Wife-Buying: China’s One Child Policy Created a Black Market for Wives

Millions of men in China and surrounding countries are finding themselves without a female counterpart, because those females were never born. The demand for women has fuelled the wife-buying industry and has created an incentive to have female children.

In her new book, “Unnatural Selection,” Mara Hvistendahl found that the male to female sex ratio at birth has reached 107-100, while the natural ratio is 105-100.

“People are selecting for boys at such a high rate that they skewed the sex ratio at birth of the entire world,” Hvistendahl said.

Hvistendahl discovered that 160 million females are “missing” from China’s population, more than the amount of females in the U.S., about 158 million, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Hvistendahl moved to Shanghai, China in 2004 to work as a freelance reporter. At the time, China’s sex ratio was visible, she said.

“If you just went into a school and walked into any classroom, you could see there were many more boys than girls,” she said. “I didn’t understand how this was happening in a time when China was, in many ways, hurdling ahead at breaking speed.”

After China’s one-child policy was established in 1979, a preference for sons led to an increased amount of female infanticide, according to the Population Research Institute.  Later, ultrasounds exasperated the problem, Hvistendahl said.

Ultrasound technology, which can determine the gender of the baby half way through a pregnancy, was first developed by Americans and then made accessible in Asia in the late 1980s.

“I found that there were Americans who actually played a role in first developing and then advocating sex selection technology,” Hvistendahl said. “The reason that they proposed that it was a great thing for the world was that it would be a way to keep down population growth.”

Instead, Asian families could now “see the sex of their baby and then abort if it turns out to be female,” Hvistendahl said.

Sex-selective abortions have largely led to China’s current sex ratio at birth of 118-100, according to the PRI. They have also led to gender imbalances in Taiwan, India, South Korea and the Caucasus, which includes Georgia, Albania and Azerbaijan.


The millions of men who were in the first generation of “surplus males” are now looking for wives, Hvistendahl said. Because of gender imbalances in their own countries they are buying them from abroad. In some cases women are being kidnapped to become brides.

“Because men are trafficking women from poorer countries in Asia,” Hvistendahl said, “Vietnam has become a major source of women for their neighbors.”

Many Vietnamese women offer themselves as brides in hopes of a better and financially stable future, she said.

Vietnam has countless bride agencies which promise virgin, faithful wives between the ages of 18 and 25. To get a bride, men have to register with an agency and a broker will mediate the match.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBtfbrnaciQ –watch this video to see how it works)

According to the International Organization for Migration, an inter-governmental organization that promotes orderly migration, about 40,000 Vietnamese women are living in South Korea as foreign wives.

In efforts to counter the mass emigration of women to other countries for marriage purposes, Vietnam has created a penalty for those found arranging overseas matches for local women. Brokers are fined or jailed, but there is no penalty for the clients, according to an article in The Straits Times, a daily newspaper in Singapore.  Even so, transnational marriages through matchmaking agencies are still occurring.

Long-Term Affects

Selling brides is not a sustainable model though, Hvistendahl said.

“We are talking about tens of millions of men who will ultimately need wives,” she said. “By the 2020s it’s going to be very serious. It’s going to be 15 percent of marriage age men in China who don’t have a female counterpart.”

While China has more men than women, Vietnam is heading down a path of a female gender imbalance, she said.

“I did visit a region of Vietnam where locals say they prefer to have girls now simply because it has become easier to sell them, because these girls have a chance to become brides to men from wealthier countries,” she said.

In the meantime, countries with high sex ratio imbalances, like China and India, are noticing problems with social stability. Male dominated populations tend to have more violence, she said.

Even though there is a shortage of females in Asia, Hvistendahl said the desire to get married is still very strong.


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