Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Why Girls Are Abandoned in China

A recent article attributed to Lauren Bossen summarizing various studies on China’s sex imbalance raises some interesting questions as to the motives of birth parents in abandoning their daughters. The following essay recaps my experiences in determining these motives, and conflicts with some of those made in Bossen’s article.



As adoptive parents, we often wonder what motivated the birth parents of our children to abandon them. In the course of my research, I have asked the opinion of scores of couples, orphanage directors, taxi drivers, and anyone else that I think might have an idea of why they feel it is happening. One common answer emerges, although the problem is admittedly complex.

In addition to providing family planning counseling, the local Family Planning offices are responsible for promulgating the “one-child” policy to the citizens of their jurisdiction. Public billboards promoting the policy are ubiquitous in China’s countryside. Although the billboards, wall murals, and hillside slogans generally promote the one-child policy, frequently they also address the issue of female abandonment. A survey of these specific messages provides one with an idea of what the local officials feel are the main reasons for child abandonment. Combining the themes of the family planning propaganda with the anecdotal evidence collected from average citizens, a clear hierarchy of reasons for abandonment emerges.

It is important to keep a few things in mind when drawing assumptions regarding this topic. First, the economic situation is changing rapidly in China. Twenty years ago, economic pressures relating to having a second child (medical attention, schooling expenses, governmental fines imposed for second children) were much different than today. Most families have seen their incomes increase dramatically in the last 10 years, even in the rural countryside. Increased economic opportunities have dramatically altered the intrinsic worth of girls in China also.

Second, societal attitudes are also changing. As China embraces Western culture, what I term "Chinese traditionalism" is on a decrease. Especially among the youth and young adults, strict observance of Chinese tradition is waning. Cultural biases are also changing, and this has dramatic implications when it comes to attitudes about girls.

Thus, we must be careful when looking at statistics and anecdotal evidence from the 80s and 90s. My observations are limited to conditions and attitudes today, and might not be applicable to conditions and motivations prominent ten or more years ago.

The Family Planning propaganda regarding abandonment is almost universal in it’s message: “Boy or girl, it is the same -- Both can carry on the family name.” This message is by far the most prominent when one studies the “official” message from the Chinese government.

It is important to realize that in China a woman doesn’t change her name when she marries. The issue of passing on the family names relates to the children that the married couple will have. In almost all situations, the children of a married couple will be known by, and will carry, the family name of the father.

In discussing this topic with young marrieds, I have yet to find a young husband or wife that feels the family name is important enough to abandon their daughter. When I ask if their parents feel similarly, I often discover that the attitudes of the older generation are not the same. In fact, especially among the paternal grandparents, the desire to have a male child to continue the family name is most strong. Interviews with many couples convince me that the primary pressure to abandon originates with the parents of the father.

This conclusion is re-enforced by the Family Planning propaganda, as well as anecdotal evidence from international adoptions. The example of the family planning mural I saw in Lianjiang, Guangdong Province (see above) clearly illustrates the problem of grand-parent attitudes towards female children. Thus, it is probable that the Family Planning messages are aimed primarily at the grand-parents in China, not the parents themselves. In my discussions with many young parents, I see very little preference for boy children.

When analyzing the finding ads from the various orphanages in China, a trend emerges: fewer and fewer girls are being found. This trend is almost universal across China, with a few exceptions.

It is of course dangerous to stereotype the multitude of reasons why a family might decide it in the best interest to abandon their daughter. As with any situation, each family is unique in their economic, cultural and familial standing. But broad generalizations can nevertheless be made. Minority factors include a complete lack of medical insurance among China's poorest families, resulting in wanted children being abandoned due to perceived or actual medical conditions. Lack of financial resources to educate register (government imposed fees) and educate a child certainly play an important role. Bossen speculates that China's rural land policies play an important role in female abandonment. This governmental policy gives rural families an additional acre of farm land in their village when a child is born. If that child is a boy, stewardship of the land falls to the male child when they marry; it reverts back to the government when the female child marries. The purpose of this policy is to encourage inter-generational stability in the rural villages, and to discourage the migration of families into the urban areas. I have found no families or individuals, however, that have even considered China's land policy in conjunction with family size or make-up.

One point Bossen makes, and with which I agree with, is the misperception we have that the rural farmers in China need a son to farm the land. This is simply not the case. Women today work the farms alongside their husbands or fathers. In addition, China's growing industrial manufacturing base has brought substantial opportunity to women in the countryside. The economic value of male and female children has shrunk considerably in the last 20 years.

In summary: My experiences in researching in China has led me to the conclusion that the primary force behind the problem of female abandonment is pressure brought to bear on the parents by the grandparents, usually from the father's side. Although other factors certainly play a role, they are secondary to "China traditionalism", the belief among older Chinese in the importance of passing on the family line through male children. As the traditionalist grandparent population continues to decline, pressure to abandon will also decline, resulting in fewer and fewer found girls.


Anonymous said...

Why should they abandoned girls in china? I mean the girls can do hard work too...and carry on the name of the's just a name...The one thing that they shouldn't do is that prostitution thing it's DISGUSTING!!!!!

Anonymous said...

My wife and I are in the process of adopting from China. I am also a political scientist. It would be nice to see some empirical evidence on this question of why girls are abandoned.

Anonymous said...

I believe this issue has some deeper unexplored reasons. I have read and heard from a native Chinese male that there are "religious" issues that come into play. Family altar rituals and the after life of past generations and their need for a male child in the family to ensure their after life could contribute to the abandoning of females.

