June 2010



By Anne Manne

A decade ago I wrote a newspaper article about Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s controversial book Mother Nature: Natural Selection and the Female of the Species. Halfway through I came across a photo that has haunted me ever since. A Pakistani mother is feeding her twins. The babies are about five months old. One baby is a well-nourished boy, his plump limbs relaxed as he sprawls across her lap. Her hand gently cradles his large head as he suckles contentedly at her breast.

The boy’s twin also sits on mother’s lap, but this baby is tiny, its emaciated form one-third the size of the thriving boy. The infant’s face is shrunken, skin stretched over a skull with every facial bone visible. Its limbs are stick thin, ribs prominent over a distended belly. The mother does not embrace this baby, but holds her hand away on her hip. This baby does not drink from the mother’s breast. Rather, it sucks feebly at an oversized bottle, which has tipped over, the milk rolling away from its mouth; limp and miasmic, this infant is too weak to hold the bottle. It is too late anyhow. In the final stages of starvation, it dies shortly after the picture is taken.

This baby is the twin sister of the bonny boy. This baby is dying because she is a girl; her death is not an accident, but intentional. In societies such as this, with unhygienic water supplies, to bottle-feed an infant can be to condemn them to water-borne diseases and early death. While the son is breastfed and cared for, the girl is taken away by the mother-in-law and bottle-fed or, more accurately, starved and neglected. By the time she is reunited with her mother at five months, it is too late to save her.

As Hrdy’s account makes plain, the practice of female infanticide is as old as history itself. In Greece of 200 BC, the murder of female infants was so common that of 6000 families living in Delphi, no more than 1% had two daughters. The Romans were no different: a message from one Roman soldier to his wife reads, “I ask and beg of you to take good care of our baby son … If you are delivered of child … if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it.” In some northern Indian states, baby girls were killed as a matter of course. Under the British colonial rule, when demographic statistics were first gathered in India, it was found in 30 villages that there were six boys to every girl. In some villages there were no girls at all.

Devaluation of the girl and worship of the boy is caught in many cultures’ proverbs and poems. In China, it is said that “raising daughters is watering another man’s garden,” and that “a daughter is a thief.” Girls were also described as “maggots in the rice”. An old Chinese poem describes the celebration of the birth of a son, who is dressed in finery, laid on a luxuriant bed and given a precious jade insignia. A daughter, by contrast, is dressed in a plain cloth wrapper, laid on bare ground and given a wooden whirligig. And this was when all went well. At worst: “In cities like Beijing, wagons made scheduled rounds in the early morning to collect corpses of unwanted daughters that had been soundlessly drowned in a bucket of milk while the mother looked away.”

Chilling though the historical examples are, it is horrifying to contemplate that the photo of the dying daughter and the thriving son is not from the distant past. It was taken in a contemporary hospital in Islamabad. This means that, while these patriarchal practices may date back to antiquity, they are not merely the fast-disappearing relics of some ‘ancient’ son preference. That complacent narrative of progress was first shown to be illegitimate in an article by the Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen in the New York Times Review of Books in 1990. His seminal essay, with the blunt title ‘More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing’, examined the emergence of highly distorted sex-ratios in parts of Asia. Through female infanticide, neglect (such as the withholding of food, clothing and medical care) and sex-selective abortion, around 100 million women, who, given equal treatment, might be alive, were “missing”.

Moreover, in the wider scholarly work inspired by Sen’s essay there is mounting evidence that sex selection is not in decline as a result of economic modernisation and the dissemination of ideas of gender equality. Rather, son preference and its deadly consequence – the kind of mass killing of female children that scholars now call “gendercide” – is both spreading and intensifying.

Over more than a decade, as I researched the issue of gendercide, I was continually confronted by a mystery: how to explain the strange silence of the mainstream Western press in the face of the moral enormity of the story. In its own way this was as shocking to me as the facts themselves. One way of understanding gendercide is to position it as an extreme form of gender discrimination particular to ‘underdeveloped’ societies at a far remove from our own ‘enlightened’ West, where the work of feminism is all but done. Yet, while few literate people would be ignorant of the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s genocide or the slaughter that occurred in Rwanda, almost no one I encountered – however sympathetic a supporter of women’s rights – knew of the “Global War Against Baby Girls”. That phrase was coined in 2003 by one of the key researchers in the area, the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt of the conservative neo-liberal think-tank American Enterprise Institute. He wrote: “We all know the ‘global war on terror’. But this other war, ‘a conflict of astonishing and ever more dismaying dimensions’ has ‘attracted much less attention and comment’.”

