China’s decision to abolish its decades-old one-child policy will help advance women’s rights, experts say, but for it to have an impact, popular attitudes toward girls must also change.
The policy limiting most parents to only one child, enforced since 1976, was the “biggest public failure in post-Mao China,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The policy led to millions of forced abortions and the practice of drowning infants in buckets next to their mothers’ childbed, he said. If families can only have one child, they want it to be a boy. The result is a sex ratio at birth of 121 males per 100 female infants in China, mainly because of women choosing to abort fetuses identified as female. Researchers have estimated that there are an estimated 30 million “missing” women in China because of the practice.
More recently, this ratio has made it more difficult for men to find spouses and start traditional families. That has led to rampant trafficking of women in some areas, advocates say.
The shortage of women is so dire that men physically fight over women.
“When I was in China, one of the things that I used to see pretty regularly were fights breaking out between Chinese men and expat (foreign) men who were with Chinese women,” said Seth Kaplowitz, international business law professor at San Diego State University. “There were not enough women to go around.”
But allowing parents to have two children doesn’t necessarily mean they will, said Michelle King, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of the book, “Between Birth and Death: Female Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century China.”
Families struggling to provide for one child might not have enough money or time to raise two, she said. “People will have to decide, ‘Do I have enough resources to take care of my kid?’” King said. “Because people have to pay for more things themselves, that might be a consideration as well.”
Female infanticide rates traditionally are higher in rural areas, but the factors driving it won’t be address by the change in policy, said Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, who has worked on human rights issues, including forced abortions, in rural areas in the country. A bias toward having sons, who can provide for their parents at old age, persists outside of urban areas, he said.
High poverty rates in rural areas and pensions that are lower than in cities reinforce that preference, he said. “More practical people will still feel that if they don’t have a boy, no one will support them in old age. You try to talk sense into these people, and they won’t listen. They know that men have more of a chance to succeed in the workforce,” Chen said. "Many rural people still depend on boys to go to the city to support their families."
While many of these concerns are practical, some of the reasons motivating Chinese policymakers to do away with the measure are also moral in nature, said David Mungello, professor of history at Baylor University and author of the book, “Drowning Girls in China, Female Infanticide since 1650.”
A loss of belief in communism, for example, has created more space for religion to gain popularity. “This vacuum has allowed for a revival of traditional forms of thinking in which there was [some] opposition to female infanticide,” Mungello said. And while the attitude shift won’t eliminate forced abortions, he added, it may help limit the practice.
“If you can have more children, it’s going to be easier to have a boy,” he said. “If you already have a boy this might lessen the impact [for girls].”
The one-child policy has had devastating effects on girls' health, extending far beyond childhood. Preferences for sons can lead mothers with firstborn daughters to incur what Abigail Weitzman, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center, has called a “daughter tax” — physical and emotional violence in retaliation against an unwanted girl.
Furthermore, more girls than boys of school-going age lack the official registration that allows them to access public social services, including school and health care, according to a 2013 study by UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency. UNICEF found that most unregistered children were those born outside the official family planning policy.
Massoud Hayoun and Haya El Nasser contributed reporting