The preference in many Asian countries for sons rather than daughters is creating significant demographic and social problems.

by Michael Backman, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

In the near future, some countries in Asia, including India, China and South Korea, are going to be beset by a new social problem: a growing surplus of young men, many of whom will face the prospect of never marrying. Behind this demographic shift lies the traditional preference of Asian parents for boys. That has always been the case, but recently the availability of cheap ultrasound equipment means parents can now discover the sex of the baby themselves.

For every 1,000 boys born in India and China, 100 fewer girls are born. By 2020, India will have 28 million more men aged 15-34 than women of a similar age. In China, where the prevalence of hepatitis B is also a reason why many women give birth to sons rather than daughters, the figure will be about 30 million and in Pakistan the number will be 3-5 million; by 2030, China and India will have hundreds of million more men than women.

Why do parents prefer sons in much of Asia? The reasons are many: sons marry on the family name, they inherit property in most of Asia's cultures, they are a means of income support in old age, and in India the high cost of providing a dowry means that daughters can represent much financial cost for little return. Also in India, Hindu custom dictates that it is the sons who must perform the cremation rights - no sons means the rites are incomplete. The desire for sons among south-east Asia's Chinese families can be such that daughters are given names such as 'Bring Brother' or 'No more Sisters'.

The effect of the low birthrate of girls in India is exacerbated by the treatment meted out to many girl babies. Infanticide remains a risk, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Simple neglect accounts for many deaths: sons are looked after better than girls. A son will have more spent on his healthcare should he become sick; he will be taken to hospital sooner and have more medicines bought for him. It's simply a matter of economics: sons have a higher net present value than daughters. Currently, about 1 million more girls than boys die during the first five years of life.

A study in 2006 by a professor at the University of Toronto and a medical researcher based in India, published in UK medical journal The Lancet, estimated that each year about 500,000 fewer female babies are born in India than should be the case. Although doctors have been banned since 1994 from revealing the sex of an unborn child to its parents, the researchers estimated that from 1985 to 2005 as many as 10 million female foetuses might have been aborted, coinciding with the increased availability of ultrasound equipment. The study found that the gender imbalance actually increased among better educated and more affluent families, suggesting that they are more effective at finding ways around the law.

In China, the one-child policy has encouraged similar abortion practices. Many families feel that if they are allowed only one child then it should be a boy, and with fewer children the reasons for wanting a son become magnified. One estimate put the number of bachelors caused by the sex imbalance in China in 2006 at 40 million; overall, out of a population of 1.3 billion, there are almost 80 million more men than women.

What are the implications of this Asian gender imbalance? Significant social problems are associated with young men who cannot find wives in societies where enormous importance is attached to raising a family. Growing urban criminality will be a likely side-effect, as those unable to find a partner will tend to be those with poorer economic prospects. Without the stabilising influence of a family, many are more likely to drift into gang membership, crime or religious extremism. A likely policy response is that governments will increase the size of their armies to absorb their young surplus males. Expanding armies will see greater demand for military clothing, ration packs and military housing, which in Asia are increasingly contracted out to the private sector.

The desire to migrate will increase too and the phenomenon of Indian and Chinese guest workers will grow. Many parts of the world are already inundated with illegal mainland Chinese, despite China's booming economy; thousands have poured into Africa in recent years. Niche introduction agencies that seek to match men with women from the diaspora communities will thrive, as will internet matchmaking sites. The Hindu tradition that discourages widows from remarrying is likely to break down too, alleviating a large social problem in a country where most women are only a husband away from abject poverty. Households of one individual, generally a male, will be more common, but, equally, there will be more households where sons never leave home.

International businesses should consider the impact of this demographic shift when making risk assessments for investing in the region. They should also pay careful attention to the way in which the gender imbalance will change local consumer behaviour and tastes, before devising their marketing strategies to sell their products and services in the region.

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