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A blog about economics in the South Caucasus.

Sex Ratio at Birth: is the South Caucasus Heading the Way of China?

This year, approximately 113 baby boys are born in China for every 100 baby girls; 112 boys per 100 girls in India, 111 in Vietnam. The looming social crisis stemming from the significant gender imbalance in the countries of East and Southeast Asia has been in the media spotlight for a long time. Unfortunately, the problem of gender imbalance is not confined to Asia.

According to the UN database, between 2005 and 2010, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia held second, third and fourth place in the world after China in gender imbalance statistics. The ratio of boys to girls at birth in these countries was 1.16, 1.15 and 1.11 respectively. With the natural ratio being somewhere in the range of 1.05-1.08, such high numbers of newborn boys are impossible to achieve without artificial intervention.

Even more alarmingly, the male to female ratio increases rather than declines for the cohort of children under 15 years of age. For example, according to 2011 estimates, in Georgia the boys/girls ratio at birth is 1.11 versus 1.15 for those under fifteen years old. In Armenia for the same year, the ratio increases from 1.12 to 1.15, and in Azerbaijan the increase is from 1.11 to 1.13. While far from being conclusive evidence, this increase may nevertheless be indicative of a further problem – the situation where scarce family resources – such as food, access to medical care – are allocated towards sons at the expense of daughters.

In general, the preference towards male offspring has both cultural and economic roots.  For example, according to Christophe Guilmoto, a senior fellow in demography at the IRD, France, the skewed sex ratio can be observed in patriarchal societies where following marriage, the female traditionally becomes a part of her husband’s family structure, and no longer contributes economically to the family of her birth. China, Korea and India are examples of such societies.

Thus the problem of preference for males can be cast as a classic case of externality. In societies where children are a form of investment and where the return on bringing up a girl cannot be completely appropriated by her family, there will be “underinvestment” in females. This leads to the phenomenon known as the “tragedy of the commons”. The balanced sex ratio is a common good, but precisely because its benefits accrue to the entire society and not to the family who brings up a girl, the balance is disturbed in favor of boys.

One interesting piece of evidence in support of the “tragedy of commons” explanation can be found in the evolution of the boys/girls ratio over time. As can be seen on the graph above, the balance began to deteriorate in the countries of the South Caucasus after the 1990s. In China - after the economic liberalization reforms of 1985. Could it be that the preference for boys became more pronounced exactly at the time when economic uncertainty became stronger, and when the old forms of social security started to fail, creating the need for extra “insurance”?

Of course the gender imbalance is not a sustainable social equilibrium. One way or another, the self-correcting mechanism will set in. These changes, however, are likely to be slow and confounded by high social costs - such as major disruptions in the traditional family structure, the possibility of increased violence against women and more aggressive and risky behavior on the part of men.

To overcome the tragedy of the commons, the government does not necessarily need to rely on subsidies. Improving social security schemes, or even more importantly, making a woman more economically empowered and independent in the society could go a long way towards breaking the trend and preventing the social crisis scenario.

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Guest - Florian on Wednesday, 14 December 2011 23:04

There is an interesting paradox here, though not politically correct.

*** Political correctness temporarily switched off ***

My paradox is the following: The more the male population of a country consists of bums, the more "being male" is considered to be a valuable asset. There are examples of countries where the males are just messing around all day, playing Backgammon and doing other useless stuff, while women are working extremely hard and are essentially running the society (though they are not allowed to be bosses). Yet just in those countries women are considered particularly inferior to males.
I have very little comprehension for cultural norms which favor boys over girls. Fortunately, the people who are negatively affected by such stupidity are usually those who adhere to those cultures. Put it even more direct: As long as Europe does not open the doors for Chinese males, their shortage of females will not affect Europeans. Yet the Chinese males are just busted. The situation gets even worse as many Chinese women have preferences for European men. When I was studying in Berlin, there was a large group of Chinese students, and as far as the female members were concerned, most of them were striving to catch a European guy. On the other hand, Chinese guys were usually not considered particular attractive by most European females...
By questioning submarine crews, which travel together for weeks without any females around, sociologists found out that 90% of males are in principle able to switch their sexual orientations if a lack of females demands so. Perhaps that is the solution for those hundreds of thousands of Chinese men which are deprived of women for demographic reasons.

