California Forum

Crossing Borders: Address ‘missing girls’ abroad and at home

Americans have seen horrifying headlines about high-profile rapes in India, especially the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old student by six men on a public bus in December. A CNN iReport, “India: the Story You Never Wanted to Hear” by an American student studying in India, went viral in August. India, she wrote, was wonderful, “but extremely dangerous for women.”

A month ago, Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, and three House Republicans – Reps. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, Randy Weber of Texas and Mark Meadows of North Carolina – held a hearing on “India’s Missing Girls.” This weekend in San Francisco and in 25 cities in five countries, concerned citizens planned to participate in the fourth annual Global Walk for India’s Missing Girls.

The appalling plight of too many girls and women in India is tied to an underlying gender imbalance. India has 624 million men and 586 million women, according to the 2011 census. That disparity is getting worse. And lest we think this is a faraway problem, the issue of “missing girls” has spread to the United States, and is particularly acute in California with its large numbers of Asian immigrants.

The House hearing came shortly after Bera made an eight-day trip to India, mainly to meet with business and political leaders, and university students. But the issue of “missing girls” and violence against women was inescapable. He met with female doctors in Mumbai, who started the nonprofit SNEHA to work to empower girls and women in local slum communities.

Bera told me it is “incredibly important” for the United States, as a global leader providing investment in the health and rights of women and girls, to leverage its grants to empower groups such as SNEHA to help change a cultural mindset about the preference for male children and gender discrimination.

He came away encouraged by the growing public outcry. He told me that these incidents hurt India’s image, certainly, but there’s a “deeper issue of sexism, women’s empowerment, male views of women.”

The roots of India’s “boy preference” go deep. India has had a Dowry Prohibition Act since 1961, but the practice remains widespread. A bride’s family is expected to pay a dowry to the groom’s family. Further, boys and their brides are expected to care for his parents. Families gain money by having sons and lose money by having daughters.

And now with the advent of relatively inexpensive ultrasound imaging, gender determination has become an industry. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen of Harvard University has written in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books that “Selective abortion of female fetuses – what can be called ‘natality discrimination’ – is a kind of high-tech manifestation of preference for boys.”

In some areas of India, women are so scarce that one woman is being shared by several men. India also has seen buying of women for marriage, i.e., sex trafficking, from areas where women are less scarce. Families also have turned to young child brides to assure their sons marry. Many men cannot marry at all. Witnesses testified at the House hearing that violence against women is worse in areas where sex selection is extensive.

I spoke with independent researcher G. Sharat Lin of Fremont, who has found disturbing trends among immigrants of Chinese, Indian, Korean and Vietnamese descent in California. While he is still gathering data to submit to peer-reviewed scientific journals, his preliminary results are shocking.

He thought he would find an “Americanization” trend among Asian immigrants in giving up the preference for boys. But in a paper presented at the 2011 annual conference of the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, he noted that Asians had the biggest difference in their birth-gender ratio statewide among ethnic groups in California from 1995 to 2010. Birth-gender ratios among Asians in some urban counties in 2010 were disturbing. Sacramento County had 888 girls per 1,000 boys; Los Angeles: 889; San Francisco: 919; Riverside: 919; and San Joaquin: 927.

Lin says he is seeing some weakening of boy preference among Chinese immigrants because the United States doesn’t have China’s one-child policy. But among highly educated, affluent Indian immigrants, Lin notes, the “same pressures of dowry are here” and, per capita, are bigger here than in India.

Lin told me that while he doesn’t yet have direct proof of cause and effect, he is seeing a correlation between low numbers of girls and the proliferation of so-called “keepsake ultrasound centers” that offer gender-determination services.

It’s not hard to find these centers. They advertise on the Web, with gender-determination packages listed right at the top – and comments from customers like, “My husband and I wanted to find out the sex as early as possible ... We didn’t want to wait for the 20-week ultrasound at Kaiser.”

So what to do? Embarrass people with the facts. Lin believes that Californians “should respond first by raising awareness of birth-gender asymmetry.”

Public discussion, he believes, “may have a positive effect alone by serving to embarrass Asian immigrant parents enough to deter some of them from seeking abortions on the basis of gender.”

Lin also believes that keepsake ultrasound shops should be banned from offering and promoting “gender-determination packages” alone: “The ability to determine fetal gender should not be commercially promoted.”

The issue of “missing girls” is not some distant, abstract problem. At home and abroad, Americans should underscore the importance of gender balance to a healthy society.