That strange lacuna has also been noticed by the New York Times writers Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. They begin their 2009 book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide with a shamefaced confession:

… when we began reporting about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn’t have imagined writing this book. We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear non-proliferation … Back then, the oppression of women was a fringe issue, a kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for. We preferred to probe the recondite ‘serious issues’.

As foreign correspondents for the New York Times, they reported on the dramatic events of Tiananmen Square, which claimed the lives of between 400 and 800 people. This was the “human rights story of the year”; it “seemed about the most shocking violation imaginable”. The following year, they came across an obscure demographic study revealing that, as a result of Chinese parents failing to give the same level of medical care to girls as boys, 39,000 female infants were dying annually – or the same number each week as died at Tiananmen Square. This issue did not receive even one square-inch of news coverage: “We began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed.”

They soon discovered that: “More girls have been killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.” Incredibly, however: “The issues involved … have barely registered on the global agenda.”

Recently, in one of those mysterious shifts in public sentiment, the issue has gained traction beyond academia. Kristof and WuDunn’s book became an instant bestseller, and is now in its twentieth print run. One sure sign that awareness has reached the mainstream in the West is that celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and George Clooney have begun falling over themselves to endorse the book and its message.

In 2009, the British press widely reported a British Medical Journal article on the extraordinarily distorted sex-ratios in China. And in January of this year, a new study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was reported around the world; it estimated that there are some 24 million young adult Chinese men more than there are women, citing sex-selective abortion as the cause and describing gender imbalance among newborns as the “most serious demographic problem China faces”. In March, newspapers and blogs were again abuzz with the issue, discussing a horrifying example of female infanticide from the new book Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by the best-selling Chinese oral historian Xinran. In April, the focus turned to India, as the new film Petals in the Dust: India’s Missing Girls was released and the filmmakers instituted a worldwide awareness-raising march against gendercide that is to become an annual event. Most significantly of all, perhaps, in terms of this longstanding atrocity being publically recognised, the hard-headed and staunchly neo-liberal magazine the Economist made ‘Gendercide: The Worldwide War on Baby Girls’ its March cover story.

The Economist draws heavily on the work of the leading researcher of the field, Nicholas Eberstadt, finally bringing his important work to mainstream attention. A conservative Catholic, Eberstadt’s concerns began with his opposition to the widespread abortion – some of it forcible and state sanctioned – occurring because of the one-child policy in China. Over time, it became clear that it was overwhelmingly girls who were being aborted. Early preoccupation with the one-child policy soon burgeoned into the painful recognition that female foeticide was not a practice restricted to China. Rather, the “War Against Baby Girls” was spreading around the world, claiming more casualties every year.

Sex selection is easily measured. As Eberstadt explains, the normal “sex-ratio at birth” is between 103 and 105 boys to every 100 girls. Perhaps Mother Nature’s thoughtful provision against the fact that more boys die in early life than girls is to make sure slightly more boys are born than girls. Demographers have established beyond any doubt that marked variation from this pattern reveals some sex-selection process is occurring, with infants being either passively or actively killed.

While the cultural practices and economic reasons vary from region to region, the underlying belief – that the male child is of superior worth to the female child – remains the same. Girls are aborted, killed or neglected to death for no other reason than that they are girls. The methods vary. It may be lackadaisical care: not taking a girl child to hospital when she is sick as quickly as you would a boy, or not taking her at all. It may be that she is fed smaller quantities of inferior food, while valuable protein is reserved for boys. It can also be by direct female infanticide. Increasingly, however, it is by the method that Amartya Sen calls high-tech sexism: sex-selective abortion.

The Economist begins its account with the now emblematic story of female infanticide from Xinran’s book Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother. While doing research in rural China in 1989, she is invited to the village head’s house. During dinner, Xinran hears the birth pains of his daughter-in-law in the next room. She hears the father angrily explode: “Useless thing!” Shortly after, she sees a tiny foot twitching in a bucket; the midwife has dropped the newborn baby – still alive – into the slops pail. The village head’s wife explains: “Doing a baby girl is not a big thing around here.”

“That’s a living child!” I said in a shaking voice, pointing at the slops pail. “It’s not a child,” she corrected me … “If it was, we’d be looking after it, wouldn’t we?” she interrupted, “It’s a girl baby, and we can’t keep it.”

