Spots of Time

March 04, 2005

The Problem With Girl Babies

Sushama comes from a modern, educated family in Mumbai (Bombay), India. She is the eldest of three girls with a father who allowed the girls to wear western clothes in the 1970s, a time when most women in India still wore only saris. She was married in an arranged marriage and soon after became pregnant with her first child. When the child was born, however, there was no celebration. Was the child sick? Was the child deformed? Was the child stillborn? No. The child was a girl.

Sushama's mother-in-law verbally abused her, blaming her for having a girl instead of the more desirable boy. She caused so much abuse that Sushama had a mental breakdown and could not leave the hospital for weeks. The little girl was sent to live with Sushama's parents - an arrangement that was maintained for most of the little girl's life.

Sushama's husband would not stand up to his mother, siding with her over his wife, and causing Sushama to despair. In a country where a woman without a husband is considered to be nothing, she too became torn between the love for her newborn and her duty to her husband. Lucky for her, she had grown up in a loving, supporting family - one where women were not looked down upon as second-class citizens. While Sushama tried to work things out with her husband, her child was well-taken care of by two people who adored her – her maternal grandparents.

Sushama’s tale is so common in India that it hardly causes a stir. I’d read about things like this in books, but always imagined they happened to uneducated women from rural areas. But, when she told me the story, I was shocked. So was she, actually. "If this can happen to me, an educated woman, what hope do the poor, uneducated women have?" she lamented.

In China, one of the teachers I worked with was pregnant with her first and (according to Chinese law) only child. When I asked her if she wanted a girl or a boy, she said: "Well, personally, I would rather have a boy." "WHY do you want a boy?" I asked. She said, "Well, the truth is, I don't care. But, my mother-in-law and father-in-law (whom she and her husband lived with at the time) both want a boy. I only want to have one baby. If I have a girl, I'm afraid they will make me have another child."

MAKE me have another child? I was confused. "Isn't it only possible to have one baby in China?" I asked. The teacher said that in most cases the answer was yes. But, if a family wanted to have a second child, they could pay the government 10,000 yuan, or about $1200 US dollars, to have another baby. By US standards, the sum does not seem dramatic or prohibitive. But, in China, 10,000 yuan is equivalent to the average Chinese persons’ yearly income. And yet, many Chinese with a girl child will pay this, going into huge debt, in the hopes that the second child will be male.

Both of these woman grew up in societies where boy children were valued over girl children – so much so that sex-selective abortions and female infanticide are common, usual tales. In rural areas of India, women with little or no education still know the Hindu word for amniocentesis despite the procedure being mostly illegal for sex determination. In China, orphanages are overflowing with abandoned girl babies – so many that every year China allows thousands of them to be adopted by families overseas, including America.

In September 2004, The Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com) ran a story (“China Faces Future As Land of Boys”) about China’s increasing disparity between girl children and boy children. According to the article, which refers to census figures from 2000, 117 boys are born for every 100 girls in China. The norm for most countries is 104 boys for every 100 girls. In America, the figures are 105 males for every 100 females.

In most countries this number eventually balances itself out – in the US, for example, the number ratio equals itself out by the age of 15 years. The larger difference in the ratio in countries like China and India, however, causes an imbalance of the sexes that is already resulting in some shocking practices, such as the kidnapping of rural Chinese women to serve as wives for men who aren’t able to procure one on their own. Social scientists estimated that there are 100 million “missing” girls between India and China today. In China, these scientists are predicting a future where as many as 15% of Chinese men won’t have wives.

China is not alone in the missing girls phenomenon. The same CSM article indicated that in Punjab, a northern state in India, 126 boys are born for every 100 girls. Even in areas where the ratio is closer, the bias in favor of boy children persists. When my roommate Leila was traveling in India recently, she met a beautiful young Indian woman on the beach in Goa. They got to talking and the woman told Leila she had 3 boys. When Leila said, “Oh, no girls?” the woman said, “Girls have no value in India.” She was stating what, in her mind, was an undisputed fact.

