In 2007, the United Nations Population Fund published a study that argued there were 60 million "missing" girls in Asia, a direct result of female infanticide (Karabin, 2007). Infanticide, by definition, is the unlawful killing of very young children, and in some cultures this practice is conducted against female babies in particular. The result is that countries like China have a serious population imbalance, with many more males than females (BBC, 2012). This paper will examine the issue of female infanticide in China, its causes and what potential solutions there might be to this serious problem.
Lee (1981) notes that female infanticide has long been practiced in China. Writing just after the introduction of the one-child policy in China, Lee notes that "this form of discrimination against women…persisted in varying degrees over hundreds of years." She outlines the techniques used to commit the crime: "drowning in 'baby-ponds', immersion in cold or boiling water, suffocation, strangulation, burying alive or more commonly abandonment or exposure." Even though the practice was widespread, she notes that few families would speak about it. Infant mortality was also an issue, so it was often easy to cover up the crime because dead infants were commonplace, from any number of causes.
Lee's extensive study shows that the practice was common before the one-child policy came into effect. Female infanticide in China has its roots in Confucianism, one of China's dominant philosophical traditions. Confucianism has a strong male bias, leading couples to want their first child to be a boy. Under Confucianism, boys are more desirable because they work and therefore can provide security to parents in old age, and males are important for ancestral rites (BBC, 2012). The implementation of the one-child policy in 1979 only aggravated the problem.
One Child Policy
Facing mounting social, economic and environmental pressures brought about by a rapidly growing population, China implemented the one-child policy in 1979 (BBC, 2012). Under the policy, most parents are only allowed to have one child. Parents who had additional children would be subject to a wide range of punishments, including having their wages reduced, but upwards to include forced sterilization (Ibid). The one-child policy all but ensured that a segment of the Chinese population would seek to have their one child be male, for both the cultural and economic reasons stated above.
While the policy has curtailed births in China, it has also represented a significant incursion on the reproductive rights of Chinese women. As technology has improved, more Chinese families have access to prenatal screening, which allows them to determine the gender of their child in the womb. Some sources claim that between 500,000 and 750,000 unborn Chinese girls are aborted each year, after the sex screening (BBC, 2012). More are killed after they are born, particularly in areas where access to sex screening is limited.
Of note is the assertion that the One Child Policy expanded female infanticide because urban couples began committing the crime. Prior to 1979, female infanticide was usually only practiced by poor rural families, as only they had specific incentive to do it. The One Child Policy provided incentive for all families, including wealthy urban ones, to kill their female babies, thereby expanding the practice from rural areas to the entire country (Karabin, 2007).
The Chinese government has had a mixed reaction to the practice of female infanticide. Laws have been enacted to combat the problem. For example, marriage law prohibits female infanticide, as does a Women's Protection Law. That law also prohibits discrimination against women who choose to keep female babies. Maternal Health Care law also forbids the use of ultrasound to establish the sex of fetuses, although many families do have sex screening (BBC, 2012). In part, these laws were enacted not to protect the rights of women and infants but rather to help deal with the substantial gender imbalance in China that is causing a certain amount of social unrest (Karabin, 2007). These laws, however, are not necessarily subject to enforcement.
While China is ostensibly governed centrally, the country's size and population require that significant authority is delegated to the local level. It is local officials, therefore, who are typically charged with enforcing not only the provisions of the One Child Policy, but the provisions of the other laws relevant to reproductive rights. This leads to wildly inconsistent application of the statutes. One example had local authorities take an unauthorized male baby from a couple in Hunan, and murder it in front of them (Goodenough, 2008). Also contributing to spotty enforcement of the country's laws is a high level of corruption, especially at the local government level. China has received a score of 3.6 on Transparency International's Corruptions Perceptions Index, meaning that the country has a high level of corruption. Local officials sometimes demand bribes to allow babies to live, which is a good indication that they do not take the laws regarding the protection of infants seriously.
It has been shown that the One Child Policy has exacerbated the problem of female infanticide in China. This has had a number of adverse social effects beyond the infanticide and sex-selective abortions. The country's population growth rate has slowed significantly since the law was introduced. While there is a degree of variation, some regions of China have very high male-to-female imbalances. Guangdong and Hainan both have 130 male births for every 100 female births. Tibet has the lowest figure, which is not surprising given that the Tibetan people do not have a Confucian culture.
There are around 60 million more males in China than there are females. These men cannot find brides, and there could be social unrest because of the permanency of that situation, given that the PRC has committed to the One Child Policy until 2050. There is no solution in sight either, since most East Asian cultures have a similar, if less pronounced gender imbalance (Karabin, 2007).
There are other issues that arise from the gender imbalance as well. One is that the Chinese population appears to have become desensitized to the practice of female infanticide, something that remains abhorred by most cultures (Goodenough, 2008). Further, the policy has left China with a demographic imbalance. Younger generations are becoming progressively smaller, something that will stunt economic growth in China. Ironically, this will in turn make women in the workplace more valuable, increasing the value of baby girls and potentially encouraging reduction in female infanticide.
There are also impacts on Chinese families as well. A generation of only children have been dubbed "Little Emperors" because their parents spoil them. Most Chinese, however, still support the policy as they see it filling a need and have historically had deference to authorities even on matters of reproduction. However, some social costs do exist. The forced abortions and infanticide have led to a high rate of suicide among women in their reproductive years. It has been speculated that the increased pressure to have the right kind of child, and the devaluation of the female, have contributed to the rise in suicides in this demographic (Kane, 1999).
In addition to sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, there has also been a rise in the number of Chinese girls who are abandoned, and ultimately grow up in orphanages. Many are adopted to Western parents, as Chinese parents are uninterested. These orphanages represent a strain on local governments, but they also represent an inadequate upbringing for tens of thousands of Chinese girls. These girls are likely to have reduced access to good education and health care, as they are wards of the state, and other Chinese girls also face the same barriers. Some parents may keep a girl, but hide her from authorities in order to avoid punishment, meaning that she will not receive…