The New York Times' Idea Lab asks a tough question: Why do so many cultures suffer from "missing girls - those aborted, killed as newborns or dead in their first few years from neglect?"

The piece explains:

It is rarely good to be female anywhere in the developing world today, but in India and China the situation is dire: in those countries, more than 1.5 million fewer girls are born each year than demographics would predict, and more girls die before they turn 5 than would be expected. (In China in 2007, there were 1.73 million births - and a million missing girls.) Millions more grow up stunted, physically and intellectually, because they are denied the health care and the education that their brothers receive.

The missing girls phenomenon sounds a bit misleading - it holds the connotation of girls who were born and have disappeared. But this crisis speaks to women who were not given a fair chance at life, either through neglect, infanticide, or gender-specific foeticide. The sad reality researchers uncovered can be summarized thusly:

Nor does a rise in a woman's autonomy or power in the family necessarily counteract prejudice against girls. Researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute have found that while increasing women's decision-making power would reduce discrimination against girls in some parts of South Asia, it would make things worse in the north and west of India. "When women's power is increased," wrote Lisa C. Smith and Elizabeth M. Byron, "they use it to favor boys."

Since many of the cultural traditions favoring boys were rooted in economic necessity or ideas about the afterlife and blessings, many researchers assumed that the problem would be solved alongside the modernization of these nations. However, this has not been the case - apparently, the problem is the worst in some of the wealthiest and most educated districts in China and India, and has even carried over to impact the population of girls in communities who have migrated to the West.


Researchers note:

What Das Gupta discovered is that wealthier and more educated women face this same imperative to have boys as uneducated poor women - but they have smaller families, thus increasing the felt urgency of each birth. In a family that expects to have seven children, the birth of a girl is a disappointment; in a family that anticipates only two or three children, it is a tragedy.

Thus development can worsen, not improve, traditional discrimination.

There is no easy answer to this predicament. While targeted outreach may work, attitudes are slow to change. Even as we see immediate consequences of these decisions (like the issue of bride trafficking, which is a significant problem in multiple nations,) traditions can be slow to overcome. However, the tide may be changing in many areas. In India, officials are celebrating that for the first time in decades, more girls were born than boys in 2008, a direct outgrowth of government campaigns to curb infanticide.


But a more permanent solution would be for people to take an active role in promoting women's equality and stressing that young girls are just as wise of an investment as young boys.

The Daughter Deficit [NY Times]
The bride was 7 [Chicago Tribune]
In India, girls begin to outnumber the boys [The Independent]