This is not to say that both countries are ignoring the problems – in fact, many efforts are underway to remedy the problems. In China, the government is testing out programs that provide supplementary income to families with girl children. In India, NGOs travel to villages providing free medical care and encouraging and educating women to take care of their children – both boys and girls.

But, changing the values and mores of a culture will take more than minor government intervention and grassroots NGO efforts, especially when the bias in favor of boys goes back hundreds – even thousands – of years. Dowry in India has been outlawed since 1961 and infanticide since 1870 – yet both practices are so prevalent and widespread that most uneducated people don’t even know the laws exist. To them, the difference between infanticide and abortion are purely financial.

China and India are the two easiest countries to focus upon when it comes to the preference for boy children over girl children. They are the two most populous countries in the world, accounting for 2/5 of the world’s population. But, bias for boy babies exists in other countries too. Even in America.

In 1974, in the very American city of Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was born, my Serbian-born grandmother, upon finding out that my mother’s first child was a girl said, “Too bad its not a boy.” Yet, I don’t blame my grandmother for wishing I was a boy – that was how she was taught. And, her opinion did nothing to affect how my mother or my father felt about me. Still, I’m sure she expressed a big sigh of relief the following year when my brother was born – the Vuynovich name was still secure.

In truth, I’m in good company. When Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India, was born, the story goes that her own mother said, “Such a pity she is not a boy.” Her father, Jawarhal Nehru, the first president of an independent India, snapped at her and said, “How do you know this girl won’t grow up to become prime minister one day?” Indira was lucky – she was born into an educated, well-off family with a clearly progressive father. Most Indian women are no so lucky.

There are arguments that can be made for why, in some cases and some countries, having boy children is considered not only preferable but also vital to survival. I’m not here to argue that an impoverished Indian family, burdened with the imposed tradition of bridal dowry, isn’t at a financial disadvantage for having girl children over boy children. For them, the value proposition for having girls just doesn’t exist. An extra mouth to feed, a huge bridal dowry and the knowledge that the woman will ultimately leave home and become incorporated into her husbands family makes it tough to argue in favor of girls. On the other hand, it is well known that a boy child will stay with the family and in many cases, provide for his parents in their old age. Even from where I stand, I can see the logic in this picture.

But, what it difficult for me is that the preference for boy babies that still exists in places where situations like these don’t exist. Often, for the purely egotistical sake of “continuing the family name.”

You might think that middle and upper class families in India and China, those that live in more urban areas, might feel differently about boy children vs. girl children. In both countries, it has become more and more common for women to hold jobs and careers, as well as undertake the burden of caring for their parents in their old age. And, the argument of strong bodies to work the fields is also null and void.

A book by Elizabeth Bumiller, a writer for The New York Times, proves otherwise. In her book, “May You Be The Mother of One Hundred Sons,” she interviewed Indian women in rural and urban areas, from rich and poor families, from educated and uneducated backgrounds – all with very similar results. While the percentages were slightly different, the preference was usually the same. Boys over girls – almost every single time.

I remember one story particularly well. A Mumbai society woman was interviewed about her desire to have another child. She already had three girls. But, there she was in one of the ob/gyn offices, trying to find out if her next child was a boy or a girl. She explained that if the unborn baby turned out to be a girl, she would abort it. She said that she was tired of being whispered about at parties – “Oh, poor thing, she only has girls.”

Even though the book was written about 10 years ago, things in India have not really changed – something I witnessed first hand last year while I stayed with Sushama and her family in Mumbai.

I don't know what ever happened to Sushama's husband. Her story was interrupted by the arrival of her 20-year old daughter, Shweta, a beautiful happy woman who only frowned once when I talked to her – at the mention of her father. I know he is almost never mentioned, and that the family photo albums do not show a single picture. Though there are a few wedding photos of Sushama, they all seem oddly shaped. When you look closer you can see that someone has been cut or torn out of each of them.

One day I hope to have children of my own. And, though my first hope is that the child is born healthy and happy, I must admit to a slight prejudice of my own – in favor of a girl baby. While boy children born into almost any country in the world are celebrated and cherished, the sad fact of life is that the same is not true for girl children. Since the bias is mild at best in the land of my birth, I feel like it’s my duty.