Asia's gender imbalance

Millions of men unable to find wives; women are kidnapped, duped or sold for marriage in remote regions

Mr Li Daohong (left) with his parents in Shaanxi province. Mr Li, 35, is too poor to buy a bride and too despondent to try matchmaking. A former victim of bride trafficking in Haryana, India, now remarried and living in a village in West Bengal.
A former victim of bride trafficking in Haryana, India, now remarried and living in a village in West Bengal. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Mr Li Daohong (left) with his parents in Shaanxi province. Mr Li, 35, is too poor to buy a bride and too despondent to try matchmaking. A former victim of bride trafficking in Haryana, India, now remarried and living in a village in West Bengal.
Mr Li Daohong (left) with his parents in Shaanxi province. Mr Li, 35, is too poor to buy a bride and too despondent to try matchmaking. ST PHOTO: KOR KIAN BENG

Bias for sons hurting men and women

Millions of men unable to find wives; women are kidnapped, duped or sold for marriage in remote areas

She has only ever had one husband. At least that's what Priti, 32, tells people, while surrounded by her young daughters in their thatched hut on a wind-swept cliff overlooking the Firozpur-Jhirka valley in India's northern state of Haryana.

The reality is rather more complicated. For one thing, Priti is not her real name; she has asked not to be identified to avoid being stigmatised.

She was sold as a bride for 10,000 rupees (S$213) at the age of 12. Her buyer, after raping her for six months, sold her on to another man, with whom she eventually had nine children.

"I was sexually exploited and always reminded that I was bought," she said of her children's father. "It was hell."

Now widowed, she is struggling to feed her children on her earnings as a construction labourer. Last year, her eldest daughter turned 12, an age that piques the interest of bride traffickers. Fearing the worst, she did the only thing she could to keep her safe.

She married the child off.

Not enough girls are being born in Asia. According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than 117 million women are "missing" - the product of a cultural preference for sons, coupled with birth restrictions, lower fertility and medical advances that have made sex-selective abortion readily available.

Sex ratios are so distorted that India and China - the two most populous nations in the world with more than 2.5 billion people between them - are grappling with the growing tens of millions of young men coming of age with shrinking chances of marriage. The same menace is creeping up in the emerging economy of Vietnam.


Without medical intervention, most communities tend to produce 104 to 106 boys for every 100 girls, as nature compensates for the higher male mortality rates. But in China, where the abortion of female foetuses spiked during the three decades of one-child policy, the ratio of baby boys to girls was 115.9 last year .

The latest equivalent figure in India is 110.01, according to its 2011-2013 sample registration system, while Vietnam's hit 113.8 in 2013.

Singapore's ratio last year was 105.6.

Recent United Nations simulations for India and China suggest that in 15 years, there could be three men seeking to marry for every two available women. This mass involuntary singlehood portends deep changes in societies where marriage marks entry to adulthood and confers social recognition.

More alarmingly, it is also spawning new forms of cross-border exploitation, where poorer women are kidnapped, duped, or sold for marriage in distant regions, to be virtually enslaved in households where they are sometimes forced to serve both their husband as well husband's brothers.

Fraudsters in China are starting to prey on desperate men, promising brides who later run away with valuables. Thousands of children have been kidnapped in China, prompting Beijing last month to propose new laws that would bring criminal proceedings against buyers of kidnapped children. They are currently not prosecuted if they did not abuse the children or obstruct efforts to rescue them.

Policymakers are also fretting about the unrest that millions of unmarriageable men may create, and the violence that competition for women may unleash.

"Everyone thinks: 'It doesn't matter, I want my boy'," said Australian National University economist Jane Golley.

But the repercussions are starting to dawn on couples, especially in China where men are expected to pay for marital homes. In 2009, United States-based scholars Wei Shang Jin and Zhang Xiaobo found evidence that housing sizes and prices tend to be higher in the parts of China with higher sex ratios. Men and their families who were competing for brides were bidding up prices.

Parents are feeling uneasy about what it is going to take to find their sons wives.

"I am beginning to worry about my son's future," admitted Madam Li Ya'nan, a 34-year-old mechanic in northeastern Jilin province who aborted a girl before giving birth to a boy, now five. "The only thing I can do is to ensure that he gets as much education as possible to land a good job, so that women find him a good catch."

