Bias for sons hurting men and women

She has only ever had one husband. At least that is what Priti, 32, tells people, while surrounded by her young daughters in their thatched hut on a windswept cliff overlooking the Firozpur-Jhirka valley in India's northern state of Haryana.

The reality is rather more complicated. For one thing, Priti is not her real name; she has asked not to be identified to avoid being stigmatised.

She was sold as a bride for 10,000 rupees (S$213) at the age of 12. Her buyer, after raping her for six months, sold her on to another man, with whom she eventually had nine children.

"I was sexually exploited and always reminded that I was bought," she said of her children's father. "It was hell."

Now widowed, she is struggling to feed her children on her earnings as a construction labourer. Last year, her eldest daughter turned 12, an age that piques the interest of bride traffickers. Fearing the worst, she did the only thing she thought would keep her safe - she married the child off.

Not enough girls are being born in Asia. According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than 117 million women are "missing" - the product of a cultural preference for sons, coupled with birth restrictions, lower fertility and medical advances that have made sex-selective abortion readily available.

Sex ratios are so distorted that India and China - the world's two most populous nations, with more than 2.5 billion people between them - are grappling with the growing tens of millions of young men who are coming of age with shrinking chances of marriage.

The emerging economy of Vietnam has the same issue.

Without medical intervention, most communities produce 104 to 106 boys for every 100 girls, as nature compensates for the higher male mortality rates.

But in China, where the abortion of female foetuses spiked during the three decades of a one-child policy, the ratio of baby boys to girls was 115.9 last year.

The latest figure in India was 110.01, according to its 2011 to 2013 sample registration system, while Vietnam's hit 113.8 in 2013. Last year, Singapore's ratio was 105.6.

Recent United Nations simulations for India and China suggest that in 15 years, there could be three men seeking to marry for every two available women.

This mass involuntary singlehood portends deep changes in societies where marriage marks entry to adulthood and confers social recognition.

More alarmingly, it is also spawning new forms of cross-border exploitation, where poorer women are kidnapped, duped or sold for marriage in distant regions, to be virtually enslaved in households where they are sometimes forced to serve both their husband, as well as the husband's brothers.

Fraudsters in China are starting to prey on desperate men, promising brides who later run away with valuables.

Thousands of children have been kidnapped in China, prompting Beijing last month to propose new laws that would bring criminal proceedings against buyers of kidnapped children.

They are currently not prosecuted if they did not abuse the children or obstruct efforts to rescue them.

Policymakers are fretting about the unrest that millions of unmarriageable men may create, and the violence that competition for women may unleash.

The repercussions are starting to dawn on couples, especially in China where men are expected to pay for marital homes.

In 2009, United States-based scholars Wei Shang Jin and Zhang Xiaobo found evidence that housing prices tend to be higher in the parts of China with higher sex ratios. Men and their families who were competing for brides were bidding up prices.

"I am beginning to worry about my son's future," admitted Madam Li Ya'nan, a 34-year-old mechanic in north-eastern Jilin province, who aborted a girl before giving birth to a boy, now five.

"The only thing I can do is to ensure that he gets as much education as possible to land a good job, so that women find him a good catch."

The rural poor feel the greatest impact of rampant sex-selective abortion. In the tea plantations of West Bengal, for example, girls who work as tea leaf pickers, earning 120 rupees a day, are easily lured by the promise of better jobs or medical care.

They are sold for 10,000 to 200,000 rupees as brides, called molki (bought), given new names and prevented from escaping.

It is the same story in northern Vietnam, where young women are coerced across the border to be auctioned off.

The men bearing the brunt of female foeticide are found in places like Yang Si Miao, a hillside village of small-scale farmers in China's Shaanxi province, where cellphone signals do not reach.

There live men like 35-year-old Li Daohong, too poor to buy a bride and too despondent to try matchmaking.

Mr Li broke up with his last girlfriend, from a more developed village, 11 years ago.

They were planning to get married and he brought her home to meet his parents. "The moment she set foot in this village and saw the surroundings, she said 'No, this will not work'," he recalled.

The shortage of women in Haryana - which has India's worst sex ratio at 115.7 - has increased the chances of inter-caste marriages or unions that contravene strict social codes policed by the khap panchayat, the unelected caste councils who are influential, despite having no legal standing.

These can have deadly consequences. In 2013, 20-year-old Nidhi Barak was lynched by her own family, while fellow villager Dharmender Barak, 23, was beheaded in an "honour killing" after the couple tried to elope.

They belonged to the same gotra or clan, which meant they were regarded by the villagers as siblings who could not marry.

Both India and China, which have in place a patchwork of legislation to curb sex-selective abortion, sounded the alarm this year.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while launching new programmes to aid girls in January, called the thinking behind female foeticide a "mental illness".

"The prime minister... had come to them like a beggar and was begging for the lives of daughters," he was quoted by the Times of India as saying.

That same month, China's National Health and Family Planning Commission declared that the country's sex imbalance at birth was "the most serious and prolonged" in the world.

In May, Beijing proceeded to launch a new campaign against already illegal prenatal sex tests and sex-selective abortions.

Enforcement is hard because patriarchal notions are deeply embedded.

"All my friends who went through abortions thought hard about it," said Mrs Nguyen Thuong Hoai, a receptionist in Ho Chi Minh City.

"But they desperately needed sons or… their husbands would try for sons with other women."

Sometimes, remedial policies worsen the situation. In 2013, while partially relaxing its one-child policy, Beijing allowed rural couples whose first child was a daughter to try for a second child, inadvertently affirming the bias for sons.

The good news in China and India is that sex ratios at birth are dropping.

In the 2010-2012 period, India registered a ratio of 110.13. During the next count in 2011-2013, the figure dipped slightly to 110.01.

China's ratio of 115.9 last year was a big improvement on the 121.2 recorded 10 years ago.

In contrast, Vietnam's ratio has steadily deteriorated from 110.5 in 2009 to 113.8 in 2013.

The country is being squeezed on both ends - while baby girls are being killed before birth, rural women are leaving for foreign grooms in thinly disguised bride-buying arrangements.

Some parts of Vietnam now bear the same acutely lopsided sex ratios that afflicted China a decade ago: In the central Quang Binh province, the figure hit 129.6 in 2013.

"We have tried so much but can hardly change the mind and the culture of Vietnamese, who prefer sons to daughters," Dr Duong Quoc Trong, who heads the General Office for Population and Family Planning in Vietnam's Health Ministry, was quoted as saying last year in online news portal VN Express.

"The gender imbalance now is so serious that Vietnamese men will hardly get a wife in the near future, maybe from 2025 onwards." For bank officer Pham Hoang Viet, 31, whose wife is expecting their first child, their ideal brood would be one son and one daughter.

"Having two boys would be second-best. Having two girls? Oh, we don't want to think about that," he said.

This article was first published on July 8, 2015.
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