Not all unwanted girls are killed outright. One other terrible, if unintended, consequence of China’s one-child policy was a surfeit of abandoned girls, as parents tried to ensure their only child was a son. Surviving girls often ended up in orphanages. The conditions in such orphanages in the early years of the policy, as well as through the 1980s and 1990s, were often appalling. A British documentary-maker, Kate Blewett, filmed these conditions in the mid-1990s. In The Dying Rooms, she put it like this: “I did not know that human beings could treat children with such contempt, such cruelty. Some of the orphanages we visited were little more than death camps.” The mortality rates at the time were staggering, in some cases as high as 90% of the 50 to 60 baby girls who arrived at orphanages each month. Few of the children were in fact orphans. They were mostly abandoned girls.

Posing as foreign volunteers, Blewett and her colleagues took hidden cameras into the orphanages. The footage, slow and wavery from handheld cameras, was shocking. It showed blank-faced baby girls tied to bamboo benches all day, their legs splayed, holes in the benches draining human waste to troughs beneath. At night, they were taken indoors and tied to cots. Often the cords had cut deeply into flesh, the wounds left untreated.

Blewett filmed in excruciating detail the prolonged suffering of “Mei Ming”, a baby girl whose name means “no name”, as she dies of malnutrition. The orphanage staff do not visit her. She lies in “urine-soaked blankets for ten days, scabs of dried mucous growing across her eyes”.

The Dying Rooms galvanised worldwide opinion and action. Foreign money began flooding into orphanages. James Garrow, a Canadian film-maker who worked on this year’s Petals in the Dust, was horrified to discover what was happening to these girls and set up a charity called the Pink Pagoda scheme, giving Chinese baby girls a chance at life via adoption by overseas parents. His efforts earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Foreign adoptions meant cash paid for each child, which in turn markedly improved conditions for the girls who remained in the orphanages.

Yet, if the number of unwanted girls in orphanages is now much reduced, it is merely because the method used to get rid of them has changed – from abandonment to abortion.

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 42.6 million Chinese girls have gone missing since the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979. The overall sex-ratio for China in the 2000–2005 period was 123 boys to 100 girls, wildly out of kilter with the expected ratio of around 105:100. In some villages there are as many as five boys to every girl. In some of the more populous provinces the ratio goes close to 140:100.

For second- and subsequent-born children, the number of boys compared with girls is even more staggering. In Guangdong, the province with the largest population, the sex-ratio for second births is 146:100; where parents have been permitted to have a third child, the sex-ratio is 167:100. In Anhui province, the ratio for third children stands at 227:100. And in Beijing, the sex-ratio for third children reaches an extraordinary 275:100. This is “a phenomenon”, Eberstadt explains, “utterly without natural precedent in human history”.

Ironically, the very desire of parents to preserve their family lineage and patrimony by having sons and not daughters has bestowed upon their adult sons a terrible legacy. The disparity in the numbers of men and women means that, on reaching adulthood, the favoured sons may end up single. Called “bare branches” in China, an ever-increasing number of men there are unlikely to ever partner. Eberstadt calculates that at present around 5% of Chinese men in their late thirties have never married. By 2020, that figure could exceed 15% and, by 2040, it could be as high as 25%. These men will be without the traditional forms of support in old age; China relies on sons rather than aged pensions and social services to care for the elderly.

While condemning the attitudes of gender determinism behind the killing of baby girls, some commentators, including the Economist, resort to a different kind of gender determinism, this time about men and all that undirected testosterone. They argue that large numbers of unmarried males will create civil unrest, threaten social cohesion and inspire more aggressive foreign policies that could endanger international peace.

While all that is speculative, what is clear is that economic modernisation, higher literacy levels and improvements to women’s status are not transforming son preference. In fact, the opposite is occurring. Sex-ratios are worse in the more prosperous provinces of China (where literacy levels are also higher) than, for instance, in less-developed Tibet. Son preference remains tenacious, and more educated, better-off women have greater access to, and the means to pay for, ultrasounds. As Monica Das Gupta, chief social scientist from the World Bank, darkly describes it, rather than resisting these virulent patriarchal practices, higher-status women are more efficient at implementing them.

This ominous pattern is also found in India, the other most populous nation on Earth, where ‘missing’ women number in their millions.

