Monday, March 08, 2010

Taiwan's gender imbalance

My friend Kerim Friedman tipped me off to this piece at Language Log on on literacy and the sex ratio. It observes:
I was spending a pleasant portion of a Sunday morning reading a shocking article in The Economist on The Worldwide War on Baby Girls. One of the sad conclusions of that article is that the preference for male babies, which in some parts of the world is driving the ratio of male to female births to as high as 130 male births per 100 female, is actually getting worse as education gets better in some parts of the world. One of the points made is that "[i]n China, the higher a province’s literacy rate, the more skewed its sex ratio."
The post's author then went on to make a graph that illustrates his point: the higher the literacy, the higher the gender imbalance in favor of males. Is Taiwan any different?

Taiwan Today offered this summary of Taiwan's gender imbalance issues yesterday:
Over the past five years, the imbalance between the sexes at birth in Taiwan ranged between 108 and 109 boys to 100 girls. The figure is far higher than the ratio of 105 to 106 suggested by the United Nations, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

MOI data show the sex ratio at birth in Taiwan from 1955 to 1986 was within the U.N. scale. It began rising in 1987 and in 2004 was 110.7 on average, the highest in the ROC’s history and topping countries around the world.

“This figure was even higher than that in China, which has a one-child policy,” said Ho Bih-jen, secretary-general of the National Alliance of Taiwan Women’s Associations, March 5. “The proportion dropped in 2008, but was still the third-highest in the world.”

.....

According to the MOI, in 2004, the sex ratio at birth for first child was 108.7; for second, 109.4; for third, 122.6; and for the fourth, 122.8.

....

“But in recent years, the South Korean government has forbidden obstetricians from revealing a baby’s sex before it is born. Today, the country is no longer in the top-three list,” she said. “Parents in Taiwan still tend to give up having a baby when they learned of the fetuses’ sex.”

Ho said if Taiwan’s sex ratio remains on track, in 10 years there will be 200,000 fewer girls than boys. “This grave imbalance would create serious social problems such as sharp decline in birth numbers.”
As this article on the similar phenomenon in Korea describes, not only does the sex ratio mean fewer women to bear babies, it also lowers the fertility rate because couples stop having children when they hit their first son. Further, as birth order increases, so does the sex ratio -- the last kid is more likely to be a son, since couples stop when they reach a boy. This leads to another weird family shape I have seen in Taiwan several times but not elsewhere: families with 4,5,6 or even 7 girls as mom and dad fail to get a son despite repeated tries.

One has to wonder about the other social effects. If girls are more likely to be raised in families where there are more kids and they get proportionally less attention, what are the results on things like self-esteem, competitiveness, negotiating skills, or independence? If boys are more likely to be raised in families where they are only children, or the youngest child, what are the likely effects?
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25 comments:

pumpkinslayer said...

"Parents in Taiwan still tend to give up having a baby when they learned of the fetuses’ sex."

I know I'm ranting a bit, but this goes over and beyond the right to choose and all that jazz. For me this feels like the parents are saying,

"Dear unborn child,

Luck has not been on your side, you're only a girl so we're going to kill you, better luck next time.

Love,
Your would-be parents"

The choice to reveal the sex is not the problem, nor the extreme ease with which the abortion can be done, but the willingness to go through with it. It's a pretty sad situation.

My wife's family is four girls followed by a boy. They were living in almost abject poverty but kept having kids until a son was born. Their living situation has improved since then but the repercussions in terms of the relationships between siblings is pretty devastating. A constant battle to try and prove that they're worth something when they all know that they were just a mistake before their brother arrived. And they have been told this.

It seems that here, money trumps life, personal preferences trump life, the opinions of parents trump life. I pray it gets better for the sake of generations to come.

無名 - wu ming said...

sex ratios aren't uniform across china, the article's missing one key factor, that of regional culture. in the datasets i've seen from the 80s and 90s, the sex ratio went up when cantonese and fujianese got rich and literate, the sex ratio went up, but stayed even in jiangnan even when it boomed. taking china as one uniform dataset obscures a lot of variation, both between regions and within them. the late anthropologist g. william skinner's done a ton of good research on this.

it would be interesting for someone to compare taiwan's sex ratios+fertility decline with jiangnan and fujian's, as well as regionally in taiwan, if the data exists.

Michael Turton said...

A constant battle to try and prove that they're worth something when they all know that they were just a mistake before their brother arrived. And they have been told this

Yeah, that's what I am thinking too. I've heard that from females here many times, and I know it must leave deep scars.

Peter Saw said...

You do notice that Taiwan had a female vice president and the leader of the DPP is a female right? In some ways, much more progressive than the slightly female heavy US.

Anonymous said...

Hey man, don't turn your conspiracy theory minds at the gender ratio. It's simple economics. With fewer women, the male have to compete much harder for dates, girlfriend, or marriage partner. That's why the girls here have that "You need to take care of me", "Ideally you're going to make lots of money for me", "Yes, hold my purse for me for starters" mentality. That's why it's always male pursues the female mentality here. Girls in the US throw themselves at men and grovel relative to the girls here.

