The value of an Asian girl

Nature, left to its own devices, produces roughly an even split between newborn baby boys and girls - for obvious reasons. Tragically, however, human intervention has skewed those numbers in many Asian countries. The result? Experts say that tens of millions of females are now effectively "missing" from expected demographic patterns.

The problem is particularly acute in those nations with billion-plus populations, China and India. But similar patterns have also been found in other states in the region, such as South Korea, Pakistan and Taiwan. The reasons are numerous, and vary somewhat from place to place, but essentially come from religious, cultural and economic traditions and pressures that tend to devalue women.

In India, for example, females are often seen as economic burdens by their parents, due to the long-outlawed - but still widely practised - tradition of dowries. Under the system, when a woman is married, her family is expected to provide the groom's family with a payment, often substantial, known as a dowry. Parents, especially those in lower income brackets, at times have to go into debt to provide sufficient dowries to satisfy the groom's family, resulting in financial hardship that can last many years. Thousands of women are reported killed - often called "bride burnings" - every year in India by their in-laws, in disputes over what the husband's family considers inadequate dowries.

In China, the traditional preference for a son, societal rules that favour males, and that populous nation's strict laws limiting families to one child per couple have all combined to place a stigma on the birth of a daughter.

Infanticide has long been practised in many of these countries to reduce the numbers of unwanted baby girls. With the advent of technological tools like ultrasound, millions of female fetuses are aborted every year throughout Asia by expectant mothers, despite laws in several nations banning their use for determining the gender of the expected child. Perhaps surprisingly, well-educated and financially secure mothers are more apt to use such technological sex-selection techniques to favour the birth of male children.

The social repercussions are profound and go beyond the obvious discrimination against women. China and India must deal with skewed sex ratios in their populations that have millions more young men, looking to marry and start families, than young women.

Dedicated, long-term campaigns of education, legislation and international support for crucial societal reforms are the vital ingredients that, over time, can and must change this disturbing picture.

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