New Internationalist

Disappearing girls


Photo by travelmeasia under a CC License.

A recent news item about China shocked me. Though why, I don’t know. It was the most logical, natural consequence of China’s one-child, little emperor policy. Not empress, please note. Families in China, like those in many parts of India, have been aborting female fetuses for many decades. The heir apparent must be a male.

The story in question will probably give feminists a laugh. It’s a tragicomedy of sorts. But like Punjabi males who have to go to India’s poorer states for brides, Chinese men are now looking to Korea and Vietnam for women to marry. And, apparently, many Chinese bachelors are being taken for a ride.

Agents provide Vietnamese and Korean girls for a fat fee. But quite a few of these reluctant brides disappear after getting money from the men. The grooms are left, not merely desolate, but also with their bank accounts considerably depleted. I can almost hear some of my friends saying, ‘Why shed tears for them? It serves the bastards right!’ The story went on to say Korean and Vietnamese agents were promising to replace the model if the bride bolted! The ads read: ‘Buy one, get one free.’


For the girls, it’s not funny. It’s highly probable that the brides in question are being trafficked from one Chinese groom to the other. It’s also likely that the money, as in most trafficking cases, is going to pimps and agents, not to the poor women or their families. And not much was revealed about the girls. Were they willing brides? Or coerced, kidnapped, brutalized women?

I’ve always thought of unwanted girls as being a particularly Indian phenomenon. This Chinese tale made me take another look at the whole South Asian scenario. I don’t know about the dowry scene in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka. But in these countries boys are definitely preferred to girls. I also know little about the Southeast Asian scenario. Are girls valued there? The situation for women in Thailand, which I witnessed for the first time in the seventies, is shocking. In the poorer regions it seems that many girls are valued because of the income they can generate in the sex trade when they reach puberty. Even official government brochures advertised the girls as a tourist attraction.

In Tamil Nadu, south India, cribs are placed in special centres, begging women to leave their unwanted newborn girls in them instead of killing them. Is this a solution, I grimly wonder. Female infanticide is a fact of life. I recall a feminist friend, Kamla Bhasin’s angst, 'I have worked for the women’s movement all my adult life, for over forty years, and yet the figures for dowry deaths, female foeticide and infanticide are higher today than when I started.'

But will the millions of missing girls change the way society values its women?

I don’t see women being valued. They are needed to gratify men’s sexual appetites, to produce more sons, to perpetuate the species.

The future for India and China, galloping economies or not, is grim. A society with a massive gender imbalance is doomed. It’s a twist in the tale that Malthusian theory didn't explain. But it’s a part of history that needs careful documenting. How, as the world’s most ancient civilizations became modern, did they regress into venal, sick societies? 

But there is another question: is it better to have never been born, than born into a second-rate life of domestic abuse and perhaps violent death? It’s a question better left unasked of those baby girls, cursed from the second they enter the world. What a pathetic indictment of our society.

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