It’s a girl! The phrase that brings joy and pride to so many couples often elicits the opposite reaction in China, where an extreme number of daughters are abandoned or aborted. The alarming trend is attributed by many to the government’s one-child policy. The weighty subject was a topic of conversation on June 17th at a fundraiser in Boston to support All Girls Allowed (AGA), an organization that helps to restore life, value and dignity to girls and mothers in China.
Photographs lined the banquet hall displaying happy mothers with their daughters, many of whom were helped by AGA. The non-profit was founded by Chai Ling, a Tiananmen Square Movement leader turned Boston-based entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist.
Her organization quickly amassed critical media and congressional attention since its inception last year in Washington, D.C. It is building a broad base of political, business, civic and faith-based actors to end gendercide – the systematic elimination of one sex. In this case, girls are often the victims due to traditional preference for sons which is further exacerbated by the one-child policy.
Implemented since 1979, the one-child rule applies strictly to urban populations, with exceptions and nuances for rural families and ethnic minorities. Still, draconian enforcements such as steep fines, forced sterilizations and forced abortions are commonplace. It also leads to rampant sex-selective abortions via the use of ultrasound screenings, albeit unlawful.
The Chinese government lauds the macro result of population containment (400 million less people) of the policy officially known as birth planning (計劃生育政策). It undergirds ambitious market reforms that brought an unprecedented hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and raised living standards of urban middle class. Increasingly, the one-child policy is criticized for undermining social and economical stability, let alone being responsible human rights violations.
In the most populous country on earth, there are now 120 boys born for every 100 girls. That translates into a million more boys born each year and 37 million more men than women in total – equivalent to the entire US population of young men, or a country the size of Canada populated exclusively by young males.
“When I was volunteering at an orphanage in China, I found an overwhelming majority of the children were girls – I was heartbroken,” lamented Brian Lee, Executive Director of AGA.
The collateral damage adds more dimensions to this severe gender imbalance in China: one million infants abandoned per year, 70,000 trafficked per year, 35,000 forced-abortions take place every day, and 500 women commit suicide every day (five times global average).
Globally, gender imbalance is seen in former Soviet Union states and Asia, even in the most industrialized societies such as Singapore and South Korea. The most acute trends remain in India and China, what Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen calls Asia’s “missing women.” As these sons reach adulthood, the dearth of brides ushers a bachelor generation. These single men, also known as “bare branches” (光棍) in China, are speculated to have deep implications and disturbances in areas from human trafficking, to public health, to national security.
Mao Zedong notably declared that “women hold up half the sky.” At the current gross rates of forced abortions, high female suicides and neglect of girls, China is edging dangerously on the brink of social disorder. The surplus of men may have increased mental health problems, violent behavior among men, and the kidnapping of women for marriage and prostitution.
These dire consequences, along with old-age dependency and a growing small-family culture, may lead an inevitable abolishment or reform of the policy, but that tipping point is not at all guaranteed.
“[AGA’s mission] is a David versus Goliath fight,” said David Aikman, the evening’s keynote speaker. The award-winning author and former TIME Magazine Beijing Bureau Chief went on to commend the audacity of Chai Ling, who sustained the same spirit of activism in her Tiananmen Movement days plus her newfound Christian calling to address the suffering of women and girls.
“The practice of foot-binding was a gross injustice towards women that was exposed and overturned by a small group of people acting by faith,” said Aikman, recounting the possibility of advocating for change against one of the most powerful governments in the world.
“Our mission is really to bring God’s love to where the victims are most vulnerable and violated…through the process even to the perpetrators, the policymakers and enforcers,” Chai Ling said.
Signs of changing mores are evident in AGA’s field work. Operating in provinces and villages with the highest son-to-daughter ratio, AGA is beginning to see families begin to desire baby girls through its Baby Shower Gift program that helps expecting mothers through educational and financial support in giving birth to and raising healthy and cherished daughters. AGA also funds scholarships for abandoned girls, legal aid and counseling for mothers, and have started to reunite trafficked girls with their families.
In the public education front, gendercide might be able to bridge the polarized divide on abortion and women’s rights. “We believe [AGA’s focus on gendercide] can help unite both sides, since women’s organizations, pro-life leaders and pro-choice groups care about the girl’s and happiness, life and health,” said Tessa Dale, AGA’s Communications Director. “This is not a question of debate for the two sides – coerced, selective abortions of girls are something everybody is willing to work together to end.”
In that hope of a more united public effort and critical programs on the ground, AGA also seeks to kindle a critical mass of Asian Americans or Chinese diasporas around the world to raise awareness within their communities. “Gender ratios are most imbalanced in Asian American communities in the US than any other US communities…volunteers who speak Chinese are especially needed in this work to help expose problems on behalf of mothers in China,” said Dale. “We hope to see more Asian Americans help end this horrible problem in ways that no other group can.”