Female infanticide does not only occur in India and China, but in this case study we will focus on those two countries, which are also two of the most populous countries in the world.
Note: China does not longer have a one-child policy. It was replaced with a two-child policy in 2015, and a three-child policy in 2021. This is expected to greatly decrease the prevalence of female infanticide and sex-selective abortions in China.
In this article, female infanticide is the sex-selective killings of newborn female children due to a preference for male children. It typically results from, and is a reflection of, the low status of females in the surrounding culture, where males – and therefore also boys – are seen as more valuable than women and girls.
Other observable results of this anti-female bias is the neglect of female children in comparison to male children, and the prioritizing of male children over female children, e.g. when it comes to parental attention, health care, education, and economic spending.
In both India and China, the preference for male children has also resulted in a prevalence of sex-selective abortions, where female foetuses are aborted specifically for being female.
As mentioned above, female infanticide is by no means unique to India and China today, and has not been limited to these nations in history either. One example from history is from classical Greece circa 200 BCE, where female infanticide was so common that, among 6,000 families living in Delphi no more than 1% had two or more daughters.
(Source: R.J Rummel,”Death by Government”, pp. 65-66.)
Female infanticide in India
Widespread female infanticide is not a new occurrence in India, and it is a practice that have proven difficult to root out.
When demographic statistics were first collected in India in the 1800s CE, it was discovered that in some villages, there were no female infants. In one report from 30 Indian villages, there were 343 boys to 54 girls. This was due to the widespread practice of female infanticide. (Source: R.J Rummel,”Death by Government”, pp. 65-66.)
Even though India changed in numerous ways in the 20th century, the tradition of female infanticide persisted. In his 1994 article, John-Thor Dahlburg notes how “in rural India, the centuries-old practice of female infanticide can still be considered a wise course of action.”. (Source: John-Thor Dahlburg, “Where killing baby girls ‘is no big sin’,” The Los Angeles Times [in The Toronto Star, February 28, 1994].)
Dahlburg´s article goes on to mention a few of the various horrifying ways in which 196 female infants died under suspicious circumstances in 300 poor hamlets in the Usilampatti area of Tamil Nadu in southern India in 1993. According to the article, some were simply left to starve to death, while others were smothered with a wet towel, strangled, were made to swallow toxic powdered fertilizer, or were fed dry, unhulled rice that punctured their windpipes.
Dahlburg profiles one case from Tamil Nadu in more detail:
“Lakshmi already had one daughter, so when she gave birth to a second girl, she killed her. For the three days of her second child’s short life, Lakshmi admits, she refused to nurse her. To silence the infant’s famished cries, the impoverished village woman squeezed the milky sap from an oleander shrub, mixed it with castor oil, and forced the poisonous potion down the newborn’s throat. The baby bled from the nose, then died soon afterward. Female neighbors buried her in a small hole near Lakshmi’s square thatched hut of sunbaked mud. They sympathized with Lakshmi, and in the same circumstances, some would probably have done what she did. For despite the risk of execution by hanging and about 16 months of a much-ballyhooed government scheme to assist families with daughters, in some hamlets of … Tamil Nadu, murdering girls is still sometimes believed to be a wiser course than raising them. “A daughter is always liabilities. How can I bring up a second?” Lakshmi, 28, answered firmly when asked by a visitor how she could have taken her own child’s life eight years ago. “Instead of her suffering the way I do, I thought it was better to get rid of her.”
(Source: John-Thor Dahlburg, “Where killing baby girls ‘is no big sin’,” The Los Angeles Times [in The Toronto Star, February 28, 1994].)
Religious / ethnic differences
A study carried out in Tamil Nadu by the Community Service Guild of Madras found that female infanticide was rampant in the state, but only among Hindu families – not Muslim or Christian families. (Source: Malavika Karlekar, “The girl child in India: does she have any rights?,” Canadian Woman Studies, March 1995.)
Reasons for female infanticide in Hindu families in India
The reasons why families chose to keep their boy children and murder one or several of their female infants are multi-fold. Two often brought up reasons are economic; sons grow up to provide for the family while daughters grow up to cost the family in the form of a dowry.
Sons provide income
“Sons are called upon to provide the income; they are the ones who do most of the work in the fields. In this way sons are looked to as a type of insurance. With this perspective, it becomes clearer that the high value given to males decreases the value given to females.” (Marina Porras, “Female Infanticide and Foeticide”.)
