economic growth targets.

Whilst the policy proved remarkably successful in the sense that the population did, indeed, shrink, the One Child policy has had drastic consequences on China’s female population.

What was the problem?

Stemming write back from the Confucian tradition the Chinese have placed an emphasis on the importance of having a son. In the agricultural age (and still in the rural parts of China) men were considered to be physically stronger than women and thus would be in a better position to collect food and provide for their families. Furthermore, in Chinese culture, men habitually stay within their family home, even after marriage and provide for their elderly parents. Women, in contrast, tend to uproot themselves and move in with the family of her husband upon marriage, thus providing mostly for her husband’s parents rather than her own.

These traditional roles of men and women lead to a prenatal disposition towards having sons over daughters in China. However these preferences rarely translated into discriminatory actions toward the birth of females prior to the One-Child policy. Chinese couples often had several children and thus didn’t need to choose between sons or daughters.

The introduction of the One-Child policy, however, turned this practice on its head by forcing Chinese couples to choose between having either an only son or an only daughter. Any perpetrators of the rule would face heavy sanctions, including fines and job losses.

Census data reveals the staggering impact that this policy has had. In China today 118 males are born for every 100 females; a figure which varies around the country and rises to over 150 in some provinces . This distorted gender ratio has lead to an estimated 100 million “missing” girls; a figure in line with the prediction made by Amaryta Sen in his hugely influential article in 1990.

Where do all the “missing girls go?”

The large deficit of females can be attributed the emergence of two concerning practices; excess female infant mortality, and sex-selective abortions.

Excess female mortality is usually caused by infanticide, neglect or abandonment of daughters very soon after birth. Such abhorrent practices are due to couples wishing to dispose of baby girls, in order to be permitted to try again for sons within the regulations of China’s birth control policies.

Yet whilst female infanticide was typically associated with rural families; the introduction of ultrasound technology in the mid 1980s resulted in an emergence of sex-selective abortions in many Urban regions were excess female mortality had not occurred. Evidently, many Urban families who would not consider killing their daughters at infancy, became comfortable with aborting female foetuses at 4 months gestation. In recent years the distorted ratio has become more profound. Although it is suggested that female infanticide is on the decline, this is more than compensated by sex-selective abortions, which, although illegal, result little or no punishments throughout China.

What can the government do?

One option is for the Chinese government is to remove their tight fertility regulations and allow families to have more children. However, as fertility preferences are deeply engrained in China, this rebalancing act could take decades to take effect.

Failing the above, China’s could seek to universalise the monetary rewards that are currently offered in some rural parts of China for having daughters. Yet when distributing the monetary rewards financial corruption and inequality will inevitably be on the cards, as they have been with the “fining”/permitting of families throughout China to have second births.

The Chinese government’s best policy could channel greater efforts into improving the status of women, and reforming the patriarchal family structure. Theoretically, if women were to become more aligned with men, then gender preferences might equalize. Yet although the government has repeatedly tried to raise the status of Women in China in recent years; despite all efforts, women are still inferior to men in terms of pay, job roles and status. Consequentially the gender ratio in China has become more, not less, unequal. Arguably if the Chinese Government wishes to properly correct the gender situation in China, they may need to begin implementing stronger and more influential policies to promote women in China.


Sen, Amartya. “Missing women.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 304.6827 (1992): 587.

Sen, Amartya. “Missing women—revisited: Reduction in female mortality has been counterbalanced by sex selective abortions.” BMJ: British Medical Journal327.7427 (2003): 1297.

Lee, Bernice J. “Female infanticide in China.” Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques 8.3 (1981): 163-177.

Arnold, Fred, and Liu Zhaoxiang. “Sex preference, fertility, and family planning in China.” Population and Development Review (1986): 221-246.

Plafker, Ted. “Sex selection in China sees 117 boys born for every 100 girls.”BMJ: British Medical Journal 324.7348 (2002): 1233.

Chen, Yuyu, Hongbin Li, and Lingsheng Meng. “Prenatal Sex Selection and Missing Girls in China: Evidence from the Diffusion of Diagnostic Ultrasound.”Journal of Human Resources 48.1 (2013): 36-70.

Luo, Wei. “Women of China Magazine.” Challenging Images of Women in the Media: Reinventing Women’s Lives (2012): 89.


One Response to “A look at China’s missing women”

  1. tw8g11 March 12, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    Some very interesting points. Additionally it is interesting to note of some worrying developments that have come to light in recent years. With the growing imbalance leaving large swathes of single, young men, forced prostitution and human trafficking has become rampant in some parts of the country . There has been a sharp increase in the trafficking of women from other Asian countries into China, whilst it is also estimated that as many as 20,000 young Chinese girls are being forces into the sex trade every year.
    Furthermore, the rural-urban divide is accentuated as rural women are increasingly ‘marrying out’ into cities. Whereas in the past migration had tended to be temporary in nature, increasingly women are finding partners in urban areas and staying put. This is not the case however for men, with cultural norms dictating that urban women should not marry migrant men, partially due to the lack of economic stability that can be provided.
    In terms of possible solutions, the government has pledged to get tougher on sex selective abortions. Foe example, in order to cut down on the bribery offered to doctors to carry them out, it has made it a legal requirement that two doctors be present at every ultrasound scan. Additionally they have encouraged institutions to regulate their practitioners more carefully, threatening to revoke medical licenses for those found to be responsible for breaches. Unfortunately, the drawback to these developments is that the tighter regulation of sex selective abortions could lead parents to seek alternative methods, namely unsafe abortions and infanticide. This indicates that, while policy changes can have a minor positive effect in the short term, the biggest challenge lies in changing attitudes and preferences that exist within Chinese society, an issue which will need to be addressed if the gender imbalance is to be combated in the future.




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