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Two stories about gender inequality

May 26, 2011

Two stories about gender and children caught my eye, over the last couple days. They are not at all connected to each other, but the more I thought about them, the more I realized that they illustrate very different responses to gender inequality, and that those different responses say a lot, potentially, about the structure and culture of gender in two different societies: Canada and India.

The first story was making the rounds a few days ago on Yahoo! News. It tells the story of the Witterick-Stocker family, of Toronto, who have decided not to share the sex of their 4 month old baby Storm with anyone other than immediate family and the midwives who assisted with the delivery.


The second is a story I read in the New York Times yesterday morning, and it tells of increased rates of sex-selective abortions among well-off, well-educated women in India. Specifically, it reports on a study recently published in The Lancet, documenting the spread of sex-selective abortion practices across India over the past 20 years. The study placed particular focus on the decisions made about second children when the first child was a girl.

What a world apart, both literally and figuratively.

In one society there is gender inequality but yet enough freedom that a family might decide to challenge the social structuring of gender by refusing to label their child. Theoretically this frees the child to take full advantage of those equalities that do exist and might remove some of the barriers to equality that remain. Storm’s parents explain their choice in relation to this very freedom, according to Zachary Roth’s Yahoo! article:

Stocker and Witterick say the decision gives Storm the freedom to choose who he or she wants to be. “What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious,” adds Stocker, a teacher in an alternative school.

In the other society, gender is so powerful in the structuring of inequality that parents use it to choose whether or not a child should exist. Girls are understood to be liabilities where boys are understood to be assets. Parents with means will apparently tolerate one girl, but not a second. Education and wealth are associated with better access to health services so a family wanting to limit its liabilities and maximize its assets use the illegal practice of sex-selective abortion to end pregnancies where the fetus is categorized as female. The impact is dramatic, demographically. According to Jim Yardley’s New York Times article:

The 2011 Indian census found 914 girls for every 1,000 boys among children 6 six or younger, the lowest ratio of girls since the country gained independence in 1947. The new study estimated that 4 million to 12 million selective abortions of girls have occurred in India in the past three decades.

We should see both stories in terms of social structure and inequality, and not purely in terms of individual choices. Storm’s parents are making an individual choice, but they are doing so in a way that directly challenges the structure of the society they live in, and they are doing so because they dislike the constraints those structures impose.  Any given pair of well-off parents in India are also making choices in reaction to the constraints of social structure, and are doing so in a way that reinforces the structural constraint they are individually trying to avoid.

Parents should be free to choose whether or not to have a child. Children should be free to decide how to identify themselves. But our individual choices are not always as individual as we think, and often they have collective unintended consequences when we add them all up. And some of those consequences are much likely than others to move a society in the direction of justice and freedom for all.

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