When a Boy’s Life Is Worth More Than His Sister’s

More societies around the world are letting girls die so boys can thrive. It’s not just cruel, it's a recipe for disaster.


There’s a popular narrative that, as the centuries roll on, many ancient human evils, if not wholly eradicated, are at least in decline. Human sacrifice, slavery, ritual and genital mutilation, witchcraft accusations, torture — these things, the story goes, have become so stigmatized that they may never resurge once more. Humans have become more humane and progressive as a species.

Not quite.

There’s a popular narrative that, as the centuries roll on, many ancient human evils, if not wholly eradicated, are at least in decline. Human sacrifice, slavery, ritual and genital mutilation, witchcraft accusations, torture — these things, the story goes, have become so stigmatized that they may never resurge once more. Humans have become more humane and progressive as a species.

Not quite.

Some old evils simply morph into a new form — what is the difference, after all, between a victim of human trafficking and a slave? More worrying than this rebranding, however, is that some evils that truly did die out in the past are now making a comeback because technological progress has made them easier to carry out. In those cases, it’s no longer possible to suggest that these things are some legacy of a less civilized human heart.

The clearest example of this is a world trend that has gone largely unnoticed but that has enormous ramifications for the future. The list of countries where girls are culled from the population — either actively (through sex-selective abortion) or passively (through inadequate nutrition and healthcare) — is growing and has been for well over a decade. The phenomenon, previously concentrated in Asia, is now increasingly common in countries in southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Unless aggressively addressed, cultural diffusion will spread the practice even further, with disastrous consequences not only for women, but also for the stability of the nations in which these practices become normative.

In the absence of sex selection and sex-discriminatory mortality, age 0-4 child sex ratios should range between 103 and 106 boys per 100 girls. But as the table below shows, sex ratios among the juvenile population are abnormally high in a number of states throughout the globe.

List of Countries With Abnormally High Juvenile Sex Ratios in 1995 and 2015

Country, 1995 0-4 Sex Ratio Country, 2015 (or latest available) 0-4 Sex Ratio
China 112.6 Albania 110.2
Hong Kong, China 108.8 Armenia 114.0
India 109.4 Azerbaijan 115.0
South Korea 113.4 China 119.1
Taiwan  109 Hong Kong, China 108.2
 Vanuatu  107.7 Macau, China 107.7
Egypt 108.2
Fiji 107.4
Georgia 111.5
India 108.2
Kosovo 108.0
Kuwait 108.1
Lebanon 109.6
Montenegro 109.5
Philippines 107.1
South Sudan 112.2
Sudan 112.4
Taiwan 109.5
Macedonia 108.1
Vanuatu 107.8
Vietnam 113.8


The difference between the two lists, separated by only two decades, is stunning. While the sex ratio is only slightly skewed in some of the states (Fiji, the Philippines, and Vanuatu, for example), the very high sex ratios in Vietnam and the South Caucasus are cause for concern. For these abnormalities to develop within a comparatively short span of years, the trend of favoring boys instead of girls must have been widespread and supported by newly available modern mechanisms.

So what can explain the spread of sex-selection practices in the 21st century? Why would there be more, rather than less, culling of girls in this day and age? Demographers John Bongaarts and Christophe Guilmoto have asserted that sex ratios among the population will rise in the presence of three factors: son preference, declining fertility, and access to sex-selective technology.

They’re right, but that is not the whole story. Consider Kosovo and its neighbors Serbia and Bosnia, which all share these characteristics. Sex ratios are abnormal in the first and normal in the other two. So, what is behind the difference?

Our own recent research has led us to examine how patrilineality organizing societies through the father’s lineage — intersects with the quest for individual security in these nations. In a sense, there are but two answers to this question of how to stay safe in a dangerous world: a central government upheld by rule of law — or the strength and arms of one’s kinsmen. While some societies have long enjoyed meaningful rule of law backed by state enforcement, others have endured weak governments veneered over a much sturdier foundation of kinship-provided security. As governments become increasingly incapable of providing security, clans step in to fill the void.

Clan governance is almost always patrilineal in nature. This is because the primacy of the patriline ensures that the group’s men are bound by blood ties, making trust possible in situations where life and death are at stake. Brothers and male cousins are far more reliable than government functionaries in a pinch.

This turn, however, has deeply gendered consequences. In these clan-based societies, women’s interests must be subordinated in order for patrilineality to maintain its hold over society. Our research, published in the August issue of the American Political Science Review, has shown a “syndrome” of such subordination in clan-governed societies, where women have few or no property rights, rights to divorce, rights to child custody, rights to choose a marriage partner, rights to live apart from her husband’s family, or rights to live free from domestic violence. In these societies, son preference is not just present; it is overwhelming in nature, coloring every aspect of the society.

One tragic example is patrilineality’s ability to warp even something as foundational as mother love. One of our colleagues, for example, has a family of two daughters and one son, and recently worked in Albania — one of the countries whose sex ratio has significantly increased in recent years. At a social gathering he had attended, he told me, “One of the women came up and told me how wonderful it was that I had a son. I replied that it was wonderful that I had all three of my children. She said, ‘Yes, but boys are better than girls.’ I asked, ‘Why do you say that?’ She said, ‘They just are. A mother loves her sons more than her daughters.’” Her two daughters were standing next to her as she spoke to our colleague.

