What happens when sex selection leaves a nation with significantly more men than women? In their controversial new MIT Press book Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population, Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer assert that historically high male-to-female ratios can trigger domestic and international violence. Since the mid-1980s, widespread sex selection has skewed the sex ratios of some Asian countries—particularly China and India—in favor of males on a scale that may be unprecedented in human history. The authors argue that this disproportionate number of low-status young adult males (called "bare branches" by the Chinese) threatens domestic stability and international security. On July 19, coauthor Valerie Hudson of Brigham Young University and discussant Barbara Miller, professor of anthropology and international relations at George Washington University, reviewed these findings with a packed Wilson Center audience.
Societies throughout history and on practically every continent have practiced offspring sex selection (selecting for male offspring instead of female). However, Hudson asserted that "over the past century, it is really only in Asia that we find the persistence of abnormally high sex ratios." The trend worsened in the mid-1980s, as modern technology that allows parents to discover the sex of their child in the womb became widespread in Asia.
According to Hudson, birth sex ratios for children under the age of 4 in China in 2000 averaged about 116-120 boys for every 100 girls, and reached as high as 156 in some Indian states. "South Korea has gotten better—about ten years ago it was almost as bad as China is today, but they have managed to beat it down to under 110," said Hudson, noting that Taiwan had a similar ratio. Looking at the actual and expected sex ratio estimates of these four countries, along with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, she estimated that there are "over 90 million women missing from the populations of these seven nations alone."
"When girls go missing from birth populations, you create a subpopulation of males who are surplus to the number of women in their age group," noted Hudson. She projected that by 2020 there could be as many as 28 million "surplus males" in China, and 31 million in India. "With each successive year both the raw number—as well as the proportion—of males that are surplus will increase," Hudson said, "and nothing's going to change that." The Chinese term for such men (guang gun-er or "bare branches") illustrates the fate of men without marriage partners: their branches of the family tree will not bear legitimate fruit. In an increasingly competitive marriage market, men that lack culturally prized characteristics (like social or economic success) are more likely to become bare branches.
Should China and India be concerned that 12-15 percent of their young men—likely those at the bottom of the social or economic ladder—will not be able to form legally recognized families? Hudson admitted that there were no clear-cut answers, but that anecdotal evidence and smaller studies demonstrate that "nations with sizeable populations of bare branches find their levels of social instability amplified." Studies in India, for example, consistently delineate the "persistent, strong, statistically significant relationship between high sex ratios and violent crime."
But why do unattached young men commit significantly more violence than young males who are attached? Hudson offers a sociological explanation: "Only with commitment to the formation of a new family does a man gain a real stake in a system based on law and order rather than a system based on physical force, in which he holds a natural advantage." However, Hudson emphasized that that abnormal sex ratios are only an "amplifying or aggravating variable," not a necessary condition for societal instability; for example, Rwanda's sex ratio in 1994 (the year of the genocide) was completely normal.
Hudson and her coauthor found that governments threatened by bare branches become more authoritarian and crack down on the criminal (and sometimes rebellious) collectives formed by these surplus men. Some governments have encouraged out-migration, colonized frontier areas, and drafted more men into the military to reduce the sex ratio. "The calculus of security and deterrence is affected by the demographics of bare branches," claims Hudson. Since 40% of the world's population lives in China and India, this imbalance could significantly impact regional and global security, especially as the surrounding nations—Pakistan, Taiwan, Nepal, Bangladesh—also have high sex ratios. Hudson closed with a warning:
We literally stand at the threshold of a time in which these rising numbers of bare branches will become an important social force in their societies. The prospects for democracy and peace in Asia may be diminished in lockstep with the diminished value of daughters there—and this is a link between security and gender, between traditional security and human security, that we argue may not have been looked at before.
