Recently, I watched a TV programme about the widening gender imbalance in China that has resulted from the country’s one-child policy and its people’s traditional preference for boys over girls. The report suggested that, if the trend continues, there will be 30 million more men than women there by 2020. This could have serious social consequences. I was not surprised by these revelations, however, as reports continue to filter through of widespread selective abortion or female feticide having been, and still being, carried out in a number of countries.
Where such practices are rampant, the reasons for valuing boys over girls seem multifold. In a male-dominated society, a son can maintain the family name and line and is expected to be able to provide his parents with economic security and care in their old age. A girl, on the other hand, is to be eventually married off with a huge dowry, which is considered a heavy burden on her family.
The international campaign against selective abortion/female feticide often targets China and India because they are the two most populous nations in the world where the numbers of cases of selective abortion are believed to be high. Despite the fact that these countries are now experiencing a rapid economic growth, their views on the position of girls seem to persist. Thus, as long as people cling to different expectations about boys and girls, based on tradition and myth, the trend of gender imbalance will continue.
During the post-war period of rapid economic growth in Japan, boys and girls still had to live up to different expectations, and women were treated more or less as second-class citizens. Growing up as the fifth daughter among six girls in a modest family, I used to hear people talking about the economic burden parents would have to shoulder when marrying their daughter(s) off. It was said that a family would surely go bankrupt if it had three girls to marry off, and there were six in my family and no boys!!!
Because it used to be extremely important for a family in Japan to have a son, my parents must have waited anxiously for the arrival of a boy, but they were never lucky. I sometimes wonder if my younger sister and I might have been aborted had there been a reliable method available to determine the sex of a fetus before birth. As our mother died 30 years ago, I will never know the answer, but perhaps we were lucky to be born when there was no way of telling if an expected baby would be male or female. My mother once told me, though, that when I came into this world, some of her relatives were so disappointed at seeing yet another girl that, having offered her words of sympathy, they actually suggested that she give me away to distant relatives who had no children and who wished to adopt a child. She told me that she had resisted the pressure and told them that girls were just as good as boys and that she would raise all her daughters well. Hearing her words, I remember being grateful to her from the bottom of my heart for having kept me under her care.
In a male-dominated society, where men enjoy more opportunities than women in education, training and employment, it is natural that they are much more able than women to provide their parents with protection and care in their old age. This is reflected in many cases of female feticide in parts of the world where women are considered an economic burden. However, economic development, along with the introduction of universal education, is always a catalyst for the gradual permeation of society by modern ideas, such as democracy, gender equality and the respect for individual rights. Once girls are given equal chances and are encouraged to pursue their dreams and aspirations in life as much as boys are, they are capable of being economically independent and the provider for a family. An independent person with self-respect, as much as the respect for others, should not have to worry about a burdensome dowry when getting married as marriage should be a union of two free individuals in love.
Japanese women are much more economically active today than they were a few decades ago. While they are still behind Western women in achieving gender equality, an increasing number are indeed advancing to higher professional and managerial positions. This has helped to raise their overall social status. Although when I was a child many people openly preferred to have boys rather than girls, the situation has now changed, and, today, many parents treasure their daughter(s) because they often maintain closer ties with married daughters than with their married sons and daughters-in-law.
I wonder when the would-be-mothers in countries where female feticide is still rife will be able to assert themselves by saying “girls are as good as boys”.