MAKING EVERY BABY GIRL COUNT

March 11, 2009

There is a new type of family taking hold in China: one that embraces the birth of girls.  These families are foot soldiers in a desperate program, called Care for Girls, to narrow China's gaping sex ratio at birth, among the highest in the world at 120 boys for every 100 girls, says Science Magazine.

In 1980, China, concerned about a population explosion, adopted a one-child policy -- and enforced it through compulsory sterilizations and abortions.  The policy clashed with the country's patrilineal tradition so much so that many families went to great lengths to ensure that their sole child was a boy.  As a result, mortality rates among girls ages 1-4 spiked, says Science.

Realizing that reversing this trend would require a major cultural shift, researchers developed a framework that would make having girls economical and socially acceptable:

  • In 1999, the Family Planning Commission implemented a pilot program, Care for Girls, in Chaohu, in rural Anhui Province.
  • Volunteers began augmenting their routine of birth monitoring and contraception distribution with the oversight of doctors operating ultrasound machines.
  • The program also features microcredit grants to women and social security payments for parents of girls along with measures designed to change social customs.

The results were promising, says Science:

  • Chaohu's sex ration dropped from 125 in 1999 to 114 in 2002.
  • The next year, the Chinese government scaled up the program to 24 districts.
  • Results were similarly encouraging, with the sex ratio in those places declining from 134 in 2000 to 120 in 2005.
  • In 2006, Care for Girls rolled out nationwide.

Researchers concede that the program's short-term gains may be the result of a crackdown on sex selection, not deeper cultural change.  But unborn girls get a boost from urbanization; the flow of migrant workers to wealthy cities in eastern China raises women's earning power and introduces new ideas to the countryside.

Source: Mara Hvistendahl, "Making Every Baby Girl Count," Science, Vol. 323, February 27, 2009.

 

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