Unstable future of a world full of men

Posted on October 27, 2011

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As the global population hits seven billion, experts are warning that skewed gender ratios could fuel the emergence of volatile “bachelor nations” driven by an aggressive competition for brides.

The precise consequences of what French population expert Christophe Guilmoto calls the “alarming demographic masculinisation” of countries such as India and China as the result of sex-selective abortion remain unclear.

But many demographers believe the resulting shortage of adult women over the next 50 years will have as deep and pervasive an impact as climate change.

The statistics behind the warnings are grimly compelling.

Nature provides an unbending biological standard for the sex ratio at birth of 104-106 males to every 100 females. Any significant divergence from that narrow range can only be explained by abnormal factors.

In India and Vietnam the figure is around 112 boys for every 100 girls. In China it is almost 120 to 100 — and in some places higher than 130.

And the trend is spreading: to regions like the South Caucasus, where Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia all post birth ratios of more than 115 to 100, and further west to Serbia and Bosnia.

Global awareness of the problem was raised back in 1990 with an article by the Nobel prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen that carried the now famous title: “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing.”

Demographers say that figure is now more than 160 million — women selected out of existence by the convergence of traditional preferences for sons, declining fertility and, most crucially, the prevalence of cheap prenatal sex-determination technology.

As many as half a million female foetuses are estimated to be aborted each year in India, according to a study by British medical journal The Lancet.

How that change might manifest itself is hotly debated, although nearly everyone agrees there is no foreseeable upside.

Some forecast an increase in polyandry and sex tourism, while others predict cataclysmic scenarios with the rise of male-surplus societies where sexual predation, violence and conflict are the norm.

But while more and more red flags are being raised over the long-term implication of skewed sex ratios, few solutions are being offered.

Sex-selective abortion is illegal in both China and India, but officials say the law is incredibly difficult to enforce.

UN agencies have issued similar warnings about the correlation between a scarcity of women and increases in sex trafficking and marriage migration, albeit with certain caveats.

“The data is really limited,” said Nobuko Horibe, Asia-Pacific director of the UN Population Fund. “It is very likely that this marriage squeeze would lead to these phenomena… but it’s very anecdotal at this stage.”

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