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January 22, 2013

Where the Boys Are

man and mother

Yiguo Jin, 33, sits with his mother, Huanxiu Luo, 61. They both worry that he'll be single for life.

Photo Credit: Eric Rechsteiner/Panos Pictures

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Predictions have abounded that the scarcity of women would improve their overall status within Chinese society. But Hvistendahl disputes this, too. "While it's true that women can demand a higher bride price, putting a greater monetary value on them is not the same thing as increasing their status." In fact, in rural areas, bride price is often negotiated by fathers or brothers, she says, and men often control whom women marry based on the highest bidder.

There are signs that the gender imbalance is diminishing — albeit very slightly. As a result of government education campaigns and incentives such as cash bonuses or free housing for couples who have girls, the male-female birth ratio improved in 2010 for the first time in decades. The national average of 120 boys born for every 100 girls dropped to 118 boys, and has held steady since. The shift is far too late for the millions of bachelors who already exist, but it's a small ray of light.

There are also strong women like Cuiyun Zhou, 34, a teacher at Yanzhuping primary school. Zhou has two daughters, and she passionately believes that girls are equal to boys in every way. "I will fight about this matter for my whole life if I have to. We must treasure girls." Zhou says her mother-in-law, who lives in the same house, did not speak to her for three years after she refused to abort her second daughter and try for a boy instead. "I told my mother-in-law she was wrong. I tell every woman in this village the same thing if they don't want baby girls."

In the dusty classroom where Zhou teaches, however, it's clear that her message hasn't been getting through to everyone so far. Of the 12 apple-cheeked children sitting at desks, eight are boys and four are girls. It's hard to look at their happy smiles and think that unless dramatic measures are taken to reverse the situation — and soon — these could be the faces of the next generation of lonely bachelors and trafficked brides.

Chinese traditionally believe daughters are "spilt water" — that is, a waste, because only sons carry on the ancestral line.

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