When everyone wants a boy child

A special report by the Straits Times' Foreign Correspondents team on the effects of gender preferences on China, India and Vietnam.

An ex-victim of bride-trafficking in Haryana, now remarried and residing in a village in West Bengal, India. 

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. 

Her reality is rather more complicated. For one, 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 says 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.

  • Sex ratios in Asia

  • Sex ratio at birth shows the proportion of boys born compared to girls in a given period. Left to nature, most countries see 102 to 106 males born per 100 females. When many more boys are born than girls, it is a sign that sex selection is taking place. 

    China 115.9 (2014)

    Vietnam 113.8 (2013)

    India 110.01 (2011-2013)

    Singapore 105.6 (2014)

    National Bureau of Statistics of China; General Staistics Office of Vietnam; Office of The Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India; Registry of Births and Deaths, Singapore 

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 (2014). 

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 to propose in June new laws that would bring criminal proceedings against buyers of kidnapped children. They are currently not prosecuted if they had not abused the children or obtsructed 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',” says 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. Six years ago (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,” admits 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.”

Sylee Tea Factory in West Bengal is just one of the many plantations in the area where women work as tea leaf pickers.

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 which does not even have a cell phone signal. Men like Mr Li Daohong, 35,  who live there, are 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 would not work’,” he says. “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 (2015), 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 (2015), 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.

  • Gender selection techniques

  • Amniocentesis: Amniotic fluid surrounding the feotus in the womb is withdrawn through a needle and analysed to determine the sex of the child, from second trimester onwards

  • Ultrasound scans: Sex of foetus visible in second trimester

  • Blood tests: A blood sample from the mother can be used to determine sex of foetus during second month of pregnancy

  • Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis: Fertilised embryos are screened for desired sex before being implanted in womb

  • Sperm sorting: Sperm is sorted by weight to choose the ones that will produce desired sex. The sperm bearing the X-chromosome that produces a female child is larger than the Y-chromosome sperm.

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,” says 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 says. “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 is a big climb down from 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 Ministry of Health, was quoted saying last year in the online news portal VN Express. 

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

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

“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 says. "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 consists of one son and one daughter.

“Having two boys would be second best,” he says. “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 is 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,” says 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 says “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.”