The Secret of China's "Missing" Girls

Where are the estimated 1.7 million "missing" girls? Some are unregistered, living illegally with their adoptive parents. Hundreds of thousands of others are missing due to sex-selective abortions.
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Last week, The Washington Times featured a disturbing series of articles on the widening disparity between the sexes in India. Due to the rising use of ultrasounds in the country, women are aborting girls at a much higher rate than boys. Julia Duin reports:

Female infanticide--whereby tiny girls were either poisoned, buried alive or strangled--has existed for thousands of years in India. But its boy-to-girl ratio didn't begin to widen precipitously until the advent of the ultrasound, or sonogram, machine in the 1970s...

That coupled with the legalization of abortion in 1971 made it possible to dispose of an unwanted girl without the neighbors even knowing the mother was pregnant.

Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon's Broadsheet rightfully questioned the politics of this series and cautioned against some of the feminist hypocrisy surrounding this issue. Nevertheless, it is possible, she said, "to fully support a woman's choice to have a sex-selective abortion while condemning the social and economic conditions that make that an appealing choice or -- for poor Indian families unable to commit to a dowry -- no real choice at all."

Not to rehash that conversation, but a similarly alarming, yet widely underreported, trend is happening in nearby China. (The Times piece does mention it, but only in passing.) Outrageously high rates of infanticide and abandonment are taking place and it's barely registering on the radar of any Western human rights groups.

Last week at the Women's Media Center, Talia Carner, author of the new book China Doll - a book about a celebrity's quest to save a baby's life - presented her shocking research to a rapt audience.

If you look at the 2005 UNICEF annual birth report and the Chinese Government's 2006 report on the country's boys-to-girls ratio, she said, one would expect to find 1.7 million more girls that appear. But in regions where the one-child policy intersects with traditional favoring of boys, the boy-to-girl ratio has been growing. China's national average is 122 boys to 100 girls and some places it is even worse: 140 to 100. Worldwide, the ratio is much lower: 105 boys to 100 girls.

Where are the estimated 1.7 million "missing" girls? Some are unregistered, living illegally with their adoptive parents. Hundreds of thousands of others are missing due to sex-selective abortions. Carner is pro-choice, she said, but what she found tests her limits. Some women in China, she said, are having abortions as late as the eighth and ninth month of pregnancy.

The rest are abandoned; and of the 200,000 to 400,000 abandoned infants, none are entitled to government social protection.

This is gendercide, plain and simple, Carner said.

The idea for China Doll came to Carner when, in 1995, she had to conduct research in China to participate in the International Women's Conference in Beijing. Five months before, she watched the BBC's horrifying documentary The Dying Rooms, about the deaths in Chinese orphanages. With the death rate reportedly about 80 percent, Carner was "shaken to the core."

To say Carner's power point presentation was disturbing is an understatement. At one point, she clicked to an image of a baby tied to a toilet seat to underscore the ugly reality of these adoption clinics. Behind the pretty playrooms open to Westerners who are looking to adopt, she said, are some seriously neglectful practices, such as reports that some clinics serve babies only rice and water.

In Carner's recent op-ed in The New York Sun, she wrote that fewer than 10,000 female infants were adopted by foreigners last year, because of stringent new criteria - that the parents seeking to adopt be attractive and thin with money in the bank to send them off to college. But she suspects the problem goes deeper than that. Orphanage directors now have access to millions of dollars; and people are so poor in China - some make as little as $25 a day - that they will kidnap and sell a baby for as much as $150 and as little as $8. Blame it also on the totalitarian government's need for control and their international reputation. "The availability of so many babies doesn't look good... so it denies their existence." Or that the government can't accept that Chinese children might benefit from growing up in a democratic society.

Carner says that Western human rights groups dutifully cover China's human rights abuses just not gendercide. It wasn't covered in Human Rights Watch report released last month or in the 2006 U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. And it's mentioned, but barely, in the 2005 U.S. State Department Report and recent World Health Organization Report.

China will host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and Carner hopes that journalists seize the opportunity to tell this story.

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