Children: China takes on parental prejudice

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The Independent Online
"Mothers, take your daughters back home!" read one headline in a Chinese newspaper over a story about two abandoned baby girls. There are no direct financial incentives in China on offer for families which embrace their unwanted female children, but there has been an intense propaganda campaign over recent years to persuade parents that a girl is as much a blessing as a boy.

In the cities, where the one child policy is strictly imposed, prejudice against girls has eased. But in the countryside, the preference for male children is often overwhelming, and new wives live in dread of bearing female children. Sex-selective abortions are still reported to be widespread, with high technology coming to the service of traditional customs. In even relatively backward areas, hospitals have ultra-sound scanners which allow expectant mothers to determine the sex of the foetus, although the central government outlawed this practice in 1995.

At worst, prejudice results in the death by neglect and abandonment of girls when they are born. But many girls are simply not registered at birth, and sent to distant relatives, so that the couple can try for a boy. In the early 1990s, all these factors contributed to a sex ratio birth imbalance of around 117 boys born to every 100 girls.

In many rural areas, the biggest shift in policy has been to allow couples to have a second child without penalties, so long as the births are spread by five years and planned under the quota system. Those who press ahead without permission and have extra children can still be heavily penalised.

Chinese family planning policy has also shifted to offer farmers "economic favours" if they abide by China's family planning rules - regardless of a child's sex. In the countryside, family planning is supposed to be integrated with rural development projects and schemes to increase farmers' incomes. Rural households which obeyed family planning rules are supposed to be given priority in getting loans, materials, technical assistance, and social welfare from the local government. But the reforms further penalise the poorest families which have too many children.