The impact of high sex ratios in urban and rural China

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Institute of Child Health


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Hesketh T (2011) Selecting sex: the effect of preferring sons. in Early human development

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Hesketh T (2011) The consequences of son preference and sex-selective abortion in China and other Asian countries. in CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne

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Shou C (2012) The high sex ratio in China: what do the Chinese think? in Journal of biosocial science

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Therese Hesketh (Author) (2011) Should we worry about the high sex ratio?

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Xiaolei W (2013) Rising Women's Status, Modernisation and Persisting Son Preference in China in Indian Journal of Gender Studies

Description 1) The sex ratio in China at the time of the study
Initial analysis of the sex ratio in the under 20 age group from the 2010 census data showed that sex ratios were highest in the 1-4 age group, with six provinces having sex ratios of over 130. The sex ratio at birth was close to normal for first order births, but rose steeply for second order births, especially in rural areas where it reached 146. Nine provinces had sex ratios of over 160 for second order births. The highest sex ratios are seen in provinces which allow rural inhabitants a second child if the first is a girl. Sex selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males. A totally unexpected and hitherto unreported finding was massive distortions in the sex ratio in the reproductive age group in rural areas. In 36 villages in rural Guizhou we found a gradient in the ratio of unmarried men to women of 1.9 in the 20-24 age group and 75 in the 35-39 age group. This is the result of hugely disproportionate out-migration from rural areas of women, who are then able to marry-up to urbanites. Under the household registration rules these women are then able to take up permanent residence in cities. It is rare for rural men to be able to marry urban women, so they are unable to migrate-out permanently.

2) Awareness and concerns about the sex ratio
Of our sample of 7435 across three provinces 64% were aware of the high sex ratio, the majority of which were able to identify a range of negative consequences both for society and for these men, including concerns about increased crime, prostitution and trafficking .

3)Actual societal impacts of the high sex ratio
Routine data sources (local police reports and health statistics) show no evidence for increased crime, prostitution, or increased early female mortality in areas where the sex ratio is high. However, the limitations of such routine data is acknowledged.

4) Sex preference
Qualitative interviews and questionnaire data showed that son preference has weakened considerably. Nearly three quarters (72%) overall expressed gender indifference with more men and women saying that they actually think it is better to have daughters than sons. Sex preference was blamed by many on the older generation, and a few felt they had to have a son to please their own parents. The sex ratio remains high because of the small minority of individuals who still choose sex-selective abortion to ensure male offspring.

5) Psychological well being of unmarried men
Our interviews with 45 older unmarried men in a rural area of Guizhou with a very high sex ratio showed these men to have a profound sense of failure, describing themselves variously as: aimless, hopeless, sad, angry, lonely and marginalised in society. Only eight described themselves as aggressive and four to frequenting prostitutes.
Exploitation Route In the decades since this study was completed the sex ratio was reported to have decreased to an estimated average of 114 in 2020. This is the result of a combination of detraditionalization of attitudes, recognition that cost of since is higher (the consequence of the bride-price), greater enforcement of sex-selective abortion and the universal two-child policy introduced in 2015. Further research is needed to explore the impacts of these changes.

The research and our subsequent engagement, which attracted considerable media attention, have raised awareness of this important problem not only in China, but also beyond and especially in countries where sex ratios are distorted.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy

Description We held two meetings/workshops in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province in June 2011 and in Guiyang, Guizhou province in July 2011(to which Yunnan Province representatives were invited) to disseminate our findings to policy makers. These included representatives of Provincial and local government and health bureaus and social welfare bureaus, the National Women's Federation, and National Youth Federation. In Guiyang the serious problems of unmarried men in rural areas were discussed at length and various measures were discussed to address their problems. For men, being never married is now recognised as a major risk factor for mental health problems, including substance abuse. At both meetings addressing the underlying causes of the high sex ratio was discussed, including attempting to enforce the law forbidding sex selective abortion. The role of the One Child Policy was also discussed together with the degree of flexibility there is for local interpretation and implementation. The findings of the project and the summaries of these meetings were also reported to the National Family Planning Bureau in Beijing in July 2011. The Bureau representative said our findings strengthened the need for education about gender equity and strengthened the case for relaxation of the One Child Policy. The Policy was relaxed and the Universal Two Child Policy was introduced in 2015.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Healthcare
Impact Types Societal