Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Allowing Girls to Hold Up Half the Sky: Combining Norm Promotion and Economic Incentives to Combat Daughter Discrimination in China

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Allowing Girls to Hold Up Half the Sky: Combining Norm Promotion and Economic Incentives to Combat Daughter Discrimination in China

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

In 1990, Amartya Sen uncovered a global epidemic of over one hundred million missing women-women that, given statistically normal birth rates, should exist in the world but do not.1 Sen and others have suggested three main contributors to this crisis: sex selective abortions, the related practices of female infanticide and abandonment, and inadequate medical care for female children.2 China provides an interesting and particularly important challenge in combating the missing women phenomena, for a few reasons. First, a focus on China provides more potential value than addressing the problem elsewhere. Sen has suggested that over fifty million Chinese women are missing3 which accounts for 45 percent of the missing women worldwide.4 Even given undercounting and other problems in data collection, Chinese and foreign demographers alike agree that a significant problem exists.5 Second, most regions in the world are experiencing a relative improvement in the eradication of the missing women phenomena, but China's male to female sex ratio at birth is rising.6 Third, given the ongoing restructuring of the Chinese government and reformation of the country, the active liberalization of reproductive policy provides an "important experiment in state-society relations."7 Unlike many countries, China has created a separate agency for reproductive policy, and the government has a longstanding tradition of dictating desired outcomes in this area. Policy changes here can provide a model for the reformation of other Chinese agencies.

Despite the Chinese government's vocal commitment to women's rights, China is experiencing an increasing shortage of girls and young women. In a world with no widespread preference for either boys or girls, we should expect to see about 104 male births for every 100 female births-yielding a sex ratio of 1.04. Yet at the time of the 2000 China census, national statistics revealed about 118 male births for every 100 female births.8 The sex birth ratio is particularly skewed for second and successive births.9 So while some Chinese couples may not demonstrate a significant preference for their first child to be a son, most demonstrate a marked preference for sons as second children if their first child is a girl. While much variation exists among provinces, as a whole, the disparity in the sex ratio is growing in both rural and urban areas as well as in both rich and poor provinces.10

Alternative explanations for the prevalence of missing women are not ultimately compelling and more importantly, do not disprove the need for government action. The best counter account, offered by Harvard doctoral student Emily Oster, contends that hepatitis B may explain up to 75 percent of the so called missing women in China.11 She relies on evidence that female carriers of hepatitis B are more likely to give birth to boys than girls. Some demographers have challenged her results, suggesting that the high sex ratios in given provinces correspond better to the cultural explanation of son preference than the prevalence of hepatitis B.12 Even if hepatitis B were responsible for an underlying imbalance, Oster concedes that the increasingly skewed sex ratio in many places is likely attributable to technological advances and the resultant decreased costs of exercising a son preference.13 In addition, vaccinations for hepatitis B have become nearly universal, so even if it explains an existing ratio, Oster's theory fails to predict future trends.14 In fact, if the son preference remains constant, the decline of hepatitis B incidences should create a compensating mechanism of increased sex selective abordons.15

Chinese families possess multiple mechanisms for daughter discrimination. While Chinese couples once relied on faulty folk methods for determining fetuses' sex,16 advancements in reproductive technology allow most couples to accurately assess their fetuses' sex relatively early in the pregnancy. …

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