Dowries are costly
The institution of dowry, where the family of the bride must pay enormous sums of money to the family of the bridegroom, has been outlawed in India but is still thriving. It is up to the family of the prospective bridegroom to name what they want – often a combination of cash and sought-after products – and if the family of the bride cannot or will not pay, the engagement will be broken off. Alternatively, the wedding will take place, but the family of the bride will be harassed to keep contributing money to the family of the groom afterwards, and refusal to pay can result in the murder of the bride.
Even for comparatively poor families, the dowries can be set very high, especially in combination with wedding expenses.
“The combination of dowry and wedding expenses usually add up to more than a million rupees ([US] $35,000). In India the average civil servant earns about 100,000 rupees ($3,500) a year. Given these figures combined with the low status of women, it seems not so illogical that the poorer Indian families would want only male children.” (Maria Porras, “Female Infanticide and Foeticide”.)
Female infanticide and the link to sex-selective abortions in India
The advent of modern pre-natal care and diagnostics have made it possible for a couple to find out, with a fair degree of certainty, if they are expecting a girl or a boy, twins, etcetera.
In India, the ability to find out if a foetus is male or female is being used by many families to decide whether or not to abort it.
In his 1994 article, Dahlburg noted that in the city of Japipur “(…) prenatal sex determination tests result in an estimated 3,500 abortions of female fetuses annually, according to a medical-college study”.
Even more strikingly, according to UNICEF, “A report from Bombay in 1984 on abortions after prenatal sex determination stated that 7,999 out of 8,000 of the aborted fetuses were females.” (Source: Zeng Yi et al., “Causes and Implications of the Recent Increase in the Reported Sex Ratio at Birth in China,” Population and Development Review, 19: 2 [June 1993], p. 297.)
As Malavika Karlekar points out, the pregnant woman is often in a precarious position and may not have much saying in the abortion decision. “(…) those women who undergo sex determination tests and abort on knowing that the foetus is female are actively taking a decision against equality and the right to life for girls. In many cases, of course, the women are not independent agents but merely victims of a dominant family ideology based on preference for male children.” (Source: Malavika Karlekar, “The girl child in India: does she have any rights?,” Canadian Woman Studies, March 1995.)
The down-prioritizing of girls in India
Above, we have looked at female infanticide and sex-selective abortions in India. Two other ways that the bias against girls in India is shown is access to food and health-care for those girls that are not killed in infancy. Compared to boys, girls growing up in India have a higher risk for malnutrition, and are more likely to not receive health-care as needed.
When it comes to nutrition, Malavika Karlekar cites research which indicate that Indian boys are prioritized when it comes to more valuable food, such as milk and eggs. In Rajastan and Uttar Pradesh, it is common for men and boys to eat first, and for women and girls to eat afterwards – and to eat less food than males and boys. (Source: Malavika Karlekar, “The girl child in India: does she have any rights?,” Canadian Woman Studies, March 1995.)
It would be easy to assume that this type of discrimination is limited to very poor families, or that it only happens in the countryside where more modern ways have not yet come into practice – but those assumptions are not backed up by research. On the contrary, researcher Sunit Kishor reported back in the 1990s about how “(…) despite the increased ability to command essential food and medical resources associated with development, female children [in India] do not improve their survival chances relative to male children with gains in development. Relatively high levels of agricultural development decrease the life chances of females while leaving males’ life chances unaffected; urbanization increases the life chances of males more than females. … Clearly, gender-based discrimination in the allocation of resources persists and even increases, even when availability of resources is not a constraint.” (Kishor, “‘May God Give Sons to All’: Gender and Child Mortality in India,” American Sociological Review, 58: 2 [April 1993], p. 262.)
Female infanticide in China
The tradition of female infanticide existed before the foundation of the People´s Republic of China in 1949. It decreased sharply in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but emerged again in the 1980s after the implementation of the one-child policy, through which the Chinese government sought to curb the country´s population growth by restricting most families to having just one child. (Source: Zeng Yi et al., “Causes and Implications of the Recent Increase in the Reported Sex Ratio at Birth in China,” Population and Development Review, 19: 2 [June 1993], p. 294.)
Regarding the situation prior to the formation of the People´s Republic, researchers Coal and Banister write about how a missionary in late 19th century China interviewed 40 women over the age of 50, who reported having born 183 sons and 175 daughters. Of these, 126 sons survived to at least 10 years of age, while that number for the daughters was only 53. By their account, the women had destroyed 78 of their daughters. (Source: Ansely J. Coale and Judith Banister, “Five Decades of Missing Females in China,” Demography, 31: 3 [August 1994], p. 472.)
In traditional Chinese culture, the bride leaves her own family and becomes a part of her husband´s family upon marriage. Therefore, Chinese parents would need one or more sons to ensure that someone would stay with them and provide for them in their old age.