*** Political correctness switched on again ***

There is an interesting paradox here, though not politically correct. *** Political correctness temporarily switched off *** My paradox is the following: The more the male population of a country consists of bums, the more "being male" is considered to be a valuable asset. There are examples of countries where the males are just messing around all day, playing Backgammon and doing other useless stuff, while women are working extremely hard and are essentially running the society (though they are not allowed to be bosses). Yet just in those countries women are considered particularly inferior to males. I have very little comprehension for cultural norms which favor boys over girls. Fortunately, the people who are negatively affected by such stupidity are usually those who adhere to those cultures. Put it even more direct: As long as Europe does not open the doors for Chinese males, their shortage of females will not affect Europeans. Yet the Chinese males are just busted. The situation gets even worse as many Chinese women have preferences for European men. When I was studying in Berlin, there was a large group of Chinese students, and as far as the female members were concerned, most of them were striving to catch a European guy. On the other hand, Chinese guys were usually not considered particular attractive by most European females... By questioning submarine crews, which travel together for weeks without any females around, sociologists found out that 90% of males are in principle able to switch their sexual orientations if a lack of females demands so. Perhaps that is the solution for those hundreds of thousands of Chinese men which are deprived of women for demographic reasons. *** Political correctness switched on again ***
Guest - LM on Thursday, 15 December 2011 04:04

The Economist did an article a year ago on what they called "Gendercide", which is worth a look (I believe it was from March 6, 2010). There was also a study done in 2008 or 2009, that looked specifically at this issue in the South Caucasus.

With all due respect to those who have put forward alternative explanations for the large differences, the most obvious explanation for such a deviation from the biological norm is actually the use of sex-selective abortions, which HAVE become more prevalent once ultrasounds become available to a larger share of the population in the affected countries. The article tells a harrowing, but probably not unique, story of infanticide in China in those areas where the technology is not available for earlier interventions.

Given the huge numbers of countries and regions with stress (think Darfur in Sudan, Kivu in the Congo, the Balkans as someone else has mentioned, Cambodia during Khmer rule, Ethiopia during the famines, Acheh after the tsunami, America during the Bush years (ok, maybe that was just ME that was stressed!), and the justifiably high stresses in the South Caucasus cannot be expected to have such dramatically different consequences -- after all, the post Soviet period was horrific for many former Soviet republics - think Tajikistan, which had two floods, a civil war, dramatic drops in GDP year on year, a disastrous currency -- and that was just in 1993/94.

What does seem to be subject to the "stress" explanation is actually the decisions families make on their preferred family size when they live in countries where income levels are high enough to ensure survival of their offspring for the most part (low income countries have the opposite problem of larger-than-desired families, with rational families acting on the expectation that some of the children would die). So bring together middle income countries, with generally macho societies that place a premium on males, economic stresses that lead to smaller desired family size, and relatively easy access to abortions and ultrasound technologies, and you have the right combination of factors to actually transform preferences into reality. In fact, this is borne out by research that looks at birth order; for example, it appears that first-born kids are accepted whatever they are (so the sex ratio of first-borns is close to the norm); what gets families panicked is the idea of having two girls with no further prospects for a male child. This imbalance gets dramatically higher for third children, where the first two are girls.

The real question to ask ourselves is whether society has the right to interfere in the choices families, and in the most intimate sense, women, make about their preferences for both numbers of children and their gender.

My own take is that girl children are fabulous and should be celebrated, they are also the best safety net that most parents will have in their old age. Public policy should take a hard look at the determinants of family preferences and try to influence them through incentives (I believe it was South Korea that offered major incentives for girls including free education), since the consequences on society as a whole of the imbalances are serious (including higher sexual violence, prostitution, crime, and probably falling birthrates) -- but influence them only through incentives to change preferences, not through punishing them. As all of us know, if the incentives are right, people will find a way, legal or otherwise, of making their desires happen.

