China’s one-child policy is the biggest social engineering project in human history that places women’s reproductive autonomy at its heart. Aimed at curbing population growth, the policy pierces through the fabric of family traditions and gender relations. While correlation between the policy and economic development has been well-studied, this article attempts to explore the more humane aspect of the policy, that is, its impact on women. The one-child policy was implemented in 1979 when China was at the threshold of economic reforms and changed to two-child policy in 2016 and more recently, to three-child policy in 2021. The fact that the party-state apparatus still has to keep modifying its birth control policies indicates that the first one may have yielded unexpected results for which they were not prepared.
Skewed Sex Ratio
One of the most damning implications of the one-child policy has been the skewed sex ratio which in turn led to a host of other negative consequences. A skewed sex ratio had long existed in China due to practices of female infanticide and abandonment over son-child preference among parents. However, the ratio had started to drop from the 1930s onwards but started to rise again from 1980s when the policy was implemented. Debate around the rising sex ratio was initially censored inside China due to its political sensitivity and began only after public outcry outside the country when China made fresh demographic data available in the 1980s. While most scholars attributed the rise to the one-child policy, based on empirical evidence, some bizarre explanations included a famous study by a PhD scholar from Harvard who attributed it to the Hepatitis B virus. Other factors blamed were the practice of female infanticide in the early years, concealment in reporting of births, abandonment of girl child at birth and sex-selective abortion. (Cai and Feng, 2021) These stem from the son-preference in Chinese culture where sayings such as “sons will secure one’s old age” and “sons will continue the ancestral line” are deeply rooted in the minds of parents. Because of the patriarchal system of Chinese society, females had no rights to inheritance as only the sons could carry the patrilineage forward and were expected to take care of the parents in their old age. There has, however, been a change in societal attitudes post market reform development as girls are being expected to fulfill filial expectations.
The public and scholarly discourse on the rise in sex ratio has unfortunately been lopsided as it concentrates on the impact that it has on males in Chinese society, carrying a heavy tone of male-centrism and gender-bias. There was vocal concern about there not being sufficient wives “on the market” for bachelors and how this can lead men to engaging in violence and becoming bandits or criminals. The issue of shortage of marriageable women becomes particularly important in the context of Confucian culture who value family as the “foundation of society” and any threat to this foundation would destabilize the very core of Chinese society. (Sun et al, 2016) Data from 2000 shows that as many as 27% of rural men above the age of 40 years were bachelors. (Lee, 2013) A consequence of this skewed sex ratio and the lack of marriageable women was the rapid expansion of the sex industry. Women were trafficked for both the purpose of forced marriage and for sexual exploitation while others, less educated and belonging to the migrant group, voluntarily joined prostitution as a means for survival and to better their income.
Abortion, Contraceptives and Female Sterilization
Before the one-child policy and other state-led initiatives of birth control, abortion and contraceptive services were promoted to facilitate the entry of women into the workforce, as well as to protect natal care. The one-child policy and with the advent of market economy reforms, this approach towards women into workforce fell apart, along with the narrative on abortion and contraceptive services. While some scholars have argued the obvious advantages of the reforms on women’s education and empowerment, there are others who argue that although women acquired more and more skills to compete with men in the workforce, the gender discrimination increased in the market at the same time. As post-reform China saw a revival of patriarchal tradition, beliefs in gender essentialism, emphasis on biological differences and relegating women’s status as inferior laborers saw a comeback. (Li and Jiang, 2019) On the other hand, the primary aim of contraceptives and abortion from the beginning of 1970s was to control births. While government-led family planning programs do provide more contraceptive means for the society, especially the women, to secure greater control and autonomy over their bodies and reproductive right, the one-child policy shifted the priorities with a mixed combination of controlling the population growth rate and the son-preference tradition. The physical and mental well-being, along with reproductive autonomy, of women took a backseat. In 1983, about 20 million babies were born while more than 14 million fetuses were aborted, over 16 million females underwent sterilizations and over 17 million intrauterine device insertions were performed. (Whyte et al, 2015) Female sterilization became the default practice even as male vasectomies are accepted as a much safer and more cost-effective practice. Women were made easy targets of sterilization campaigns that not only ended their reproductive life but also resulted in a loss of energy. On the other hand, vasectomies for men were considered catastrophic as it would damage the conjugal relations and lead to the eventual break up of families. (Cai and Feng, 2021) Forced sterilization campaigns were carried out in rural areas where the women were forcibly taken to operating camps and had their tubes tied up in a manner that was unprofessional and unhygienic. Botched up operations and lack of proper post-operation care would lead to lifelong disabilities among the female patients. Forced abortions and sterilization campaigns resulted in couples hiding the pregnancies by wearing heavily padded jackets over the bump. Elsewhere, the expecting mothers would shift from one place to another to escape the authorities. Pregnant women had to stay away from the public gaze both during the duration of pregnancy and then delivery because of which they could not access proper maternal and infant health care. Due to pressure of bearing a son, women were often made to undergo psychological stress and abuse by their family. This pressure, combined with expectations of relations like marriage, family and performing in their career, made women in China more likely to be diagnosed with psychological disorders like schizophrenia and commit suicide. (Cai and Feng, 2021)
Abandonment, Adoption, Female Infanticide and ‘Missing Girls’
Due to the prevalent son-preference, there was a rise in sex-selective abortions, female infanticide and abandonment of girl child. A study estimated that in provinces where child abandonment was most prevalent, the share went as high as one in ten female births in the 1990s. (Chen et al, 2015) If the girl children who were born out of the quota were not abandoned, they often grew up in fear and were labeled “black children.” These children were denied access to basic public services including health, employment, housing and education. Those girl children who were abandoned were eagerly adopted by other families. The 1980s saw that most of the abandoned girl babies were adopted by families who were either childless or only had a son. While some would find the proper love and care in their adoptive families, many did not. A study shows that adopted girls had to face substantial disadvantages in school attendance between the ages of 8 to 13 years. (Chen et al, 2015) Oftentimes, the girl child adopted by a family would be forcibly taken away by local birth control officers and sent to orphanages so that they could instead be put up for adoption for families out of the country. Thus, international adoption of Chinese girls came to be one of the most unexpected outcomes of the one-child policy. As many as 1,50,000 children, most of which were girls, were adopted by families in North America and Europe in the decade and a half after the early 1990s. (Dowling, 2017) While some of the girls who were abandoned were adopted by families, there were others who became ‘missing’ girls. These include the girl children who were not included or went missing from the birth registers. These babies did not survive either due to parental neglect and discrimination or the prevalent notion that the upkeep of daughters is an unnecessary expense and a waste.
By placing women’s reproductive ability at the heart of a major state policy to curb population growth in facilitation of economic modernization, the Chinese state compromised on its commitment to gender equality and women’s emancipation. While there is a section of urban, educated women who benefitted from the policy as they were given the priority of being an only child and not having to compete with a sibling or especially a brother for their parents’ resources, most of the women suffered physical and psychological trauma. The one-child policy led to a skewed sex ratio which had unintended social consequences for the growing cohort of Chinese bachelors. Forced sterilization campaigns, abortion and contraceptive services, which were earlier aimed to facilitate the engagement of women in the workforce, were now used to limit a women’s reproductive autonomy on the basis of son preference. While the one-child policy did have a strong correlation with decline in China’s population growth, its impact of women and gender relations was far greater.
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The author is pursuing a Master’s degree in Politics and International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.