Thoth Harris said...

Well said, Anon 2:44 p.m.!

English Teacher Guy said...

I taught the word "abortion" to a male student (age 17) once, and he replied, "I know that word...my mother had 2 abortions before she had me; those would have been my sisters."

Stefan said...

I think this is partially caused by the ancestor worship system. Essentially if you don't have a son to carry on the blood line you are starving in the afterlive, and you might cause starvation for your ancestors, too.

There is a really interesting comic by a Hongkong artist which deals with that topic:
http://tang.comicgenesis.com/manga/bloodline_2004/blood2004_frame.html

While this does nothing to solve the societal problem - I think there is something we (married to Taiwanese women) foreigners can do for our in-laws: When it comes to pick a Chinese family name for your kids - chose hers. It doesn't really matter for us anyway, and they'll have your western name on the western passport, so why not put her Taiwanese name on the Taiwanese passport?

Even if your in-laws aren't particularly religious, it's still a nice gesture, I think.

Anonymous said...

Up until recently blood ancestry didn't matter and Taiwanese would simply adopt a male heir to worship at the tombs and carry the family name. The function was the same. Only after ideas of blood descent entered the picture at the end of the 18th century did producing an heir through sex become mandatory.

Anonymous said...

19th century rather... even into the late Japanese period.

Dixteel said...

"Girls in the US throw themselves at men and grovel relative to the girls here."

lol. No woder people call the US "the land of opportunity." lol

Robert R. said...

...I think there is something we (married to Taiwanese women) foreigners can do for our in-laws: When it comes to pick a Chinese family name for your kids - chose hers.

That's what I did, but partly because I didn't like Luo as a surname (closest transliteration).

On the other hand, I "only" have a daughter now. My father-in-law is unlucky in that sense. His 2 other daughters have 2 sons each. His only son has 2 daughters.

Marc said...

"Up until recently blood ancestry didn't matter and Taiwanese would simply adopt a male heir to worship at the tombs and carry the family name."

Funny you should mention this. I'm reading Vern Sneider's "A Pail of Oysters" and one of the protagonists is the adopted (actually, 'purchased') heir to a pimp, while his sister worked for the adopter as a prostitute.

vin said...

"Girls in the US throw themselves at men and grovel relative to the girls here."

-- As a generalization, this is highly true.

"It's simple economics. With fewer women, the male have to compete much harder for dates, girlfriend, or marriage partner."

-- Not exactly. I'm not about to go doing research on this, but the numbers may even end up favoring men as selectors here once you factor in the percent of guys who opt out by wife-hunting in China, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

"That's why the girls here have that "You need to take care of me", "Ideally you're going to make lots of money for me", "Yes, hold my purse for me for starters" mentality. That's why it's always male pursues the female mentality here."

-- Only partly true. You've neglected to state that guys readily going along with this phenomenon -- in fact, refusing to believe that there are other approaches that would work -- is also responsible (arguably more responsible) for extant dynamics.

A highly unimpressive post, Anon 2:44

Anonymous said...

Marc,

Than book crossed my mind as I wrote that. Arthur P. Wolf has written a lot on adoptions. John Shepherd's Statecraft and Political Economy deals with the issue as well.

Pail of Oysters is an interesting read... kind of hokey language until the end. But to read between the lines it says a lot. I guess Ed Paine lent the Verne Sneider his translator who hooked him up with the right people.

I am glad you could find the book.

Anonymous said...

Vin, it seems to me that the internet is full of humorless grouches like you, today.
I don't think Anon was trying to topple your worldview, so relax. A lot of what that person said was humorous. Anyway, chill out, and let others enjoy it. Sheesh!

vin said...

Anon 10:44:

There are Rodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngman routines -- and then there are situations where guys get together (when their wives let them out)and make bonding jokes about being enslaved and keeping "the boss" happy.

Are these two things on a par with each other in terms of quality?

I got that 2:44 was aiming for humor. But the material lacked a foundational-connecting element; thus it was shorn of reference to anything at all in the original post or in the comments that preceded it. (Try going from sentence one to sentence two -- and then to sentence three -- and see how clear reference to anything gets entirely lost.)

But who knows? Maybe I'll look at 2:44's comment again another day and suddenly see that the comment in fact is sufficient unto itself and is a masterpiece of pith.

So far, though, it still looks trite and not clever to me -- because it's elements are not moored to a foundationa/connecting diea. Dumb stereotypes gathered together on a capricious whim that raise an inescapable (though hardly gripping) question: "Why?"

But laugh away, 10:44, if you want. Enjoy your party enough and you won't even notice that I'm not there.

Jenna said...

I'm not one to allow others to enjoy sexist, generalist, woman-hating, US-hating-just-because-we-can-and-they-ALWAYS-deserve-it bull**** so I'm gonna call shenanigans on "women in the US grovel more" or whatever it was. The fact that this can even be seen as humor, or that some people would agree with it, makes me really, really sad.

As a female and an American, that is.

Also, this article on gender imbalance. Sick stuff. Probably true. An acquaintance of mine (Taiwanese) at a dinner once toasted - "I'd like to propose a toast to Jenna. I hope you have a happy married life and you have many sons. Cheers!"