After the formation of the People´s Republic of China, there was a decrease in excess female mortality; a decline which according to Coale and Banister (p. 472) was actively assisted by the actions of the Chinese government who sought to remove this custom alongside many other traditional practices that it saw as harmful.
The one-child policy
China´s one-child policy was introduced in 1979 in an effort to reduce the population growth. A couple not adhering to the policy faced wage-cuts and reduced access to social services. Later on, the Chinese government also began carrying out forced abortions – regardless of sex of the foetus – when a woman was discovered to be pregnant in violation of the one-child policy.
In their book “The Missing Girls of China”, Johansson and Nygren report that while “sex ratios [were] generally within or fairly near the expected range of 105 to 106 boys per 100 girls for live births within the plan … they are, in contrast, clearly far above normal for children born outside the plan, even as high as 115 to 118 for 1984-87. That the phenomenon of missing girls in China in the 1980s is related to the government’s population policy is thus conclusively shown.” (Source: Sten Johansson and Ola Nygren, “The Missing Girls of China: A New Demographic Account,” Population and Development Review, 17: 1 [March 1991], pp. 40-41.)
The Chinese government made changes to the one-child plan in the mid-1980s, and allowed families in rural areas to have a second child if their first child was a daughter. Exceptions from the plan were also allowed for certain other groups, including ethnic minorities. Despite these modifications, the boys continued to outnumber the girls in China, by far more than than what could be explained by the natural sex ratio at birth (which is 103-107 boys per 100 girls). In September 1997, the World Health Organization´s Regional Committee for the Western Pacific issued a report claiming that more than 50 million women were now “missing” in China due to the bias for boys combined with the one-child policy.
By the late 1990s, China was facing harsh criticism abroad regarding this subject. Joseph Farah went as far as calling it “the biggest single holocaust in human history” while Peter Stockland published an article in The Calgary Sun with the headline “China´s baby-slaughter overlooked”.
Sources: Joseph Farah, “Cover-up of China’s gender-cide”, Western Journalism Center/FreeRepublic, September 29, 1997 and Peter Stockland, “China’s baby-slaughter overlooked,” The Calgary Sun, June 11, 1997
Citing a report from the World Health Organization, Farah also pointed out how girls in China tended to receive less health-care when needed compared to boys. “In many cases, mothers are more likely to bring their male children to health centers — particularly to private physicians — and they may be treated at an earlier stage of disease than girls.” (Cited in Joseph Farah, “Cover-up of China’s gender-cide”.)
As predicted, the imbalanced sex ratio existing in China from the early 1980s and onward created problems when that generation became old enough to seek partners and marriage. As early as 1999, Jonathan Manthorpe referenced a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, claiming that “the imbalance between the sexes is now so distorted that there are 111 million men in China — more than three times the population of Canada — who will not be able to find a wife.”
In his article, Manthorpe also reported that this imbalance had already increased the instances of kidnapping and slave-trading of women. “Since 1990, say official Chinese figures, 64,000 women — 8,000 a year on average — have been rescued by authorities from forced ‘marriages’. The number who have not been saved can only be guessed at. (…) The thirst for women is so acute that the slave trader gangs are even reaching outside China to find merchandise. There are regular reports of women being abducted in such places as northern Vietnam to feed the demand in China.” (Jonathan Manthorpe, “China battles slave trading in women: Female infanticide fuels a brisk trade in wives,” The Vancouver Sun, January 11, 1999.)
After softening the one-child policy somewhat in the mid-1980s, the Chinese government took additional steps in the 1990s to combat infanticide and the sex ratio imbalance. Among other things, they employed the Marriage Law and the Women´s Protection Law, two laws that both prohibit female infanticide. The Women´s Protection Law also prohibits discrimination of women who give birth to female children. The new Maternal Health Care Law of 1994 strictly prohibited the use of technology to identify the gender of a foetus, but physicians widely ignored that portion of the law and continued to let prospective parents know the sex of the foetus. (Source: Porras, “Female Infanticide and Foeticide”.)
Female infanticide – or other reasons?
Ever since the first reports about the imbalanced sex ratio in China began to surface, it has been difficult to ascertain how much of the imbalance that can actually be attributed to the killing of newborn girls and how much of the imbalance that is due to other factors, such as abortions and not reporting to the authorities that a girl has been born.
In 1993, Zeng et al stated that “underreporting of female births, an increase in prenatal sex identification by ultrasound and other diagnostic methods for the illegal purpose of gender-specific birth control, and [only] very low-level incidence of female infanticide are the causes of the increase in the reported sex ratio at birth in China.” (Souce: Zeng et al., “Causes and Implications,” p. 285.)
