Beyond gender dystopia

Beyond gender dystopia
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First Published: Tue, Nov 06 2007. 11 36 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Nov 06 2007. 11 36 PM IST
Jim Rogers is trying to bet on the shortage of girls in Asia.
The investor, who once partnered the legendary George Soros in the 1970s and was one of the first to latch on to the incipient commodity boom earlier in this decade, reportedly said in a video interview to Bloomberg: “There’s a huge shortage of women developing right now. In Korea, for every 100 girls, there are 120 sixteen-year-old boys. The same is happening in China, the same is happening in Japan, India. I have not found any good ways to invest in this—it’s going to change education, it’s going to change travel, it’s going to change everything. You should become a divorce lawyer. Divorces are going to skyrocket in Asia as 26-year-old women figure out that they don’t have to be abused by their husbands any more or their employers. The status of women is going to change dramatically and someone is going to make a lot of money off of it.”
Rogers has been saying for some time that a shortage of girls will eventually make our societies value them more. Does he know what he is talking about?
Asian countries have had a long history of female infanticide. Easy access to sex-determination tests has worsened the problem in our patriarchal societies. The number of girls for every hundred boys has been dropping in recent decades across Asia, as female foetuses are aborted. The usual assumption is that this trend could continue, and the gender imbalance will lead to greater violence against women and wars between nations. This vision of a testosterone-ridden dystopia got a fresh airing at the end of October, when the UN Population Fund said in a new report that Asia’s gender imbalance is growing.
But will a society that has a surfeit of single men start respecting women or will it fall back on its unfortunate habits to violate their independence even further? In terms of crude economics, a shortage of girls should ideally increase their value. But then we forget the cultural backdrop against which economies operate. That may actually degrade women further.
There is a glimmer of hope here, however.
Two researchers from the World Bank, Woojin Chung and Monica Das Gupta, have said in a policy paper published in October that son preference is declining in South Korea. That makes South Korea the first Asian country to reverse a tragic trend, even though its gender ratio is still one of the worst in the world. Chung and Das Gupta also ask what India and China can learn from the South Korean experience.
They say that the primary reason why South Korean parents are less obsessed with having sons is that industrialization and urbanization have helped break down traditional society and its mores. This is despite the fact that successive South Korean governments, especially those controlled by the military, tried to promote strict adherence to Confucian values.
Chung and Das Gupta say that India and China may not have to wait till they are as developed as South Korea is, before their gender ratios too move towards balance. “The spread of non-farm employment diversifies sources of livelihood, making people more independent of familial pressures and traditions, and higher levels of circular migration spread urban ways to thinking,” they say. Also, the governments of India and China are more sensitive to gender equality than South Korea’s generals were.
Or take the latest World Development Indicators published every year by the World Bank. “The gaps between the sexes are going through a major shift worldwide,” writes Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann in a blog. “In 2006, literacy ratios of young women between the ages of 15 and 25 were higher than young men’s in 54 out of 123 countries. If we look at secondary school enrolment, in 2004, there were 84 out of 171 countries in which girls outnumbered boys. At college level, this is also true of 83 of 141 reporting countries.”
This by no stretch of imagination means that women are anywhere close to equality in our societies. There is a long way to go.
The point here is a more limited one. The dark prophecy of hyper-aggressive societies dominated by single men may turn out to be true after all. But there is another possibility beyond this brave new world of violence and indignity. Rapid growth in incomes may help break down traditional society and parents will start getting over their obsessive preference for male offspring. This is what has started to happen in South Korea. Or the shortage of girls will force societies to value them more, lavishing them with care and not denying them their core human rights.
It’s a tough call to make. But perhaps, to answer the question raised earlier in this article, Jim Rogers does know what he is talking about. There could be a whole new investment opportunity out there as we learn to respect our little princesses.
Your comments are welcome at cafeeconomics@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Nov 06 2007. 11 36 PM IST