by Kate Gilles, policy analyst, International Programs
A direct consequence of prenatal sex selection is that fewer girls are born relative to the number of boys born. In some countries, the situation is becoming more extreme, and dramatic reductions in the numbers of girls born have led to a “scarcity” of women. Some argue that these reductions can have positive outcomes for women because following the law of “supply and demand,” their value will increase as their numbers shrink. In fact, the opposite may prove to be true.
The problem with the “supply and demand” argument is that it overlooks the gender norms and social realities of sex selection. In patriarchal societies where sex selection is practiced, men hold the power. A woman’s life is more often controlled by her father, brother, or husband than by the woman herself. In these settings, a woman’s value is perceived not in terms of her worth as an individual but as a family possession or asset. Under these conditions, a shortage of women does not miraculously lead to greater freedom and empowerment for women, but rather to increased subjugation—and potentially—abuse, as men tighten their control over an increasingly valuable commodity.
Evidence that women become more vulnerable as their numbers diminish can already be seen in a number of countries, including India and China (two countries with the longest and most extreme records of sex selection). For example, one might expect the custom of dowry (the payment made by the bride’s family to the groom’s family at marriage) to decrease or disappear as the pool of available brides shrinks. However, not only has the practice persisted, the size of payments has increased and the custom has been adopted in areas where it wasn’t common before. China, India, and Vietnam have all documented increased trafficking of women, forced marriage, and early marriage as the ranks of bachelors rises relative to the number of potential brides. The “bride shortage” means that men are marrying later and women are marrying earlier, increasing the age difference—and therefore the power imbalance—between a husband and wife, which decreases the wife’s autonomy and increases her risk of experiencing violence or abuse. Men are also looking further afield for wives, and women who move far from where they were born are at greater risk of isolation and abuse.
Clearly, sex selection and the resulting scarcity of girls and women, far from advancing women’s position in society, perpetuate and exacerbate gender inequality and discrimination against women. As the ranks of women shrink, their power becomes more limited and their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse grows. Sex selection contributes to the invisibility of women figuratively and literally, by reducing their power along with their physical presence.