On page 289 of their report, Zeng et al state that underreporting of female births accounted for about 43 to 75 percent of the difference between the reported sex ratio at birth during the second half of the 1980s and the normal value of the true sex ratio at birth. In essence: many of the “missing” girls from that period were not aborted as foetuses or killed as infants – they were alive but their births had not been reported. They were missing from the official statistics only.
Zeng et al also stated that underreporting and abortions together explained almost all of the “missing girls”, and that female infanticide was not a big contributing factor to the unbalanced sex ratio. At the same time, the authors stress that “even small numbers of cases of female infanticide, abandonment, and neglect are a serious violation of the fundamental human rights of women and children” (Zeng et al, p. 296).
In their 1991 work, Johansson and Nygren proposed another explanation for some of the discrepancy, which attracted a lot of attention – and controversy – since it was neither female infanticide nor underreporting and sex-selective abortions. Instead, Johansson and Nygren suggested that “adoptions (which often go unreported) account for a large proportion of the missing girls. … If adopted children are added to the live births … the sex ratio at birth becomes much closer to normal for most years in the 1980s. … Adding the adopted children to live births reduces the number of missing girls by about half.” (Source: Sten Johansson and Ola Nygren, “The Missing Girls of China: A New Demographic Account,” Population and Development Review, 17: 1 [March 1991], pp. 40-46.)
Johansson and Nygren also stated on p. 50 “That female infanticide does occur on some scale is evidenced by reports in the Chinese press, but the available statistical evidence does not help us to determine whether it takes place on a large or a small scale.”
While we are on the subject of adoptions, it needs to be brought up that we now in the 20th century know that many of the Chinese children that were intended to be adopted out never reached the hands of any adoptive parents. Instead, they died in the horrible conditions prevailing at many Chinese state orphanages. This was first brought to wider attention through British Channel 4´s award-winning documentary “The Dying Rooms” by Brian Woods, Kate Blewett and Peter Woolrich, which aired in 1995. In one of the orphanages, Woods found that “every single baby … was a girl, and as we moved on this pattern was repeated. The only boys were mentally or physically disabled. 95% of the babies we saw were able-bodied girls. We also discovered that, although they are described as orphans, very few of them actually are; the overwhelming majority do have parents, but their parents have abandoned them, simply because they were born the wrong sex.”
Female infanticide in early 20th century China
In the 20th century, many articles published outside China highlighting the country´s imbalanced sex ratio agreed with the assessment that female infanticide was not a major reason behind the reported imbalance, citing instead factors such as underreporting and sex-selective abortions as the main reasons.
In April 2002, Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in The New York Times about how many “illegal” children in China are not officially reported at birth, and how women moving around more for work within the country has made it more difficult for the authorities to monitor pregnancies, as well as they, did before. According to Rosenthal, unannounced spot checks carried out by the State Statistics Bureau revealed undercounts of up to 40% in some villages. (Source: Elisabeth Rosenthal, “China’s Widely Flouted One-Child Policy Undercuts Its Census”, The New York Times, April 14, 2000.)
In a 2002 article published in The Guardian, John Gittings cited a then-new national census report from China which showed more than 116 male births recorded for every 100 female births. According to Gittings, the imbalance was chiefly due to sex-selective abortions, and he wrote that “Female infanticide, notorious in China’s past as a primitive method of sex selection, is now thought to be infrequent.” Source: John Gittings, “Growing Sex Imbalance Shocks China”, The Guardian, May 13, 2002.
Is under-reporting unharmful?
Finding that many of China´s “missing girls” had not been killed as infants – and that they were simply missing from the official statistics – was of course a relief to many. Still, not being reported at birth is not without issues, as it can greatly reduce a person´s opportunities in both childhood and adulthood.
“If parents do hide the birth of a baby girl, she will go unregistered and therefore will not have any legal existence. The child may have difficulty receiving medical attention, going to school, and [accessing] other state services.” (Porras, “Female Infanticide and Foeticide”.)
2015: China´s one-child policy is abolished
In 2015, China´s one-child policy was abolished and replaced with a two-child policy, which in 2021 was turned into a three-child policy.
When the one-child policy was abolished in 2015, it had already been softened in various ways. As mentioned above, since the 1980s, exceptions could be made for rural families and ethnic minorities. Over time, it became very common for rural families in China to receive permission for two children. In November 2013, the Chinese government announced that urban families would also be allowed to seek permission to have a second child, if one parent was an only child.
The Chinese Communist Party credits the one-child policy with contributing to China´s economic ascendancy and greater workforce participation for women. According to the party, the policy prevented 400 million births, although some scholars have disputed this number.
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