The rural poor feel the greatest impact of rampant sex selective abortion. In the tea plantations in West Bengal, for example, girls who work as tea leaf pickers, earning 120 rupees a day, are easily lured by the promise of better jobs or medical care. They are sold for 10,000 to 200,000 rupees as brides, called molki (bought), given new names and prevented from escaping.

It's the same story in northern Vietnam, where young women are coerced across the border to be auctioned off.

The men bearing the brunt of female foeticide are found in places like Yang Si Miao, a hillside village of small-scale farmers in China's Shaanxi province, where cellphone signals do not reach. There live men like Mr Li Daohong, 35, too poor to buy a bride and too despondent to try matchmaking.

Mr Li broke up with his last girlfriend, from a more developed village, 11 years ago. They were planning to get married and he had brought her home to meet his parents. "The moment she set foot on this village and saw the surroundings, she said 'No, this will not work'," he recalled. "She left after one night. It was a big blow because I really liked her."

Later, she asked him to move to her village should they marry. He declined, refusing to abandon his parents.

But it is not always the case that the woman gets to choose. The scarcity of women does not automatically raise their value or status, sociologist Ravinder Kaur from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi tells The Straits Times. "It might lead to greater violence around marriage and sexuality, as in current spate of honour crimes."

The shortage of women in Haryana - which has India's worst sex ratio at 115.7 - for example, has increased the chances of inter-caste marriages or unions that contravene strict social codes policed by the khap panchayats, or the unelected caste councils who are influential despite having no legal standing. These can have deadly consequences. In 2013, 20-year-old Nidhi Barak was lynched by her own family, while her fellow villager Dharmender Barak, 23, was beheaded in an "honour killing" after the couple tried to elope. They belonged to the same gotra or clan, which meant they were regarded by the villagers as siblings who could not marry.


Both India and China, which have in place a patchwork of legislation to curb sex-selective abortion, sounded the alarm this year.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while launching new programmes to aid girls in January, called the thinking behind female foeticide a "mental illness". "The Prime Minister of this country had come to them like a beggar and was begging for the lives of daughters," he was quoted by the Times of India as saying.

That same month, China's National Health and Family Planning Commission declared that its sex imbalance at birth was "the most serious and prolonged" in the world. In May, Beijing proceeded to launch a new campaign against already illegal prenatal sex tests and sex-selective abortions.

Past campaigns have had little effect. Errant doctors, banned from revealing the sex of the foetus, use coded forms or coded phrases words instead. "It may be a good soccer player," they say in India, or simply "congratulations". Illicit technicians give ultrasound tests from the backseats of cars in China. Couples have no qualms visiting gynaecologist after gynaecologist until they find someone willing to perform the procedure for them.

And globalisation has made evasion easier. There have been cases of pregnant women from mainland China who sent their blood samples to Hong Kong to identify the sex of their foetus. Indian and Chinese couples have been known to travel to Thailand - a bustling medical tourism hub - to screen embryos for sex. Cross-border travel and commerce are developing too rapidly for meaningful enforcement, while prenatal technology is moving so far upstream it is possible to choose a male baby without claiming another life - or what most people would consider as a life. One of the most recent advancements allows sperm bearing the Y-chromosome which produces male babies to be sorted out before being implanted into a womb.

Enforcement is hard because patriarchal notions are so deeply embedded that women have taken up the cudgels against baby girls themselves.

"All my friends who went through abortions thought hard about it," said Mrs Nguyen Thuong Hoai, a receptionist in Ho Chi Minh City. "But they desperately needed sons, or… their husbands would try for sons with other women."

Over in Haryana, the president of Dhankar khap panchayat, Dr Om Prakash Dhankar, claims that the men are left in the dark.

"The women they have their own network and they do the tests and get the foetuses aborted," he said. "The men don't get to know at all."

In an environment where women are veiled in public, and held to blame - sometimes fatally - for not producing sons, they are likely doing it for their own survival.

Sometimes, supposedly remedial policies worsen the situation. In 2013, while partially relaxing its one-child policy, Beijing allowed rural couples whose first child was a daughter to try for a second, inadvertently affirming the bias for sons.


The good news in China and India is that sex ratios at birth are dropping. In the 2010-2012 period, India registered a ratio of 110.13. During the next count in 2011-2013, the figure had dipped slightly to 110.01. China's ratio of 115.9 last year was a big improvement on the 121.2 recorded 10 years ago.

In contrast, Vietnam's ratio has steadily deteriorated from 110.5 in 2009 to 113.8 in 2013. The country is being squeezed on both ends - while baby girls are being killed before birth, rural women are leaving for foreign grooms in thinly-disguised bride-buying arrangements.

