Women in Asia are disappearing. Some 80 million women in India and China are reportedly missing from census surveys. Throughout poor, rural areas of East and South Asia, males are prized as a family’s sole breadwinner and females are deemed liabilities whose only purpose is to care for in-laws. In China, the problem is compounded by the country’s 22-year-old one-child policy: many Chinese girls never make it out of the womb.
Last year, according to official Chinese census figures, only 100 girls were born for every 117 boys, which is below the average global ratio. Although sex-selective abortion is illegal in China and India, couples regularly screen for female fetuses, and many village doctors are happy to abort them for the right price. Some experts have estimated that nine out of ten fetuses aborted in China are female.
In China, families that have girls often fail to report their births. Without a hukou, or certificate of residency, unreported girls have difficulty getting an education or health care. Others are abandoned, or brought to orphanages, where the “lucky” ones get adopted by a family from the West. China is the number one source for foreign adoptions in the U.S. Since 1985, almost 24,000 children, mostly girls, have been adopted by Americans.
Life can be bitter for the “unlucky” girls left behind in rural China. Rampant sex discrimination has contributed to depression and malaise, resulting in one of the world’s highest female suicide rates. The World Bank and the World Health Organization report that 56% of all female suicides occur in China.
“Men in poor rural areas are now finding it’s harder to find a wife,” says activist Xiaorong Li. “But they say, ‘What does this have to do with my wanting a boy baby?’ It will take years before this impacts their behavior.”