Anonymous said...

While no American would deny that it is terrible that there is such a history of abandoning baby girls in China, very few recognize or step forward to adopt the MANY boys that are currently waiting. What a shame that Americans don't consider their own odd preference and prejudice regarding gender. Personally I've always been puzzled by it and have never found a satisfactory response to the many boys who are ignored in the orphanages as US citizens wait months for girls.

Research-China.Org said...

I think I can offer a possible explanation. Most families, when they consider adoption, come to China because of its apparent abundance of girls. We all have gender bias when it comes to children -- some prefer boys, others girls. As a country we all even out in our preferences.

But when adopting, China attracts those who prefer girls.

Additionally, it is assumed (and largely factual) that the boys available from China possess special needs that resulted in their abandonment. Girls have no such assumptions placed on them.


Anonymous said...

Just an anecdote. When we adopted from China in the 90's, we really didn't care about the gender of our child. China was the only country that accepted us in our 40's, and they had girls. An adoption agency worker said that, in her opinion, most couples prefer to adopt girls. My personal observations concur, the vast majority of people adopting that I've met over the years, esp pursuing foreign adoption, prefer girls. Her phrase was, as I remember, "birth parents prefer a boy about 2-1, adoptive parents prefer a girl about 2-1". I've heard of people with several birth sons who wanted a daughter and then foreign adopted. I've never heard of a family with several birth daughters who want to foreign adopt a son. I'm sure a few exist, but the other is much more common. My guess is it has to do with families identifying birth sons as carrying on the family legacy, and so prefer not to adopt (esp foreign), but there is not that emotional burden with girls.

Anonymous said...

the information i've come across as to why families will abandon girls is not that they can't work in the fields, nor that they can't carry on the family name, but that when girls marry they become a part of the husband's family and the woman is no longer a part of her own family at all. so if a couple has a girl, when that girl marries the parents will no longer have anyone to support them and care for them in their old age. what about this scenario? is it still the case?

Research-China.Org said...

I have never seen a case where the girl marries and leaves her family completely. In other words, they may live in a different area, but they still care for the parents emotionally, and financially. My wife's family of five girls, although all married, still all pitch in to care for the mother. In conversing with many other families, this seems to be the prevalent situation.


Anonymous said...

I am a female from India. My dad protected my rights and took care of me. The day he died my mother and brother abandoned me. While my father was alive, I was still very mal nourished and suffered from severe bleeding problems. He did whatever he knew and got me married at 18. He died the following year and nobody has bothered to even keep in touch with me. It is still tormenting and hounting me especially when I see girls who are hugged by thier mothers or protected by their brothers. My kids and I just hang on to my husband for a roof on our head. I just started to pursue education and am trying hard to give all that to my children that I never recieved. I still remember my mother saying how she regretted when she came to know that I was a girl baby and how much she had pined for a boy. I was left with my grandparents afer she had her son. He went to school in a hired designated vehicle while I had to take a local bus to school. She paid Rs. 75/- for him and spent Rs. 10/- or less on my bus fare. She encouraged me to hide and cheat the bus conductor and save the money on fares. She never cared about my education and I did not attend college. My brother went to an engineering college. There are too many events to list here, including her toying the idea of making me a prostitute. Thanks to my father, I have a decent life today. God bless his soul and may I have the means in me to rescue a few girls out there. The pain and torment is unbearable.

kensingtonlawyer said...

My husband is Japanese, and I can speak to some extent on the issue of why girls are abandoned. When a woman marries in Asian culture in general, she marries into her husband's family. In traditional Asian culture, the woman's father-in-law becomes her father, and superior to her own father in stature and importance. In fact, in Japanese there is even a way to call your father-in-law that indicates higher status than your own father. Thus, while some of these attitudes may diminishing with modernity, in provincial rural areas, these traditions still govern. Remember, China is a 5000 year old, continuous civilization, and old habits, like in Japan and Korea, die hard.

Anonymous said...

We just received our referral and to our utter surprise, it's a boy! Apparently healthy. from Yunnan. So, here's a question for you, Brian - Why are boys abandoned? It is purely poverty and in this case, maybe perceived medical problems?

Research-China.Org said...

We will be publishing an in-depth study of boys in January. It will go into a lot of detail concerning their origins.



Caleb Powell said...

Very sad. My daughters study Chinese in Seattle, and of the ethnically Chinese students, about half are adopted, and all female.

Anonymous said...

i see that there is a preference that adoptive parents prefer girls. That is why there are more boys in the foster care system. I do not agree that birth parents want boys 2-1. I see no evidence of that. I see alot of women around me who prefer girls. I think it is just as women become more independent, they are able to voice their opinions more about the gender they want. I've heard of some women asking their husbands if they "mind" when they find out they are having a girl. This is a sign of dependency. When do men ask women if they "mind" if the child is a boy? So it is women's independence that has made them more vocal about wanting girls. And we cannot forget that when special measures are put in place to make boys more desirable, such as carrying on the family name, that only seeks to prove fear that women may want girls instead. I look at it that people are adopting girls quicker not because they carry on the family name, but simply because they are girls. And don't forget that there is alot of machismo and posturing when it comes to boys. I think some men just like acting like want boys so much, to get attention and to be competitive.

Anonymous said...

I am adopted chinese girl and I belive that its fine to be adopted. I believe that no one should feel sad for us aopted people. I have to say that China in some places are not very clean. I love it here, this family that I have is all I need. Don't feel bad for us.