I did speak up about it. Can't let that stuff slide - "letting it go" is part of the reason why women let themselves be treated like lesser beings for most of human history.

And people still wonder why women - especially us feminist, liberal outspoken women - still have our noses out of joint.

THIS IS WHY.

vin said...

Jenna:

I'm often sloppy when I write these comments, and rereading the first comment I sent in here, I see that I wrote it's "highly true" that girls in the US throw themselves at and grovel to men.

I meant to write "highly untrue"! And I agree: no reason why you should let this this stuff pass without objection. (Though of course you have no power to disallow it; only the blogmeister does.)

Anon 2:44's comment's lack of a connecting thread/foundational humor premise means that the people finding the comment funny are laughing at a collection of shabby stereotypes and shallow, no-context cliches -- are taking satisfaction in confirming their insecure prejudices (sorry Dixteel, I like the insights and sincerity in most of your comments, but...).

And I dislike aesthetically, too, the idea that any of this is humor. I have no problem in most cases with politically-incorrect humor -- if it's actually humor. But humor puts a fresh twist on stereotypes or places them in unexpected contexts or somesuch. There was none of that in Anon 2:44's comment. Just a hackneyed trotting out of same-old, same-old.

Just dreariness.

Jenna said...

No worries, vin! I actually aimed that more at the original comment by Anonymous (who clearly has a fine set of balls by making that comment as Anonymous), not at you.

Of course I have no right to disallow it, although I would on my own blog. Or I'd put up a post on that comment and tearing the commenter a new one in my reaction. Depending on my mood.

And I am all for politically incorrect humor if its done in a way to poke fun at people who make stereotypes, or to laugh at ourselves as humans, rather than to further stereotyping and gender-baiting. Brave, courageous Anonymous did the latter, not the former.

But yeah - I will never, ever let it slide. Especially as there aren't many foreign women in Taiwan compared to foreign men, so those of us who are here need to speak up.

Dixteel said...

yea, but when are there going to be some people defending the parents of Taiwan? I know girls in Taiwan that are treated well by their parents. Although gender imbalance in Taiwan is still a fact, all these bashing seem to say parents in Taiwan don't care about girls and treat them like dirts, which I think for most part is not true, at least in my experience.

Patrick Cowsill said...

I'd be curious to see some statistics on what this is going to do Taiwan's overall population count down the road. Taiwan's population is shrinking, which worries economists. On the other hand, Taiwan still seems very crowded.

Anonymous said...

Hey! That's not fair. As Anonymous 6:34, I would like to clarify that I have no link to Anonymous 2:44, who just seems angry that girls won't just throw themselves at him because he's a misogynistic cave man.

There are lots of self-loathsome guys like that who feel bad about themselves because even the most emotionally fucked up or drugged out meth-head women wouldn't even come by to exchange sex for blow with him.

These are the guys who sulk in their rooms living in a fantasy world between internet games and the emotional safety of Japanese porn.

Michael Turton said...

patrick, i blogged on it a while back. Seems we are going to shrink and by 2050, will be at 21 million or so if current trends continue.

http://michaelturton.blogspot.com/2009/09/taiwan-has-worlds-lowest-fertility-rate.html

Jenna said...

Taiwanese girls are treated a lot better than in the past (when it was quite common to give your girls away to be raised by other families - several of my students have aunts or - if older, even sisters - who are given-away girls). That is true.

They're also treated a LOT better than women in most of the rest of Asia. One of the reasons that, as a foreign woman, I chose to live in Taiwan is that I didn't feel sexism was such a huge problem here. It's not perfect, but then neither are any countries in the West and by Asian standards, it's pretty damned equal.

That said, there's still a lot of gender stereotyping, especially by parents but also by potential suitors of Taiwanese girls (that is, Taiwanese guys and, yes, foreign guys, though not all of either group). Many families still push their daughters to become housewives, teachers, office girls (that is, secretaries) or accountants. Their mothers, mothers-in-law and husbands still expect them to do the majority of household tasks. Getting married and having a baby are still seen as two primary life goals.

This is of course not true for everyone and certainly not in every family. I am, along with that, happy to constantly meet women in positions of power in Taiwan. I can name more Taiwanese female executives than I can American ones. My doctors are just as likely to be female as male, and even in traditionally male jobs, like taxi driving and butchery it is still more common to see women doing them than it is back home (I have never met a female taxi driver in the USA. I have met several in Taiwan).

One of my best friends in Taiwan is a Taiwanese girl - single, pretty, about 30 years old, vivacious, outgoing and intelligent. She's told all the time by her friends, colleagues (yes, colleagues!), boss (BOSS!) but most especially her *mother* that she is too outgoing and should be quieter or nobody will want to marry her, that she's too "fun" and "active" and she should settle down and be gentler and not so "tough", that she shouldn't show off and of course that her skin is too dark, and that's the only way to be happy.

And then people wonder why she hangs out with a gaggle of foreign girls (plus my fiance and occasionally other guys). With pressure like that, and the intelligence to see it for what it is, the reason should be pretty obvious.