India’s sex-ratios have gotten worse – much worse – over the course of the past 20 years. In 1990, there were 25 million more males than females in India. By 2001, the gap had risen to 35 million. By 2007, the Asia–Pacific Human Development Report on gender inequality suggested that some 42.7 million women, or 9% of the total female population, had gone missing from India. The problem continues to grow. The worsening sex-ratios in India are encapsulated by one stark statistic quoted in the Economist: in 1991, there was only a single district with a sex-ratio of over 125 males to every female. By 2001, there were 46.

The Indian case shows that it is not simply China’s one-child policy that results in gendercide. Even without state coercion, in most places around the globe birthrates are falling sharply, as parents voluntarily restrict family size in favour of greater economic prosperity. And here is the rub: parents with seven or eight children might be relaxed about the sex composition of the family; sooner or later the cherished sons will arrive. With much smaller families, however, son preference actually intensifies, and there may be deliberate intervention to ensure the continuance of the male line. Eberstadt identifies the ongoing War on Baby Girls as a result of “the fateful collision between overweening son preference, the use of rapidly spreading prenatal sex-determination technology and declining fertility”.

The use of ultrasound tests for sex-selection purposes was banned in India in 1994 to little avail. The technologies were quickly appropriated by medical entrepreneurs, who found sex selection in that strongly patriarchal country to be an extremely lucrative business. Aggressive advertising offered the chance to save a potential daughter’s dowry payment when she married: “Pay 5000 rupees [AU$125] today and save 50,000 rupees tomorrow!” A spate of sex-selective abortions followed. Prosecutions are rare and the legislation easily sidestepped. Results for tests undertaken ostensibly for health reasons began to be printed on either blue or pink forms.

Each year, around one million Indian baby girls are either aborted or killed shortly after birth. According to a 1984 UNICEF report, in one Indian abortion clinic, of 8000 abortions performed, 7997 were female foetuses. The press continues to report grisly finds. In February of 2007, the Times Online was reporting 390 body parts of foetuses and newborn babies, thought to be girls, buried in the backyard of a Christian missionary hospital in Madhya Pradesh. In July of that year, the same newspaper reported dozens of female babies and foetuses found in an abandoned well in the state of Orissa.

While, overall, the distortion of sex-ratios in India is not as extreme as in China, it is especially pronounced in certain areas. In the affluent north-western states, historically strong traditions of female infanticide and the means to pay for ultrasound tests combine to deadly effect. Eberstadt presents surveys of child preference conducted among married women in India in 1989–90, which show that for those without children, around one-third wanted the first child to be a son, while fewer than 3% preferred a daughter (the remainder either left it to a higher power or had no preference). As in China, the desire for sons in India increases sharply with subsequent children: of married mothers wanting second children, 40% wanted boys; for third children, this figure rises to around 60%; and for any subsequent children it is over 70%. In states such as Punjab, the son preference was much stronger even than this, with over ten parents wanting a boy to every one desiring a girl.

When we move to the offspring of the parents expressing such preferences, Indian census data revealed that of children aged five and under in 2001, there were only 927 girls for every 1000 boys. In some provinces, the numbers were even more discrepant. In Punjab, there were only 886 women for every 1000 men. In Delhi, there were 813 women for every 1000 men, while in Darnan and Diu there were an incredible 682 women for every 1000 men. India therefore also has large numbers of men who are likely to remain single. But the shortage of women is no guarantee of a welcome rise in status. China and India have both reported an increase in girls, including the very young, being used as sex slaves and for bride trafficking. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, forced prostitution, abductions of women and bride trafficking have “become rampant” in areas where there are many more men than women. In 2005, up to 800,000 women were reportedly trafficked across Indian borders.

Sex-selective abortions are also becoming more frequent outside the two most populous nations on Earth. In the former Soviet Union states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as in the former Yugoslavian states of Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia, unnatural sex-ratios have emerged. Other nations, too, have been joining the ranks of those that practise sex-selective abortion. Recent Vietnamese statistics show that about 112 boys are now being born for every 100 girls, with some regions manifesting sex-ratios as distorted as China’s.

Even more striking, and underscoring the disconnect between modernisation and more natural sex-ratios, is that, as we move from impoverished countries to economically advanced and technologically sophisticated societies such as Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, we find similar patterns. In these countries, peasant agriculture has long given way to high-tech industry, with nimble female fingers more likely to be manipulating computer microchips than tilling a field. Yet here, too, highly abnormal sex-ratios are evident.

