China’s Missing Girls- Causes and Effects

10 Mar

China is undergoing a demographic crisis. Between 1980 and 2000 there were 12.8 million missing females (Cai and Lavely, 2003) causing a significant shortage of girls and women within society. This is also reflected in China’s sex ratio which in 2000 was at 116.9 boys to every 100 girls. Compared to the normal sex ratio of 105 to 100 it is clear to see that there is significant discrimination against girls and female foetuses (Lai-Wan et al. 2006). These figures may also be an underestimate due to underreporting and data alterations.  

This discrimination is not a new phenomenon. 1930’s census data also indicated higher ratios of men to women compared to normal levels.  An explanation for this is the embedded cultural norm of son preference and the associated patriarchal, patrilineal and patrilocal social systems within China (Lai-Wan et al. 2006).

Sons are considered more desirable mostly due to their supposed economic advantages. Naturally most males are physically stronger than females, thus providing advantage in agricultural labour. Since 35% of employment is within the agricultural sector there is a demand for strong workers capable of hard, physical labour (World Bank, 2014). However, increased mechanicalisation and an overall decline in the Chinese agricultural sector may decrease demand for human labourers which may be reflected in a future decreased demand for sons (World Bank, 2014).

Further incentives for obtaining a son can be derived from the support they give elderly, disabled or ill parents and relatives. Sons are expected to economically support their parents whilst their wife supports them with day-to-day care. Having a daughter care for her parents is seen as a source of shame and is not custom (Lai-Wan et al. 2006). Rural residents tend to be more dependent on their sons for support than urban residents due to a lack of sufficient social security systems. (China Daily, 2004).

In addition, the only mechanism a family name can be continued into future generations is through a son. This highlights how important sons are to a family and results in them being considered a permanent family member. On the other hand females, due to the patrilineal and patrilocal belief systems, loose their birth family name and obtain the name and residence of her husband and his family. She is then expected to fulfil care duties associated with her husband’s family. Therefore, females are considered temporary members of a family and have no perceived economic advantages associated with them (Lai-Wan et al. 2006).

The introduction of China’s One Child Policy in 1978 exacerbated issues surrounding son preference and gender discrimination. Infanticide, sex-selective abortions, neglect, abandonment and not reporting female births have become more common. Couples are disposing of their unwanted daughters in order to acquire a son (Lai-Wan et al. 2006) and not face the consequences of having two children. Widespread availability of ultrasound equipment to determine the sex of a foetus have led to roughly 10 million pregnancies being terminated every year, although this figure is probably underestimated due to illegal abortions and underreporting. This is despite sex-selected abortions being made illegal in China in the 1980’s (Lai-Wan et al. 2006).

The effects of these outbalanced sex ratios are vast and are likely to impact large proportions of the Chinese population.  Most noticeably men, as there will be a shortage of brides leaving almost a fifth of future males as bachelors (The Economist, 2011). These men are perceived as not fulfilling the obligation to their family of producing future generations (Lai-Wan et al. 2006). Thus, competition for brides will increase, disproportionately affecting those men in rural areas with lower educational and socioeconomic status (Lai-Wan et al. 2006). Furthermore, bachelors will most likely not have anyone to give them support or care when they are elderly. This will only exacerbate China’s ageing population crisis and leave the government with increased pressure to produce adequate social security systems.   

Although an increase in demand for wives may increase the status of women there is also substantial evidence of increases in kidnap, trafficking and rape of women and girls. Female babies are often adopted by urban couples who are unable to have children of their own and tend to have a lower son preference due to them being more economically stable and less dependent in later life. Some babies are also trafficked into rural villages and raised to be brides to farmers who otherwise would not acquire a wife. Forced marriages and increasing sexual exploitation are also likely to become more common (Chu, 2010). This is turning women and young girls and babies into commodities who are to be bought and sold in reflection to society’s demand.

As the proportion of unmarried men increases the use of prostitutes and activity within commercial sex industries will also rise. This is also likely to increase heterosexual transmission of HIV as sexual behaviour becomes more risky. There has already been an increase in this type of transmission to 76.3% in 2011 compared to 33.1% in 2006 (UNAIDS, 2012).  However this could also be attributed to an increase in reporting of HIV. Sex workers are most likely to be at a higher risk due to their increased exposure and diminished autonomy (Ebenstein and Sharygin, 2009). China is already suffering from an HIV epidemic as roughly 780,000 people are HIV positive (UNAIDS, 2012).  Increased future transmission could lead to a wider outbreak and impact other Asian countries. Growing rates of rural to urban migration are also fuelling the issue (Tsai, 2012).

It is clear that China needs to address its issue of gender discrimination and son preference. However, this will not be easily achieved due to the deeply rooted, cultural belief of the superiority of sons over daughters. Increasing urbanisation and wealth may help as families become more economically stable and less economically reliant on sons. The potential future Two Child Policy may also lessen discrimination against daughters (Branigan, 2014). Nevertheless it will be changing the perception and prejudice against girls that will ultimately lead to more normal sex ratios and population structure within China.  


Branigan, T (2014) China may opt for ‘two children’ policy in future, says senior official, The Guardian [ONLINE]                                                                                                             Available at: [Accessed 10th March 2014]


Cai, Y. Lavely, W. (2003) China’s Missing Girls: Numerical Evidence and Population estimates, The China Review, 3, 2, 13-29 [ONLINE]                                                                                       Available at: vol3_2_files/ 2.%20Y-Cai.pdf [Accessed 9th March 2014]

China Daily (2004) China Bans Selective Abortion To Fix Imbalance [ONLINE]                 Available at: /16/content_349051.htm [Accessed 10th March 2014]

Chu, Y.C (2011) Human Trafficking and Smuggling in China, Journal of Contemporary China, 20, 68, 39-52 [ONLINE]                                                                                                                 Available at: [Accessed 10th March 2014]

Ebenstein, A.Y. Sharygin, E.J (2009) The Consequences of the “Missing Girls” of China, World Bank Economic Review, 23, 3, 399-425 [ONLINE]                                                             Available at: wber_23_3_399.pdf?sequence=1  [Accessed 9th March 2014]

The Economist (2011) The Most Surprising Demographic Crisis [ONLINE]                                   Available at: [Accessed 10th March 2014]

Lai-wan, C. Eric, B. Hoi-yan, C. (2006) Attitudes to and Practices Regarding Sex Selection in China, Journal of Prenatal Diagnosis and Therapy, 26, 7, 610-61 [ONLINE]                     Available at: [Accessed: 9th March 2014]

Tsai, T (2012) China Has Too Many Bachelors, Population Reference Bureau [ONLINE]               Available at: [Accessed 10th March 2014]

UNAIDS (2012) 2012 China AIDS Response Progress Report, Ministry of Health of the People’s Republic of China [ONLINE]                                                                                                             Available at: 012countries/ce_CN_Narrative_Report[1].pdf  [Accessed 10th March 2014]

World Bank (2014) Employment in Agriculture (% of Total Employment) [ONLINE]                         Available at: [Accessed 10th March 2014]


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