Some parts of Vietnam now bear the same acutely lopsided sex ratios that afflicted China a decade ago: In the central Quang Binh province, the figure hit 129.6 in 2013.

"We have tried so much but can hardly change the mind and the culture of Vietnamese, who prefer sons to daughters," Dr Duong Quoc Trong, who heads the General Office for Population and Family Planning in Vietnam's Health Ministry, was quoted saying last year in the online news portal VN Express.

"The gender imbalance now is so serious that Vietnamese men can hardly to get a wife in the near future, maybe from 2025 onwards."

"One son counts, 10 daughters are nothing," goes a Vietnamese saying. Dr Nguyen Thi Thao from Hanoi's Central Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital sees this attitude up close in the pregnant women he treats.

"Many of them feel disappointed after knowing that they will have a daughter. Some even feel angry or afraid and don't want to talk to their husbands," he said. "Instead, they begin asking me about the method of abortion and abortion fee."

For bank officer Pham Hoang Viet, 31, whose wife is expecting their first child, their ideal brood would be one son and one daughter.

"Having two boys would be second best," he said. "Having two girls? Oh, we don't want to think that."

Sociologists say that education, economic development, urbanisation and lifestyle changes are chipping away at the old notions that made sons desirable in the first place. Mechanisation has reduced the need for manual labour. And while sons are seen as essential to carry on the family name and conduct funeral rites for their parents, there's no longer the certainty they will support their parents in old age.

"We have reason to be optimistic, not because government programmes are going to be effective, but because society has changed and is changing," said sociologist Wang Feng from the University of California Irvine.

But this scenario is likely decades away.

In the meantime, as the millions of surplus boys slowly make their way to adulthood, some tentative studies have been made about their effect on social stability.

A 2007 study led by Columbia University economist Lena Edlund drew a link between higher sex ratios and violent and property crime, which include larceny, robbery, homicide, rape and assault. A 2009 survey in villages across 28 provinces by the Institute for Population and development Studies in Xi'an Jiaotong University, found some groups of involuntary bachelors had a higher propensity for aggression and crime.

So far though, no study has drawn a strong correlation between involuntary bachelorhood and unrest.

In villages like Yang Si Miao, the worries are far more personal in nature. Madam Zhou Qinglian, 60, keeps awake at night wondering what lies ahead for her son Li, who is still unmarried after his girlfriend left him 11 years ago.

"There's nothing I can do," she said. "I can only say anyone who marries my son won't have to worry about suffering… If someone marries my son, I would yield to them on everything."

Lonely men fall victim to marriage scams

The wives vanish and families who borrowed money end up in debt

After Zhang Wei turned 25, his parents in a small village in China's eastern Anhui province came up with a plan to help him escape the fate that had befallen other men in their 200-strong community - a life of lonely bachelorhood.

In March, they urged him to go for a matchmaking session in the southern Guangxi province's Beihai city, 1,800km away. They also put together some 100,000 yuan (S$21,700) so he could return home to Zhang Gang village, about an hour's drive from Anhui's capital city of Hefei, with a wife.

SPH Brightcove Video
Men outnumber women by about 34 million in China, leaving the country's rural men with little hope of ever getting a wife.

On May 7, after the couple had lived together for 50 days, the new wife went missing. She left the Zhangs in debt and her husband with a broken heart.

They knew her only as Xiao Hong, never learning her full name, her identification number or her real age, although she claimed to be in her late 20s.

"I may look unaffected and quite jovial on the outside, but deep inside, I do feel sad and miserable because I had developed real feelings for her. I was serious in this relationship but she cheated me and played me like a fool," Mr Zhang, now 26, told The Straits Times.

His tale is one that plays out regularly across villages in China. Anxious parents shell out huge sums to secure wives for their bachelor- sons, only to fall victim to a marriage fraud scam, often involving a foreign bride.

Late last year, some 100 Vietnamese brides walked out en masse from villages in northern Hebei province. In the Longyan city of the southern Fujian province, some 2,000 Vietnamese women married local men in a four-year span since 2009. Some 25 per cent of these women have run away, according to reports.

Observers say such instances of marriage fraud could become more commonplace as China's bachelors become more numerous and more desperate. The country's chronic gender imbalance problem is to blame.

Among China's 1.37 billion people, men outnumber women by 34 million, which is about the population of Canada.