Perhaps most surprising of all is that distorted sex-ratios indicating son preference are even found in ‘the land of the free’. Asian Americans have higher ratios of boys to girls than expected without human intervention. Among Chinese–, Japanese– and Filipino–Americans, sex-ratios at birth have changed from normal levels in 1975 to biologically impossible ones of 107:100 to 109:100. The rest of America displays no such distortion.

Eberstadt is a pessimist about gendercide. He argues that, as economic progress, restrictions on family size and modern sex-selective technologies spread, the ability for more patriarchal societies to engage in “high-tech sexism” means it is likely that we “ain’t seen nothing yet”.

How can a mother do it? Kill, starve or neglect to death someone in her own image? How can a mother who has loved an older daughter behave in this way towards a later-born baby girl? The answer to these questions is found in the all-pervasive patriarchal ideology many women grow up with and live within. Tulsa Patel, a professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, writes that giving birth to a son means nothing less than “space under the sun” in Indian culture. “A son’s birth is a means of privileging the mother. Thus, the dilemma of being the second sex and yet craving for the first is resolved through the practice of patriarchy.” Producing a son offers an opportunity for a rise in status like no other. Patel gives examples of women growing in confidence and authority, experiencing pride and elation after giving birth to sons.

And women are “shattered to have only daughters”. Attending a friend’s birth in a Delhi hospital in 1982, Patel notes the mother in the next bed, a modern, working woman who is “miserable”, “frenzied” and “suffering from the trauma” of having just given birth to a second daughter. She “wept inconsolably for several hours … would sob and curse herself softly, but every now and then break into a mournful wail wishing away her reality”.

Not motherhood in itself, but being a mother of sons is deeply tied to a woman’s respect. In many parts of India, the mother lives with her husband and is entirely under the control and protection of his family. She may be ostracised, deprived of food, overworked or even beaten if she does not bear sons. One young mother interviewed by Das Gupta tells of the anger she experienced from her in-laws over the fact that she bore another daughter, and of being fed millet while the rest of the family ate rice. She reports: “After my second daughter was born [my mother-in-law] sent me off to work in the kitchen and rice fields within days of birth, not allowing normal period of rest. My third daughter died …” After giving birth to a son, the treatment a woman receives from her in-laws dramatically improves, and she gains greater access to the family’s resources. A South Korean woman reports: “Soon after I delivered my son, my parents-in-law moved us into a larger apartment.”

It is in such contexts that female foeticide and infanticide exist. Lakshmi, a pitifully poor village woman interviewed for the Los Angeles Times in 1994, killed her second daughter by squeezing the poisonous sap of the oleander shrub down her baby’s throat. The baby died from internal haemorrhaging. Female neighbours buried her and sympathised with Lakshmi; many would do the same. Despite government penalties, “murdering girls is still sometimes believed to be a wiser course than raising them.”

“A daughter is always a liability. How can I bring up a second?” Lakshmi says when asked how she could have taken her child’s life. Self-hatred as the inferior gender is at the centre of the infanticide: “Instead of her suffering the way I do, I thought it better to get rid of her.”

A mother’s remaining children depend on their father’s – and his relatives’ – goodwill. The mother has grown up in a world inscribed by the harsh tattoo of the desirable male and the devalued female; this has become as natural as the air she breathes. This naturalising of one gender as valuable, lustrous and commanding respect runs deep, and leads to an internalising by women of themselves as part of a devalued group unless they produce a member of the valued sex. Women in such a system, according to Monica Das Gupta, “have little intrinsic source of standing other than as mothers of the future men of the lineage”.

In Xinran’s narrative of the baby girl flung into the slops pail, the village head’s wife goes on to give the shocked outsider a lesson in rural subsistence – or, rather, survival economics:

Around these parts you can’t get by without a son. You have no one to burn incense at the ancestors’ shrine. You don’t get the extra land given to you, either. If your children just eat, and don’t earn, and you have no land and no grain, then you might as well starve.

Chinese tradition and religious custom decree that the eldest son will care for his parents in old age. The majority of Chinese elderly live with married sons. In a country with no social insurances such as the aged pension, a son has been seen as the only means for elderly parents too frail to engage in the exhausting and unremitting physical toil of the fields to survive.