A Public Good
Barbara Miller, who has called the maintenance of a normal sex ratio "a public good that governments ignore at their own peril," praised the book for enticing policymakers to look at this long-neglected problem. "I hope it does make a difference in how people pay attention to it, and that the male-dominated world of security studies in this country will wake up to the fact that gender shouldn't just be an add-on…it should be central." Calling the book "provocative and controversial," Miller outlined a few provocative questions of her own:
- How high a sex ratio is too high?
- If girls are becoming scarce, why are they not more valuable?
- How are the problems faced by India and China different, and what possible solutions could they share?
- Could understanding bare branches help find a way to solve the hostilities in Kashmir and Taiwan?
China, which hopes to normalize its birth sex ratio within six years, is considering tangible incentives to encourage parents to have girls, such as paying welfare to families without a son, allowing the parents of a girl to have another child, or promising parents a social security payout in their old age. Hudson was skeptical that these incentives would be immediately effective: "For the time being, sons are still going to be seen as a sturdier form of social security than daughters; they'd rather have that son than promises from the government."
In India, the government has proposed registering and tracking ultrasound machines in order to punish owners of machines linked to sex-selective abortions, and certain states offer small monetary payments to families with daughters. However, an audience member noted that as long as Indian women leave their families to live with their in-laws, girls would always be expensive: "It's still going to be a waste of money because it goes out of your house." Hudson replied:
But how do you change culture? That's the age-old question that governments have wrestled with…so they try to tinker with the incentives and disincentives….It's not that culture is fixed in stone, it's really hard to change. And whether these new government initiatives will make the difference, I don't know—I think it will be interesting to watch and see.
Paradoxically, as women become scarcer, they do not become more powerful: "The problem is that the woman herself does not hold her value; it is actually the males around her that hold her value—her father, her husband, and then her in-laws. So that when her value increases, her life is more controlled, more constrained," Hudson points out. Kidnapping and concubinage are increasing in China, along with suicide: 55% of all female suicides worldwide are Chinese women of childbearing age. In India, girls' scarcity has not caused parents to start paying a "groom price"; in fact, dowry prices have gone up. "Even in states of India where dowry had not been traditional, we now get dowry!" Hudson exclaimed.
Will women's rising levels of employment in the rapidly growing economies of China and India increase the value of daughters and thus improve the sex ratio? While she noted that the willingness of multinational companies to hire Indian women may be affecting the sex ratio in certain cities, Hudson countered that "unless that daughter in utero has value, she's not going to be born…and that's what's going to determine the ratio of young adults twenty years from now. The only way in which empowered, educated Chinese women could affect this issue of value is if when they become mothers, and they are subject to all the cultural pressure to abort the female fetus, they say ‘Hell no, I'm not doing it.'"
Correlation and Causality
Hudson's claim that "unattached young males monopolize violence and antisocial behavior in every society on the planet" prompted audience queries about the role of correlation and causality in her work. While she asserted that abnormal sex ratios are only a factor—not a necessary condition—for conflict, Hudson agreed that finding the right methodology to examine such amplifying and aggregating factors could be difficult:
It would be simple-minded and simple-headed to attempt simple correlation analysis. Our aggregate statistical methods are not good at weeding out complex chains of interlocking variables. We used good qualitative analysis to serve as a plausibility probe to determine whether there is any prima facie evidence for taking this variable seriously or not.
Several audience members pointed out that delayed marriage—whether as a response to resource scarcity, women's employment, or lack of wives—could have an impact comparable to sex ratios, but these bare branches will later bear fruit. Age structure, too, could be playing a significant role: for example, while Rwanda's sex ratio during the 1994 genocide was normal, its age structure was completely imbalanced. On the other hand, while China's gender structure is uneven, its age profile is currently normal. Putting the two together, an audience member wondered if men marrying younger women would moderate the impact of bare branches.
Other factors that Hudson and den Boer may examine in the future include the impact of HIV/AIDS on sex ratios, the relationship between gender imbalances and domestic violence, and the role played by homosexuality in societies with "surplus men." The researchers are developing a database of statistics from 197 nations, including 164 variables relating to the status of women.