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A Preference Plays Out

August 09, 2004

Recently, I spent several minutes making a particular calculation. The number I ended up with, oddly enough, got me thinking about Rwanda, 1994. Because the number was a million. And over three months in 1994, perhaps I don't need to remind you, Rwanda's Hutus slaughtered about a million of their fellow citizens because they were Tutsis.

That horrible event, we now commonly call genocide.

And what was the calculation I worked on? In 1991, India's Child Sex Ratio (CSR), defined as the number of girls for every 1,000 boys (under 6 years old), was 945. In 2001, it had declined to 927. I set out to calculate, given those two numbers, how many more little Indian girls we would have around us today if that decline had not happened; that is, if the CSR had stayed at 945 instead of subsiding to 927.

Answer: about one million. Do the math yourself if you find that hard to believe. It so startled me that I repeated the exercise, sure I had made some obvious mistake. I hadn't. In that decade, through female infanticide and foeticide, we lost a million little Indian girls.

Hell, let's put it bluntly as it should be: in that decade, our preference for boys caused us to kill a million little Indian girls.

In other words, we perpetrated slaughter in this country on the same scale, if not at the same frenzied pace, as the Hutus did in 1994. Yet it would be fair to say there hasn't been even a tiny fraction of the disbelieving horror here that genocide in Rwanda sparked around the world. Why not?

After all, a million dead in ten years is nearly 300 dead every day of that decade. What would your reaction be if one Air-India jumbo crashed every day for ten years?

The decline in the CSR is the subject of a booklet written by the UN Population Fund, and released late last year by the then Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Sushma Swaraj. Called Missing, the booklet is a firm eye-opener. Not so much for the bald fact of the CSR drop, but for the strands that make up that drop.

For example, where would you say the greatest declines in CSR have been? In some remote area of Chhattisgarh, you think? Try again. What we would call 'backward' areas of India have actually experienced only minor falls in their CSR.

The steepest drops have been in some of the wealthiest parts of India: Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Bombay, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi.

In some areas, the CSR has dipped below 800. Mehsana in Gujarat is at 798, Kurukshetra is 770, Fatehgarh Sahib in Punjab languishes at 754.

What's the most obvious consequence of these trends? Men are starting to find it difficult to get brides. Which should be no surprise: if Fatehgarh Sahib's ratio persists into adulthood, every fourth man won't have a woman to marry in the area. There has been a steady trickle of reports from Gujarat about young men, well past the 'marriageable age,' having to go far afield to find wives. They even had to pay tens of thousands of rupees for the women: dowry turned upside down.

And that's only the lucky men who did find wives outside their home districts. The numbers tell the simple truth: plenty of men, all around the country, will remain unmarried. There are, there will be, no women to marry them.

But are there any other consequences of these trends? Apart from the ethics of a dislike for daughters and a preference for sons, of putting girls to death sometimes even before they are born, of the sheer dimensions of this slaughter -- apart from all this, should we take note of this phenomenon? Should a society be concerned that it is 'missing' large numbers of women, and therefore a large number of its young men will almost certainly remain single?

Yes, say two researchers, Andrea den Boer of the University of Kent in England and Valerie Hudson at Brigham Young University in the US. In China, they have a phrase for such young men: 'guang gun-er', or 'bare branches.' That is, these men are the branches on family trees that won't bear fruit -- they won't have children. den Boer and Hudson use that name for their new book, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population (MIT Press, May 2004).

The title gives you a hint of the bare branch thesis: the growing imbalance between men and women is, by itself, a threat to peace and democracy. As the authors wrote in the New York Times, 'young adult men with no stake in society -- of the lowest socioeconomic classes and with little chance of forming families of their own -- are much more prone to attempt to improve their situation through violent and criminal behavior in a strategy of coalitional aggression with other bare branches.'

The increased violence is a serious problem for societies. den Boer and Hudson cite medieval Portugal, where a strong preference for first-born boys led to a surplus of young males (those born later, who could not inherit and marry). There is evidence that Portugal's rulers deliberately, even cynically, planned military ventures abroad so they could use these men, turn them away from violence, get rid of them. China has had episodes of violence in its history that have been linked to similar male surpluses.

The point den Boer and Hudson make is simple: populations in China and India in particular -- but also Pakistan and other Asian countries -- are getting seriously skewed in favour of men. They estimate that by 2020, both countries will have about 30 million surplus men aged 15 to 34. This imbalance will profoundly influence policy in these countries. Absent a turnaround in the preference for sons, governments must search for ways to reduce the numbers of these men, the violence they cause. They will try to send the men away. They will turn more authoritarian as they crack down on violence. They will be tempted, says Hudson, to get the men 'to give their lives in a patriotic cause.' (Like in Portugal).

For these reasons, feel den Boer and Hudson, the prospects for democracy in this part of the world are dimming. More troubling, they believe the long-running conflicts here -- Kashmir, Taiwan -- will not find peace. Because it will indeed be tempting to sell patriotism to those extra men and send them into war. Which is even easier if the war's on your doorstep.

Now it's not that you have to accept the bare branch theory. For one thing, conflicts and authoritarian states flourish in areas where the sex ratio is not skewed at all: Rwanda itself and Chile come to mind. For another, other reasons also keep conflicts going: religion in Northern Ireland, for example. Besides, even methodologically I imagine den Boer and Hudson need to examine more countries, with a range of sex ratios, before drawing firm conclusions about links between violence, conflict and that ratio.

Nevertheless, for better or worse, they put thoughts in your mind. Perhaps you think it's a stretch to attribute Kashmir to a preference for sons. But what is no stretch at all is the present-day legacy of that preference: the sliding sex ratio.

Think of it the next time you hear about crimes committed by young men. Or the next time you read about a plane crashing. Or even the next time you hear about patriotism.

You can send me your comments at

Dilip D'Souza

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Number of User Comments: 19

Sub: Welcome Back Dilip

Dilip: Welcome back, after a long time. Good article but the article doesnt befit your status.Please get some articles rolling on BJP bashing! Dude,for a ...

Posted by Rajesh

Sub: Very disturbing......

After a long time, Dilip D'Souza is back! Many of your articles have been very thought-provolking. This is a national shame and something HAS to ...

Posted by Lak

Sub: Do the numbers again.. No wolf cries please

Dear Dilip, I didn't dare to go back and check your numbers, but let me put it bluntly, even if your calculations are right, change ...

Posted by manujsk

Sub: my my now mention Northern Ireland

Well d'souza, this is a bit off track, but you mentioned Northern Ireland in this article. I suppose this is to show that you are ...

Posted by rajan

Sub: Sex Ratios

interesting topic but what should be the remedy. the figures are surprising if they are!!!

Posted by prasad


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