This year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to three women. Announcing the winners last week, the prize committee declared, “Democracy and lasting peace in the world... cannot be achieved unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
But to take hold of those opportunities, women have to be born first.
The three women — Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, peace activist Leyma Gbowee from the same African country and democracy activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen –will share the $1.5 million award for “their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
One of the less visible forms of violence against women has been happening for decades in the world’s possibly two strongest emerging economies: India and China. A World Bank report released recently indicated that 1.3 million girls are not born in China and India every year because of overt discrimination and preference for the male child. The ratio of boys to girls in India has dropped from 983 per 1,000 in 2001 to 914 in 2011.
Other Asian countries are also seeing skewed sex ratios among their populations, and for the same reasons — South Korea, Singapore, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, to name a few.
“The combination of ultrasound and abortion,” writes Mara Hvistendahl in her well-researched book, Unnatural Selection, out earlier this year, “has claimed over 160 million potential women in Asia alone.” And, she goes on to say: “If 160 million were missing from the U.S. population, you would notice — 160 million is more than the entire female population of the United States.”
Hvistendahl acknowledges that deep-seated cultural biases are partly to blame for the missing girls.
But the greater culprit, she maintains, is increasing wealth, elite attitudes, Western influence and technological interventions that allows for choosing the sex of the baby.
Social scientists and demographers have long warned that the millions of surplus men in those gender-skewed countries could destabilize societies, increase sex-trafficking, bride buying and forced marriages.
French demographer Christophe Guilmoto, who went around the world researching gender imbalance, found that sex selection typically begins with the urban, well-educated layers of society. In South Korea, for instance, it was an urban couple that engaged in the first selective abortion. In India, the gender ratio for recent births among women with at least a high school diploma was 114 boys for every 100 girls, according to the 2001 census, whereas it was 108 for illiterate women.
China’s one-child-only policy influences people’s decisions there to have sex-selective abortions or engage in female infanticide, which usually involves wrapping the newborn in a blanket and leaving it in a forest.
Because Vietnam has no such policy, and sex selective abortions are not done there, the country has a gender balance. But because its poverty rate is so high, mail-order brides is big business there, as is sex trafficking, kidnapping of women or selling them off. Men from female-strapped China and Korea cross the borders and buy themselves Vietnamese brides.
Guilmoto speculates that even using the conservative United Nations population projections, which assume couples will soon start having boys and girls in equal numbers — something that is highly unlikely — restoring the global balance of males and females will take until 2050.
Despite these dire predictions, there is little global attention on gender imbalance, which Guilmoto likens to an epidemic. More money is poured into fighting HIV, he observes, than in fighting heinous crimes against the girl child. The AIDS epidemic has claimed 25 million people worldwide, since the virus was first discovered in 1981.That, he points out, is a mere fraction of missing females.
Thorbjorn Jagland, who heads the committee that decides the winners, said he hoped the announcement of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners would empower women globally and drive the cause for women’s rights forward.
One such right is to be born, without which the causes these women championed would be meaningless — assuming they were ever born.
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