India, likewise, has no pension system and despite being outlawed, the bride dowry – a major transfer of resources from the bride’s family to her husband’s – is an ongoing and widespread tradition. A family with many daughters and few sons (who are a source of income by virtue of the dowry payments they receive from their wives) could be ruined by their daughters’ marriages. Aysan Sev’er from the University of Toronto argues that under consumer capitalism dowries have become more entrenched, and are now a status symbol. “At the social level,” writes Sev’er, “increased access to global markets has made dowry a fast track to consumerism.” Items of necessity have given way to:

… elaborate, expansive commodities, such as luxury cars, motorcycles, boats, summer cottages, in the list of the wealthy. Microwaves, TVs, washing machines etc. form the dowry lists of lower caste/class counterparts, even ironically enough in areas without running water or electricity! … Above all, the shift to consumerism has created an insatiable demand for hard cash.

Amartya Sen, re-examining the sex-ratio issue in the Indian publication Frontline in 2001, discovered a “social and cultural divide across India, splitting the country into two nearly contiguous halves”. Only in the northern and north-western Indian states did anti-female bias result in mass sex-selective abortions. Monica Das Gupta’s careful work on kinship systems in China, South Korea and north-western India reveals that it is very particular kinship arrangements that entrench son preference of a kind that leads to femicide. She found that where inheritance passes strictly through the male line and where women leave their family of origin entirely and relocate to join their husband’s household, femicide is prevalent.

Under such systems, a woman’s paid and unpaid work benefits only her husband’s family, while her own parents must rely on sons for care and financial support in old age. Yet Das Gupta does give cautious ground for hope in the long term: as economic modernisation continues, while at first the anti-female bias sharpens, it gradually gives way to new customs and practice. Economic migration further breaks up rigid traditional roles, such as that of the eldest son as primary carer of ageing parents, as families become geographically scattered.

Evidence of this can be seen in South Korea, which had the most extreme sex-ratios in favour of males worldwide in 1990. As the country rapidly developed, the gender imbalance of births gradually levelled off, and then began to fall. In parts of China where (courtesy of doing well in the market economy) parents have their own workplace-based aged pensions, no notable son preference can be detected.

Das Gupta reiterates, though, that generalised attempts of a vague kind – such as the Chinese posters proclaiming “Boy and girl child: Both OK” – are not enough. Public policy must be at the forefront of efforts to change attitudes towards and improve the status of girls, challenging their devaluation by providing specific economic incentives and rewards to families with daughters. Most importantly, daughters who care for the elderly must be supported.

Yet strictly economic explanations or solutions obscure as much as they reveal. What may have come out of an economic system long ago took wings and flew up from mammon into the realm of the gods. Religion decrees the irreplaceable role of the son in ancestor worship: only sons can light the funeral pyre in India, allowing a dead parent to ascend to heaven; only sons can light the candles in ancestor worship in China and Korea. Without sons, one’s afterlife is insecure; in China, the soul becomes what is called a “hungry ghost”. To defy the performance of these filial acts is to invite the wrath of the ancestors. And it is this ancient bigotry that is so difficult to transform.

Gendercide confronts us with the most powerful of all antinomies – the existence of a caste system based on the superior male and inferior female. From the time I first saw that haunting image of the Pakistani mother with her famished baby daughter and flourishing son, I have puzzled over the slow and uncertain growth of our awareness of so clear, deep and profound an injustice. I kept asking myself the following question: if the distorted sex-ratios were reversed, if matriarchal societies born of a feminist revolution systematically wiped 100 million boys from the face of the Earth for no other reason than their sex, wouldn’t there be more outcry?

How much does the West’s less-than-perfectly-transcended sex prejudice mean that while we may not be entirely indifferent, we have been remarkably slow to react? Could it be that, in taking our own forms of gender discrimination as ‘natural’ – our manifold ways of bestowing a lustre and value upon men that is withheld from women – we are not so shocked by more extreme and virulent forms of discrimination elsewhere, thus saying, in effect: “After all, it is natural to prefer a son, and those despatched were, when all said and done … only girls.”

To be overcome, human rights abuses must first be seen for the atrocities they are, and not as part of the ‘natural’ order of things. As that which has previously been in shadow is drawn into the light of public view, that process of recognition is often painful. The sudden flurry of interest in the mainstream press on gendercide suggests a significant cultural shift. At least we may take modest comfort in the fact that the preliminary work to overturning the injustices has begun, making what has hitherto been invisible – the bleak and terrible story of gendercide – visible at last.

Anne Manne

Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood, the Quarterly Essay ‘Love & Money’ and the memoir So This Is Life. Her most recent book is The Life of I: The new culture of narcissism.

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The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history