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India and China account for 109m of the 117m “missing” girls and women globally in 2010.


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This is going to have a bad, lasting impact.

The marriage squeeze is likely to last for decades, getting worse before it gets better. It will take the two countries with their combined population of 2.6 billion—a third of humanity—into uncharted territory. Marriage has always been a necessary part of belonging to society in India and China. No one really knows how these countries will react if marriage is no longer universal. But there may be damaging consequences. In every society, large numbers of young men, unmarried and away from their families, are associated with abnormal levels of crime and violence.

The roots of the current squeeze go back a generation. Sex-selective abortions became common in China in the 1990s as a result of the country’s strict (now somewhat laxer) one-child-per-couple policy and a traditional preference for sons. A few years later they became increasingly common in India, also because of a preference for sons and helped by the growing availability of prenatal tests to determine sex. In 2010-15, according to the UN Population Division, China’s sex ratio at birth was 116 boys to 100 girls; in India the figure was 111. Though these ratios have fallen a little since their peaks, they are still far above the natural rate, which is 105 to 100.

As a result, enormous numbers of girls and women are “missing”—absent, that is, compared with what would have happened if there had not been sex selection. If China had had a normal sex ratio at birth, according to a report in 2012 by the UN Population Fund it would have had 721m girls and women in 2010. In fact it had only 655m—a difference of 66m, or 10% of the female population. India’s ratio is not quite so bad. Had it been normal, the country would have had 43m more women, or 7% more, than it actually did. Other countries practise sex selection at birth, but Asia’s giants overshadow all others. Together they account for 109m of the 117m “missing” girls and women globally in 2010. Calculations by Christophe Guilmoto of the Institute of Development Research, a think-tank in Paris, show that marriage patterns in India and China were still normal in 2010. But they will become badly distorted by 2020.

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