Sex-selective Abortion in China
December 17, 2020
During my last year in middle school, I moved into a dorm with my friend, Andra. While I don’t remember most of the things that happened in our time together, the day she cried is still clear in my memory. I accidentally saw a text from Andra’s mom to my mom. The text was not about school or a grade. Instead, it read, “I am finally pregnant with a boy. I have always wanted a boy. Boys are great.” The anger made my fingers shake and lose control. I threw the phone on the sofa, walked into Andra’s room without knocking, and repeated what I saw to Andra. She opened her shaky lips, asked if what I read was real, and kept telling me what I saw was not true. She cried and called me a liar, but no matter how much she didn’t want to believe it, these cruel words stayed carved in her mind. I saw her eyes fill with tears and watched a whole box of tissues disappear. The text deeply hurt me and made me sympathize with Andra’s vulnerability as a girl in a family that values boys more than girls.
The main reason China still has gender disparity and a preference for sons can be traced back to the rural basis of Chinese society. In primitive and patriarchal society 4000 years ago, women played a subordinate role to men because of their physical disadvantages in farming and hunting. Men usually did farming and heavy labor because they usually had more physical strength and stamina than women, while women ran the chores at home. The roles of men and women were also different as people tended to assume that a son had the responsibility to look after the elderly, while a daughter became a part of her husband’s family after marriage. Parents wanted sons rather than daughters to ensure that someone would provide socio-economic security for the elders. In Chinese society, deeply influenced by Confucianism, women learned to follow the “three obediences and four virtues,” which taught women to behave modestly and morally, and to follow the guidance provided by their fathers, husbands, and even sons. Starting in 2001, the government began fully implementing the one-child policy. Parents in urban areas would pay fines and lose their jobs if they decided to have more than one child. In the experience of Wu Rongrong, a leading Chinese feminist, this policy caused young girls to be viewed as worthless in Chinese rural areas; the one-child policy further increased abortion rates. According to an extensive population survey conducted in 2005 and led by Binghamton University professor Weixing Zhu, sex-selective abortions led to more than 1.1 million excess births of boys that year.
Preference for sons has brought negative consequences for both men and women. Women suffer from diminished self-confidence, while single men, unable to find wives, struggle to take care of themselves later in life. Son preference also plays a role in domestic violence, as supported by a study conducted in 2018 by University of California San Francisco professor Nadia Diamond-Smith and University of California Berkeley professor Kara Rudolph. When males are taught to dominate the family and receive respect at all times, some males receive the message that they have the right to exert physical and psychological control over their families in the future. A small percentage use that as an excuse to harm their female partners, and some fathers even take their anger out on their daughters.
Fortunately, son preference has been lessening with the idea of gender equality in the Chinese constitution, founded in 1949. On a local scale, many movements regarding gender equality have flourished. One notable example was the gender education forum launched by Professor Ai at Sun Yat-sen University in 2003 to organize activities aimed to eliminate gender stereotypes and promote liberation for women.
As China has become more involved on the world stage, Western ideas have helped shape Chinese perspectives on women’s status and rights, leading many to realize that women should have the same opportunities as men. Both sexes enjoy more equal access to education and inheritance is distributed more equally between sons and daughters. Parents have further recognized the importance of developing girls to their fullest potential and helping them pursue their career and academic goals.
Another important reason for the declining preference for sons is that people in rural areas have become less reliant on subsistence agriculture. Since the start of the government’s policy “Measures of the Poverty Alleviation Office of The State Council for the administration of information and Publicity” to alleviate poverty in 2013, the living conditions of 85% of the rural population have greatly improved and fewer people plant crops by hand. Today, most Chinese place much less emphasis on physical strength than in days past. The mind, a plane on which women and men compete on more equal terms, is seen as more valuable than the body.
Fully eliminating son preference in China is a matter of changing the way people think. Although the situation is improving for females, inequality still endures, even in the workplace. It is only through continuous empowerment for girls that a brighter future will be achieved.