Population implosion
by Ananda das
Posted February 12, 2003

ABSTRACT: In the Punjab, there is a ratio of 80 women for every 100 men. In China, the "one-child policy" has led to similar imbalances. Many men now have difficulty finding a wife, a foreseeable consequence of a tacitly-approved though illegal prenatal gender selection system. Ananda das suggests the solution, if there is one, will require increased respect for the role of women in the functioning of society, and claims that such respect will be most easily achieved in a democratic-socialist country.

Unintended but foreseeable consequences of sex selection

I saw a documentary program on TV recently which explained in stark terms a new population crisis in India's Punjab region. Although amniocentesis and sonography for sex-selection are illegal, and the government sends out inspectors to check up on medical clinics, prenatal sex determination is commonly done, with a quick abortion to follow for girl foetuses. Even today, there is tremendous celebration for the birth of a boy child, with prayers chanted in the gurdwaras. For a girl child, the best she can hope for is to be ignored; infanticide is the far more tragic possibility.

In Arabia, before Muhammad, upon whom be peace, there was regular female infanticide. That is why the prophet issued a specific instruction forbidding the practice. All religions, however, forbid murder, even those which have no specific instructions against killing girl children.

In many parts of India, prenatal sex selection has gone on now for a generation, so there is now a dramatic imbalance in gender ratios. The documentary program explained that, as a consequence, some men in the Punjab have now taken to purchasing brides from Bengal or other parts of India.

Lest we think that this is only a problem in India, China is also facing a similar problem with their draconian one-child policy. The government gives special bonuses to families that have only one child, no bonuses to those who have two, and put heavy pressure on women who become pregnant a third time to have an abortion or even to be sterilized.

Even today, however, in India and China, as in many traditional societies, there is great cultural pressure to have boys and, in extended families, practical benefits too, since boys are expected to bring their wife to live with them. In a country with limited or nonexistent government pension schemes, a son is viewed as a sort of insurance policy for the old age of the parents. A daughter, who will likely move away to some other family, is less likely to be able to provide security to the aging parents.

Couples are willing, in many cases, to accept the restraints of the one-child policy, but they think, "If I have only one child, at least may it be a boy." So, as in India, they look for some prenatal gender indication, and abort any girl children. China also has orphanages in which the great majority of children are female, abandoned by parents who did not have the heart to kill the child outright.

China now has a generation of relatively pampered "only children", the majority of whom are boys. Many of these boys are soon to be of marriageable age; many will not be able to find a wife.

That some men are now unable to find women to marry is the entirely foreseeable though unintended consequence of providing them with a means to choose the sex of their offspring or, rather, to choose which of their offspring will live.

An optimist would expect that situations like these in India and China, would lead to an increased perception of value in having girl children, and an improvement in the treatment of adult women. Unfortunately, this has not occurred, at least not yet. I still hear of young women in China drinking insecticide on purpose because their no-good husbands have spent the family nest egg on drink and gambling. I still hear of "kitchen fires" -- the horrible Indian euphemism for bride-murder -- after the husband's parents were dissatisfied with the motor-scooter or refrigerator delivered by the bride's parents.

I wish there was an immediate thing that could be done so that ill treatment of girl babies, and ill treatment of women in general, would stop. But difficult problems seldom have facile solutions. The only things I can think of are long-term, and themselves very difficult to achieve, particularly in third-world countries:

  1. requiring universal public education for all girls to the age of 18.
  2. discouraging the marriage of women under the age of 18.
  3. curbing the corruption of bureaucratic officials.
  4. making the judiciary process speedy and fair, so that persons who engage in criminal conduct, such as operating sex-selection clinics or dousing women with kerosene and setting them alight, can reasonably expect to be caught, arrested and tried within a few months of the offence.
  5. reducing the swollen military budgets of the various nations to perhaps one-tenth their current amounts, while providing civilian employment for the laid-off military workers in house building, provision of clean water and sanitary sewer facilities, tree planting, street sweeping, etc.
  6. establishing fair progressive taxation systems such as prevail in Scandinavia, under which the more one earns, the higher the percentage of wealth is taxed.
  7. establishing a system of government social security and taxpayer-funded universal medical care, so that people can have a legitimate expectation that they will have access to health care and a decent place to live, even in times of sickness or old age, even if they have no sons to provide fot them through filial piety.

Many of these tasks are very difficult to accomplish unaided by such countries as China and India, so this is an occasion where rich countries such as those of Western Europe, Japan, United States and Canada could aid social harmony by offering real "foreign aid".

(Until now, "foreign aid" has often been a cover story for dumping excess agricultural produce to destroy markets for the produce of local farmers, loans to enable the purchase of unnecessary weapons produced in first-world factories, or subsidies and training to allow third world countries to build up their military forces so they can fight a war as a client state of one superpower against the client state of another superpower. I mean real foreign aid -- technical assistance, training and financial help offered after meaningful consultation with grassroots people to identify genuine local needs that cannot be met otherwise.)

While India has flirted with socialism in the past, it was generally imposed from above with little local consultation, and large hydroelectric dams and steel mills were offered instead of village development. Income taxation systems were unenforced, or honeycombed with loopholes that allowed the wealthy to escape the duty to pay. China lived for two generations under state-controlled communism, again imposed from above with democracy strenuously curtailed and farming forced into an ineffective imported model of forced cummunalism. These discredited forms of state socialism should not be revived, but popular democratic socialism has much to recommend itself.

The credo of J.S. Woodsworth, a pioneering Canadian social democrat, was, "What we wish for oursleves, we desire for all." As Vaisnavas, we attempt to reduce the quantum of our personal wants, while aiming to respect, serve and satisfy our fellow beings. Still, Woodsworth saw, as did Abraham Maslow, that everyone has desires, and the Bhagavad-gita acknowledges: "What can repression accomplish?"

No one has a God-given right to exploit another; instead, we have the God-given joyful duty to love one another. That love means that, following the Bhagavad-gita, we try to see ourselves with sama-darsitva -- accepting personal happiness and distress with some degree of equanimity -- but we see others with sama-darsi -- the same spirit soul is in everyone, regardless of physical body.

A Vaisnava may not maltreat one soul in a woman's body for the sake of offering more to another soul in a man's body. As suggested in Sri Isopanisad, nor should one take food or wealth in excess of actual personal requirements, knowing well to whom they belong. A real Vaisnava, therefore, ought to be a socialist -- a spiritual socialist, to be sure, but a socialist nevertheless. May we dare to hope that, in another generation or two, the scourges of female infanticide, dowry, and spousal abuse can be eradicated through widespread education, a consequent knowledge by women of their universal human rights, and a widespread societal appreciation for the equality of men and women.