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What value do you place on the life of a missing woman? Laurie Penny on gendercide.

The selective abortion of female foetuses tends to reflect the esteem in which women are held in society.

If the words "feminist thought exercise" don't make you moist with anticipation of breathless minutes of fun, I don't know what you're doing reading this column. However, in the event that complex problems of gender and human rights don't of themselves tickle your interest glands, consider this: all over the world, from eastern Europe to India, millions of baby girls are missing.

There is a gap in the census. It howls with the ghosts of girl-children who died young, or who never lived -- tens of millions of potential human beings, neglected to death, murdered at birth or (in increasing numbers) terminated when an ultrasound scan showed that a woman was due to come into the world.

So here's a feminist thought exercise for you. The Council of Europe has just passed a draft resolution whereby expectant mothers across the EU member states might be forbidden from knowing the gender of their unborn child. If the resolution is agreed and passed into law, doctors in the UK and 26 other countries would be strongly encouraged, if not strictly obliged, to refuse parents prior knowledge of whether their baby will be a boy or a girl. The stated purpose of this resolution is to prevent the selective abortion of female foetuses, which, experts claim, has become a trend in several of the former Soviet states.

Chance to live

The word campaigners are using for this trend is "gendercide". Over 20 years ago, the economist Amartya Sen estimated the number of "missing" women -- potential adult females aborted, killed in infancy, or simply denied vital food and medical resources -- at 100 million. That figure is now undoubtedly higher. In China, where the one-child policy conspires with a traditional, sexist preference for sons to make many families desperate for a baby boy, the male-female ratio for children born in the late 1980s is 108 boys to 100 girls. For the generation born in the early 2000s, the ratio is 124:100, and it is an indictment on the global press that the most commented-on consequence of this population shift is the millions of young men in China, northern India and elsewhere who are unable to find brides.

The selective abortion of female foetuses tends to reflect the esteem in which women are held in society. In cultures where girls are barred from education, prevented from inheriting property and valued only as wives and mothers, pre-birth sex selection is on the rise.

The Council of Europe is not alone in considering a crackdown on reproductive freedom as a response to this crisis, though its powers are limited as black-market gender testing is widely available. Moreover, many of those who believe in a woman's right to choose say that it is unethical to deny any woman knowledge about the pregnancy she is carrying. This month, Colchester Hospital foundation reversed its policy of refusing to give out such information after a pregnant woman campaigned to know the sex of her foetus.

Here, then, is the dilemma. What do you do about all those missing women? Do you pass yet another law interfering with women's right to know and make decisions about their own pregnancies to the fullest extent that modern technology allows? Or do you permit the disappearance of thousands more women from history? There is a solution, and it comes from South Korea.

In the 1990s, South Korea had a sex ratio similar to China's but the male-female birth rate is now nearly normal, not because of medical restrictions but because of a change in culture. Better education of girls, equal rights legislation and more participation by women in public life made prejudice against female children seem outdated, according to a recent report by the Economist.

The history of human civilisation is a history of missing women. It is a story of women who never got the chance to live, even if they did make it to adulthood -- women deprived of education, barred from public life, suffering and dying in childbirth, shut up in the home, sold into slavery, perceived only as drudges and sex receptacles and dispensable factories for the production of sons.

In a world where females are still judged as inferior, even before birth, it is not sufficient to legislate so that enough girls are born. If you want to change the world, you have to value those girls when they arrive.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

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Time to start fixing the broken safety net that no longer catches struggling families

We are failing to ensure we look after the children of families both in and out of work.

Families on low incomes are once again bearing the brunt of a tough economic environment. Over the past decade, rising costs of items such as food, energy and childcare, combined with stagnating wages and cuts in benefits, have repeatedly put a squeeze on family budgets.

Between 2014 and 2016, some of these pressures eased, as inflation sank to zero and pay started to grow again. But now that inflation has returned, for the first time in postwar history the increasing cost of a child is being combined with a freeze in all financial support for children. The failure to uprate either benefits, tax credits or the wage levels at which tax credits are withdrawn means that inflation is bound to erode modest family incomes both in and out of work.

The gradual fall in living standards that this produces will be worsened by other benefit cuts that come in over the next few years, for different families at different times. For a start, the phasing out of the “family element” of Child Tax Credit (and its equivalent in Universal Credit) will eventually result in all low-income families getting more than £500 a year less from the state than at present.

Since this only applies to families whose oldest child was born in April 2017 or later, it hits families with the youngest children first, with the effect spreading gradually through the population. The restriction of tax credit entitlements to a maximum of two children is also being phased in, affecting only third children born from this year on, but will clobber families much more severely, with a loss of nearly £2,800 a year per child.

Some existing larger families who escape this cut have nevertheless had their income severely reduced this year (by anything up to £6,000) by the reduction in the benefit cap.

My latest report on the cost of a child, for Child Poverty Action Group, takes stock of these trends and the effects they will have on parents’ ability to provide for their families effectively. For some families in work, improved support for childcare and a higher minimum wage partially offsets the losses incurred as a result of the above cuts. But for those relying on benefits as a “safety net” when they are not working, the level of this net is being progressively lowered over time. On present policies, the support that it provides will sink below half of what families need as a minimum sometime early in the 2020s – having in contrast provided about two thirds of their requirements at the start of the present decade.

There comes a point when a “safety net” stops being worthy of its name because it is no longer enough to provide even the bare essentials of modern life. The evidence shows that when income sinks this low, most families can only escape severe material hardship either by going into debt or by getting help from extended family members.

We are about to enter a new parliamentary season, led by a government that survived by the skin of its teeth after a disgruntled electorate failed to give it the clear majority that it sought. Raising family living standards has been at the heart of the political promise to improve people’s lives. The benefits freeze alone seems to contradict this promise by creating a downward escalator for the half of families relying on some kind of means-tested benefit or tax credit, in combination with child benefit.

For those  who are “just about managing”, and particularly for others who are not managing at all, the clearest signal that Philip Hammond could give in his Autumn Budget that he is starting  to reverse the direction of that escalator would be to restore a system of benefit upratings. This would at least allow incomes to keep up with living costs, stopping things from getting systematically worse, and giving a stable foundation on which measures to improve living standards could build.

Professor Donald Hirsch is director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University