top of page

Female Infanticide
Professor Studies Effects of Female Infanticide 
By Stephanie Tripp

During the 19th century, the Chinese province of Huai-Pei suffered devastating natural disasters including floods, droughts, famines, and locust invasions nearly every three or four years. The peasants in this province, who were dependent on the land and the crops, did the only thing they could think of to survive under these conditions--they killed their female babies.

Male babies were valued as potential food providers and contributors to the family income while females were another mouth to feed and could only be married off at great expense to the family. In this time of desperation, reducing liabilities, such as female children, was seen as a viable survival technique. As a result, during this century there was an average of 129 men for every 100 women in Huai-Pei.

This skewed sex ratio became a problem when the men were ready to marry. Because of the lack of females, many men had no hope of marrying, raising a family, or supporting themselves; consequently, they grouped together and began small-scale banditry throughout the province to steal and provide for their families. Eventually, nearly 100,000 of these men, known as the Nian, led a rebellion on the Chinese emperor from 1851 to 1863 that contributed to the fall of the empire.

Could female infanticide--the selective killing of female fetuses, newborns, and infants --have been an important underlying cause of this rebellion? BYU professor of political science Valerie Hudson believes the answer is yes.

Hudson--joined by international and area studies master's student Andrea denBoer as well as Stephanie McWhorter, another graduate student, and undergraduate Kathy Pate--has set out to find what happens to a society when a large number of the male population (known as the "bare branches" by the Chinese) are unable to marry as a result of female infanticide. Hudson will be presenting the findings at the International Studies Association Convention in March in Minneapolis. Hudson and denBoer are also currently writing a book on their findings.

Hudson believes this study is important because of the area in which female infanticide is prevalent. She says in China, India, Korea, and Taiwan, there have been and currently are massive deficits of females. Although Hudson believes birth statistics from these countries are understated, official 1997 statistics in China show 117 male births for every 100 female births.

In 1995, India's ratio was 110 to 100, and in Korea, it was 114 to 100. The natural ratio of male to female births is approximately 106 males per 100 female births. In addition, higher youth mortality for females in these nations leads to even more-skewed ratios among young adults.

"Together, China and India compose nearly one-third of the world's population; they are regional rivals, and China has hopes of becoming a world power," Hudson says. "What does it mean for the future if nearly one-third of humanity has societies in which we have an artificial and highly skewed sex ratio?"

With this concern in mind, Hudson and denBoer have discovered several causes and effects of female infanticide supported by current and historical evidence.

One of the causes deals with harshness of the environment, like that faced by the people of Huai-Pei. "We have found that with certain groups of people who live in harsh environments, you get more prevalent female infanticide," she says. "The value of men tends to go up in very harsh environments with the type of agriculture that involves heavy labor."

Another cause is the threat of invasion on a country or province. "You have to protect females in the context of an invasion whereas young men warriors can fight off the invaders," Hudson says. Also, these people fear that in the case of invasion, their daughters may become the wives or concubines of their enemies.

Finally, Hudson and denBoer have found that family accumulation is another cause of infanticide. "Every time you have a daughter, you are going to be sending her out to another family and expending resources to make that marriage," Hudson says. "Every daughter born is an erosion of your family's ability to accumulate money and power and status." In fact, Hudson has found sayings that read, "Raising a daughter is like watering a plant in another man's garden."

Female infanticide has been seen as a way out of these problems, Hudson says. But she argues that beside the ethical concerns, the practice brings its own set of problems. Hudson and denBoer have studied current reports and historical data in search of behavioral patterns that are or potentially could be problems in China, India, Korea, or Taiwan. They have found several.

One effect of female infanticide is organized aggression like the Nian rebellion. "When these CLSM (celibate low status males) reach a certain critical mass, they begin to feel that if they could grasp or seize power within the culture, things would change for them," Hudson says.

Along with both unorganized and organized aggression, another effect of female infanticide is the importing of women. The women are not imported as brides, however, because foreign women are viewed as inferior. Rather, the women become prostitutes. Hudson has also found some evidence that there is an increase in homosexuality.

The women who are native to countries where infanticide occurs are married at an increasingly younger age, not uncommonly at the age of 12 or 13 in India, Hudson says. "The older generation of men have to rob the younger generation of women to find brides. Of course, that means that the younger generation of men are going to have to do the same thing."

At times, women are kidnapped, stolen, or bought. They are also often sold on the open market against their will. To get the money to buy women from these "bride" markets, Hudson says men from China and India will often go to other countries to work.

Some men cannot get a woman at all and will give up the idea and hope of marriage entirely and remain bachelors. Hudson has found reports that in China there are several "all bachelor" villages. In fact, she says China admits it has 80 million adult males who will never marry. This figure is likely to rise as younger generations, where the number of "missing" females is even greater, mature.

In past eras, many of these men, instead of remaining bachelors, declared religious celibacy, becoming monks or priests. These monks were active in several major Chinese rebellions.

Finally, Hudson has found that historically, a number of these men became eunuchs so they could rise in power and status. "If a male would consent to be castrated, or if parents castrated their young son, he could then work for the emperor or the various princes or kings," she says. "Only eunuchs were allowed to work in the royal household." These eunuchs were also involved in creating civil unrest.

Female infanticide is a current problem that has been occurring for centuries, Hudson said. The major difference, however, between the 19th century and today is abortion.

"The reason these sex ratios are so skewed today is not primarily because people are drowning their daughters," Hudson says. "It is because they are having ultrasound tests, seeing that it is a girl, and deciding to abort it. This technology allows for a prevalence of female destruction unprecedented in human history."

Even though the use of an ultrasound machine to determine sex and sex-selective abortion are illegal in China and India, the number of females missing in these countries has risen dramatically since ultrasound devices were introduced. The percentage of missing females in China has risen from 5 percent to 12 percent, and in India, the percentage has increased to 10 percent.

With abortion now a part of the issue, Hudson and denBoer anticipate their research will not be accepted by the general academic audience. In fact, Hudson found that potential funding sources outside of BYU would not support her research in part because they felt she had a political agenda concerning abortion. "We do it, though, because we believe it is important for someone to say this even though there will be a backlash against it," Hudson says. "We believe that one day, somebody will say, you know, they had a point."

Back to Top

bottom of page