The abundance of men - stemming from a confluence of China's one-child policy and its traditional preference for boys - has intensified the competition for women and narrowed the marriage prospects of low-educated and low-income men living in the villages.

Nankai University's population issues expert Yuan Xin said trends such as marriage purchase would become more pronounced in the next 20 years.

"The women reaching marriage age now of between 30 and 35 were born in the early 1980s. During this period, there were 70,000 to 200,000 more male births each year. Between 1985 and 1990, there were 500,000 to 900,000 more men each year. From the 1990s, there were one million or more male births each year," he told The Straits Times.

Buying brides is a risky path for the rural men but still their best shot at escaping a life of bachelorhood. This was more or less why Mr Zhang decided to take his parents' advice to go on the matchmaking trip to Guangxi, with help from his aunt.

Mr Zhang Wei, 26, holding a photo of his runaway wife Xiao Hong. The couple lived together for just 50 days. ST PHOTO: KOR KIAN BENG

He has had around five girlfriends since he turned 20 and believed he would be able to find a wife on his own.

But he agreed to the matchmaking as it seemed less troublesome and more cost-effective. His last girlfriend who refused to move into or near his village made him realise that it would be a challenge.

And even if he found a willing bride, the rising cost of a wedding - which can come to about 700,000 yuan, including the purchase of a house - was another insurmountable challenge.

"The amount is too high and my family can't afford it. So we thought it is cheaper to spend 100,000 to get a wife without having to buy a new house," he said.

It was not love at first sight and Xiao Hong was not his first choice among the pool of women he met in Beihai in March. The matchmaker told him that Xiao Hong was more suitable for him instead of his first pick, who appeared less assertive and gentler.

Mr Zhang eventually fell in love with Xiao Hong. It helped that she was respectful towards his parents and helped out with household chores and on the family's strawberry farm.

Their time together gave Mr Zhang a glimpse of an enjoyable future. "I thought I had finally settled down and could start a family to begin a peaceful life. My parents could take care of our children while we built our career," he added.

The neighbours soon grew impressed with Xiao Hong. Through her, four other families got brides for their sons by the same route, with each paying 100,000 yuan too. Like the Zhangs, they knew little about the women who were introduced as Xiao Hong's sisters or cousins.

Bliss spread in the village as the families held weddings and rejoiced that their sons had found wives. Mr Zhang's family was especially elated as Xiao Hong said she was pregnant.

But their joy vanished when Xiao Hong and the four other brides fled on May 7, under the pretence of going for an outing. The women took along with them jewellery, cash, electronic appliances and even motorcycles from the families they had married into.

The families now feel they have become the laughing stocks of Zhang Gang.

The "husbands" left the village almost immediately, too ashamed to be seen by the neighbours. Neighbourly relations too have come under strain - some families blame the Zhangs and have sought compensation from them.

Looking back, Mr Zhang said he realised there were warning signs that he had entered into a marriage scam, such as when he was urged to pick Xiao Hong.

"They might have worried that the other girl would not be wily enough to carry out the scam," he said.

His life is in limbo as the police have instructed him to stay close to home to assist in investigations. He cannot return to Shanghai and has had to find a job in Hefei city.

But he still has his hopes.

"I have not lost hope on marriage. Life continues. I'm still young anyway and I still have time on my side. I've not lost hope in women too. I consider it as just an unfortunate incident."

And despite what she had done to him and his family, he says he is still in love with Xiao Hong.

"Yes. There's still some love for her. If she were to appear before me now, I couldn't bear to scold or blame her. I still love her. After all, I did develop true feelings for her," he said.

  • Additional reporting by Lina Miao

Bride trafficking rife in poor Indian states

At 25, she was raped by a married neighbour and then sold for 70,000 rupees (S$1500) to a vegetable vendor.

"When I think of what happened to me, I want to die," said Sunita, who did not want her real name used.

Growing up in a poor tribal family in the lush floodplains and Himalayan foothills known as the Dooars in West Bengal, Sunita lost her father before she turned eight. There were days when her family of five, sustained by her mother who did odd jobs and an elder brother who worked in the nearby tea estate, would go hungry.

Tea estates are the main source of jobs in the Dooars but between 2002 and 2004 more than 20 shut down, leaving hundreds jobless. Stories emerged of people starving to death and of gangs trafficking in girls, selling them as brides and domestic workers in northern India.

