Imagine, author Mara Hvistendahl invites us in the beginning chapters of Unnatural Selection, that the entire population of women in the United States has gone missing. “The country’s malls and supermarkets, its highways and hospitals, its boardrooms and classrooms exclusively filled with men. Imagine the bus or the subway or the car that takes you to work, then erase the females alongside you. Erase your wife and your daughter. Or erase yourself. Imagine this and you have come close to picturing the problem.”
The problem, Hvistendahl argues, is that 160 million women are missing from Asia, more than the entire female population of the United States. This unnatural sex ratio has developed with the introduction of sex determination technology and subsequent sex-selective abortions in favor of boys, an imbalance that not only threatens social stability and the human rights of women throughout the region, but one that has its genesis in Western domestic and foreign policy over the past half century.
When we first read Hvistendahl connecting current and former population control policies in India and China with calculated Western influence, we had to stop ourselves from rolling our eyes at what we thought was a case of convenient scapegoating. We soon found our initial assumption blown to shreds by Hvistendahl’s continuing onslaught of supporting facts, compiled through meticulous research and extensive interviews with relevant scientists, policymakers, authors, historians and doctors throughout Asia and the West.
Hvistendahl’s acute intellect is highlighted by her superior writing skills. Hvistendahl, formerly a contributing editor to Seed magazine and currently a journalism professor at Fudan University, has had her award-winning work appear in the likes of Harper’s, Popular Science and the Financial Times. Weaving in the personalities of her interview subjects, which include a former Indian medical student, South Korean abortion doctor and a Chinese demographer, Hvistendahl deftly creates a very readable account of a problem that is shocking in scope and future implications.
Whether the sex ratio balance—which, if left to nature stays quite close to half and half—tips to significantly more men than women or less, women still get screwed, both literally and figuratively. With a surplus of men—the situation in much of Asia now—women’s value as wives and mothers increases as their personal freedoms decrease, and human trafficking cases rise as women from poor surrounding areas are brought in to fill the gap. Not only does an unbalanced sex ratio wreak havoc on women, it also has dire implications for societies with large populations of young, unmarried men, a situation that Hvistendahl links to previous upsets such as the Boxer Rebellion.
Unnatural Selection is brimming with so much information it’s impossible to lay it all out here. We highly recommend this book—it’s been one of the most eye-opening we’ve encountered in recent memory.
Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, Public Affairs New York, US$26.99