This woman’s attitude is quite common. In a qualitative study performed by the United Nations Population Fund in Albania, focus groups expressed sentiments such as, “There is a big desire for having sons, more than for girls. There is joy when sons are born. Sons are always beautiful, even when they are naked. When sons are born, even the house pillars are happy; when daughters are born, the pillars cry.”

Why such a devaluation of daughters? Patrilineality. The focus group members attempted to explain this to the Population Fund researchers in a number of ways: “Sons are needed for the inheritance of the family name. If you have a son, your name is not lost and your door is not closed when your daughters get married…. If you don’t have a son, then you have to leave the house and the land to your nephew because he carries the family name.” Alternatively, “The son is a working force. He provides for the family. When parents become old, he provides for them and the girl leaves.” And yet another way of expressing it, “Sons are there to work and fight for [their father].” The patriline’s name, its land and assets, social security, and physical security — all depend on sons. So why would anyone accept having a daughter, when you could choose otherwise?

When the factors Bongaarts and Guilmoto identify — son preference, declining fertility, and access to sex-selective technology — meet patrilineality in countries that have become less stable, it’s a recipe for daughters to be eliminated. Ironically, however, culling girls actually makes the security picture for these groups worse. Our research and the research of others show that countries where men significantly outnumber women suffer increases in violent crime and anti-government unrest. Abnormal sex ratios breed chronic insecurity. As one Albanian man in the Population Fund focus groups put it, “The son is for guns.” Add in a dollop of resurgent polygyny (men marrying more than one woman), as these societies often do, and the situation is aggravated even further. Turns out that when you subordinate women, all sort of macro-level indicators, such as food security, health, economic growth — and security — all go south.

So what can be done to turn this situation around? There has been only one nation that has reverted from highly abnormal sex ratios to normal sex ratios since the end of the Cold War: South Korea. It provides an instructive lesson.

Korean families have long valued the role of sons in performing ancestral rites and caring for and supporting elderly parents. Korean families were typically large to ensure the survival of at least one son, but in the 1970s, the Korean government began promoting a two-child norm, and fertility quickly dropped from six to two children per family by 1983. As would be predicted by Bongaarts and Guilmoto, the birth sex ratio began to rise as families used sex-selective practices to ensure the birth of at least one son. The ratio continued to climb, peaking at 116.5 in 1990, at which point it dropped significantly to 110.2 in 2000, and then declined to a normal ratio by 2007.

While some observers might attribute the decline in sex ratio to economic development, the real reason is much more complex. After all, both the steep rise and subsequent fall in South Korean birth sex ratios occurred during a period of near-constant economic growth. Rather, in the South Korean case, decline in sex ratios has been achieved through the establishment of laws and policies, which overhauled practices that assign greater value to sons.

One of the greatest barriers to gender equality in South Korea was Korean family law, which revolved around strong patrilineal clans. Women were not considered full members within their birth clan, nor were they granted rights through their husband’s clan upon marriage. As is typical in patrilineal societies, inheritance and divorce laws grossly favored men to ensure that resources (and children) remained within the male line.

Then things started to change. In the 1980s, women’s rights activists began to apply pressure on the government to change family laws. The first wave of revision was achieved in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when women began to sue for equal inheritance rights. The first small changes granting women more equal inheritance rights and recognition within the family register were strengthened by further, more dramatic revisions to the family law code in 2003, when women were granted the right to head households. In 2005, women’s subordinate status to the male head of household was eliminated, and the family register was replaced by a more equitable system.

As patrilineality was significantly undermined, so, too, was the practice of wives living not only with their husbands, but also his patrilineal extended family. The simultaneous establishment of a pension system for the elderly, coupled with the fact that inheritance no longer passed only through sons, profoundly weakened the need for sons as a social security system. The shift from a predominantly rural economy to an urban economy has also played a part in the need for women to live with male guardians: Daughters no longer “leave,” in a social sense, their birth family and are just as likely as sons to live near their parents and contribute to their economic support.

The dramatic decline in South Korea’s birth sex ratios may not have been achieved as swiftly if the government had not also specifically targeted sex-selective practices. The government’s enforcement of a ban on physician-provided prenatal sex testing made it significantly more difficult to find a cooperative doctor willing to abet a sex-selective abortion.

The South Korean experience can be a model for those countries where sex ratios have begun to dramatically skew. While many observers of the high sex ratios in Asia and other parts of the world assume that the birth sex ratios will decline as these states continue to develop economically, the continually lengthening list of countries with highly abnormal sex ratios belies that assumption. Rather, there needs to be active government efforts to combat the patrilineal practices at the heart of son preference. If we aren’t paying attention, a global gendercide — with its unsavory consequences for national and international stability — will unfold before our very eyes.

Photo credit: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Valerie M. Hudson is professor and George H.W. Bush Chair in the Department of International Affairs at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
Andrea den Boer is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. Hudson and den Boer been conducting research into the causes and consequences of sex selection for over twenty years, and are authors of Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population.

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