An Indian villager going about her chores with her daughter in Haryana state. The gender imbalance in Haryana, and the neighbouring state of Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh, has led to trafficking in girls, some as young as 13, from the poorest parts of states such as West Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Sunita was one of them. In her home district of Jalpaiguri, with a population of less than four million, around 200 missing girls and women have been reported missing over the last three years. Almost 20 per cent of them are trafficked brides, according to non-profit group Shakti Vahini. They are either duped by the traffickers or sold by poor parents for sums as low as 10,000 rupees.

In Sunita's case, she was tricked by a man from the northern state of Haryana who had married a local Bengali woman.

He offered to help the family get Sunita treated in Haryana for a stomach ailment
but after the 1,600 km journey, he locked her in a room and raped her in front of his wife, who did not say a word, said Sunita. "He said I had to get married and he would set me on fire if I didn't agree."

In a matter of weeks, a 45-year-old vegetable seller bought her as a bride.

Haryana has India's worst gender imbalance - 879 girls to 1,000 boys, which falls below the national average of 940 girls, according to the 2011 census.

The imbalance is caused by a high incidence of female foeticide, practiced by parents who see a daughter as a burden because social customs demand that a dowry be paid to arrange her marriage. Taking or giving dowry has been illegal since 1961 but it remains a common practice for a bride to be given away with gold, cash, household appliances and vehicles. India banned prenatal sex determination tests in 1994 to curb foeticide but the ban is poorly enforced.

The gender imbalance in Haryana, and the neighbouring states of Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh, has led to trafficking in girls, sometimes as young as 13, from the poorest parts of states like West Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam.

The trafficked brides are expected to do the housework and bear children but get little respect.

"He married me to make me work in the house and to look after his elderly mother and three-year-old son, from a first marriage," said Sunita of her 'husband'.

She had no say in family matters, was not allowed to make friends or even step out of the house. Local traditions that she found strange, like covering her face in the presence of men, were imposed on her.

"They made me cover my face like this," Sunita said, dragging her red dupatta, or long scarf, across her face.
"He used to say he loved me," she said. "I used to ask him: 'Is this love?' "

In her four months of incarceration, she made three attempts to escape. Once she spent the entire day in the maize fields, waist deep in mud, as her husband and other villagers combed the area. She managed to run to the next village but was caught and sent back to her husband.

"He twisted my hand, asking me why I had run away. He made a fist and hit me. And then he picked up a stick and started beating me on my hands and legs," said Sunita.

SPH Brightcove Video
West Bengal’s lush floodplains and foothills are home to millions of Indians living in crushing poverty. This makes it easy for criminal networks to dupe or kidnap girls and women, and force them to marry men in other parts of India.

Back in her home in eastern India, Sunita's eldest sister made many trips to the local police station, for news of her sister. Eventually, the non-governmental organisation Shakti Vahini managed to locate and rescue Sunita.

Said her sister: "She was so thin and was malnourished and had bruises all over. I brought her back home and got her treated."

The neighbour who sold her was arrested for kidnapping but disappeared after being released on bail. The police took no action against the husband. Marital rape is not a crime in India and it was difficult to prove money had exchanged hands.

For Sunita, life is still full of challenges. In February, she married a 35-year-old unemployed man but returned to her sister's home two months later.

"My husband and his family knew about me. But after marriage, he changed. He is unable to accept me and grows suspicious when I talk to a male member of the family," said Sunita. "I want to live with my sister."

But she was persuaded to go back to her husband to give her marriage another shot. Said her sister: "At the first sign of trouble, I will bring her back."

Sunita's story is not uncommon, according to activists who say curtailing bride trafficking is a complex challenge. Cooperation is poor between the police of India's various states, prosecution is often half-hearted, victims are often too scared or ashamed to testify and many detained traffickers go back to trafficking once they secure bail. In fact, bride traffickers are seldom jailed, even though the law stipulates up to 10 years' imprisonment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought the root cause of bride trafficking into focus when he launched a campaign against female foeticide in January, calling the skewed sex ratio in Haryana a "terrible crisis".

Mr Rishi Kant, the co-founder of Shakti Vahini, said there were no quick solutions because changing a social mindset takes years, if not generations.

Until then, a preference for sons and poorly enforced laws mean that the lives of women like Sunita are likely to remain in peril.

Video: Nirmala Ganapathy and Tan Hui Yee with more on women sold into forced marriages in India,

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2015, with the headline Asia's gender imbalance. Subscribe