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23 Jan, 2012

Demographic Trends: Sex Selection Scourge Still Shows Preference for Boys

UNFPA Press release, 16 January 2012 – The sex-ratio imbalance that has plagued certain Asian countries has been increasing in the last few years with one exception, the Republic of Korea, while a few  European countries, including Albania, Armenia and Montenegro, are showing rises too.

Moreover, some regions of China, India and Viet Nam — countries with a traditionally high sex-ratio imbalance (which is the ratio of male to female births in a population, with “normal” ranging from 104 to 106) — have been levelling off or reversing. Sometimes, there are cultural quirks, and it is not just the first-born child that is ‘pre-selected’; in Armenia, for instance, sex ratio for the first and second child is regular, but for the third and fourth, it is 175. And in Nepal, groups with the lowest levels of gender equality have the highest sex-ratio imbalances.

A workshop organized last fall in Ha Noi by UNFPA, with the Viet Nam United Nations Country Team and the other partners, addressed geographic trends, shared experiences and aimed to create south-south cooperation to further combat demographic imbalances. A report of the workshop, “Skewed Sex Ratios at Birth,” was recently published by UNFPA.

In recent decades, ratios in some countries have jumped to as high as 130 or above, a cause of concern for governments, demographers and human rights groups, among others, who say that the root cause is son preference, though other factors play a part. These include use of new sex-selection technologies and a trend toward smaller families.

High imbalances also indicate gender inequality in a country, a problem that can be tackled by governments’ placing more emphasis on empowering women and improving pensions, so parents do not think they need only sons for economic support in old age.

Of the 14 countries (primarily in South Asia, South-east Asia and Central Asia) most affected by sex-ratio imbalances, the report said that almost 20 per cent of the ‘missing girls’ in the world, estimated to be 39 million under the age of 20, disappear after they are born through malnutrition, infanticide and other related causes. In India, for example, it is reported that 271,000 girls have gone ‘missing’ since birth.

The long-term consequences of demographic imbalances are still unclear, though many countries with high ratios will experience a “marriage squeeze” for men 20 to 30 years old, making it more difficult for them to find a partner. Another concern is the phenomenon’s move to new regions, like Eastern Europe. In Albania, for instance, there is a high level of violence against women, though inheritance is equal and laws related to gender equity have been enacted. Until recently, the issue of sex-ratio imbalance received little attention, but that has changed.

Ultimately, the report suggests, more attention should be paid to patriarchal traditions to help guide interventions. The report notes that making sex-selective abortions illegal does not solve the problem.

Many of the affected countries are experiencing huge upheavals at institutional, economic, political and socio-cultural levels.

Demographic transitions in fertility and urbanization, as well as increasing labour shortages, will also continue to influence son preferences. The continued need for further research on the dynamic should help clarify ways to prevent it in the future.