Where Have All the Girls Gone?

It’s true: Western money and advice really did help fuel the explosion of sex selection in Asia.

BY MARA HVISTENDAHL

How did more than 160 million women go missing from Asia? The simple answer is sex selection — typically, an ultrasound scan followed by an abortion if the fetus turns out to be female — but beyond that, the reasons for a gap half the size of the U.S. population are not widely understood. And when I started researching a book on the topic, I didn’t understand them myself.

I thought I would focus on how gender discrimination has persisted as countries develop. The reasons couples gave for wanting boys varies: Sons stayed in the family and took care of their parents in old age, or they performed ancestor and funeral rites important in some cultures. Or it was that daughters were a burden, made expensive by skyrocketing dowries.

But that didn’t account for why sex selection was spreading across cultural and religious lines. Once found only in East and South Asia, imbalanced sex ratios at birth have recently reached countries as varied as Vietnam, Albania, and Azerbaijan. The problem has fanned out across these countries, moreover, at a time when women are driving many developing economies. In India, where women have achieved political firsts still not reached in the United States, sex selection has become so intense that by 2020 an estimated 15 to 20 percent of men in northwest India will lack female counterparts. I could only explain that epidemic as the cruel sum of technological advances and lingering sexism. I did not think the story of sex selection’s spread would lead, in part, to the United States.

Then I looked into it, and discovered that what I thought were right-wing conspiracy theories about the nexus of Western feminism and population control actually had some, if very distant and entirely historical, basis in truth. As it turns out, Western advisors and researchers, and Western money, were among the forces that contributed to a serious reduction in the number of women and girls in the developing world. And today feminist and reproductive-rights groups are still reeling from that legacy.

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