The Economist did an article a year ago on what they called "Gendercide", which is worth a look (I believe it was from March 6, 2010). There was also a study done in 2008 or 2009, that looked specifically at this issue in the South Caucasus. With all due respect to those who have put forward alternative explanations for the large differences, the most obvious explanation for such a deviation from the biological norm is actually the use of sex-selective abortions, which HAVE become more prevalent once ultrasounds become available to a larger share of the population in the affected countries. The article tells a harrowing, but probably not unique, story of infanticide in China in those areas where the technology is not available for earlier interventions. Given the huge numbers of countries and regions with stress (think Darfur in Sudan, Kivu in the Congo, the Balkans as someone else has mentioned, Cambodia during Khmer rule, Ethiopia during the famines, Acheh after the tsunami, America during the Bush years (ok, maybe that was just ME that was stressed!), and the justifiably high stresses in the South Caucasus cannot be expected to have such dramatically different consequences -- after all, the post Soviet period was horrific for many former Soviet republics - think Tajikistan, which had two floods, a civil war, dramatic drops in GDP year on year, a disastrous currency -- and that was just in 1993/94. What does seem to be subject to the "stress" explanation is actually the decisions families make on their preferred family size when they live in countries where income levels are high enough to ensure survival of their offspring for the most part (low income countries have the opposite problem of larger-than-desired families, with rational families acting on the expectation that some of the children would die). So bring together middle income countries, with generally macho societies that place a premium on males, economic stresses that lead to smaller desired family size, and relatively easy access to abortions and ultrasound technologies, and you have the right combination of factors to actually transform preferences into reality. In fact, this is borne out by research that looks at birth order; for example, it appears that first-born kids are accepted whatever they are (so the sex ratio of first-borns is close to the norm); what gets families panicked is the idea of having two girls with no further prospects for a male child. This imbalance gets dramatically higher for third children, where the first two are girls. The real question to ask ourselves is whether society has the right to interfere in the choices families, and in the most intimate sense, women, make about their preferences for both numbers of children and their gender. My own take is that girl children are fabulous and should be celebrated, they are also the best safety net that most parents will have in their old age. Public policy should take a hard look at the determinants of family preferences and try to influence them through incentives (I believe it was South Korea that offered major incentives for girls including free education), since the consequences on society as a whole of the imbalances are serious (including higher sexual violence, prostitution, crime, and probably falling birthrates) -- but influence them only through incentives to change preferences, not through punishing them. As all of us know, if the incentives are right, people will find a way, legal or otherwise, of making their desires happen.
Guest - azar on Saturday, 17 December 2011 20:07

I believe the sex rate at birth is the reult of the factors we are not in the power to change. We can observe the ratio though. To talk of Azerbaijan yes the people tend to favor having boys but that it is considered that both girl and boy are both important to the continuation of the nation. All in all, i believe that whatever we write, talk and do about it the birth ration will not be changed simply by taking economic decisions and incentives.

I believe the sex rate at birth is the reult of the factors we are not in the power to change. We can observe the ratio though. To talk of Azerbaijan yes the people tend to favor having boys but that it is considered that both girl and boy are both important to the continuation of the nation. All in all, i believe that whatever we write, talk and do about it the birth ration will not be changed simply by taking economic decisions and incentives.
Guest - Omer Moav on Thursday, 12 January 2012 21:13

Very interesting and well written!

Very interesting and well written!
Guest - jackpot 247 on Tuesday, 24 July 2012 00:41

Hey there terrіfic blog! Does running a blog like this take a great deal of wοгk?
I've absolutely no understanding of coding however I had been hoping to start my own blog in the near future. Anyway, if you have any recommendations or tips for new blog owners please share. I understand this is off topic nevertheless I simply needed to ask. Many thanks!

Hey there terrіfic blog! Does running a blog like this take a great deal of wοгk? I've absolutely no understanding of coding however I had been hoping to start my own blog in the near future. Anyway, if you have any recommendations or tips for new blog owners please share. I understand this is off topic nevertheless I simply needed to ask. Many thanks!
Guest - Zak on Sunday, 26 August 2012 20:42

This post got stuck in my mind and I've been thinking about it on an off. Recently I have learned that one of the way's to influence the gender of the baby is a special diet before conception (from the mother's side). Two major components for conceiving a boy are excessive salt and no milk. As far as my experience goes, this actually resembles a diet of an average Georgian. So, I was wondering whether Georgian (Caucasian) cuisine can explain part of the variation.

Does anybody know a place where one could get the numbers on per capita consumption of salt and milk by countries? It would be interesting to look at correlations to sex ratios.

This post got stuck in my mind and I've been thinking about it on an off. Recently I have learned that one of the way's to influence the gender of the baby is a special diet before conception (from the mother's side). Two major components for conceiving a boy are excessive salt and no milk. As far as my experience goes, this actually resembles a diet of an average Georgian. So, I was wondering whether Georgian (Caucasian) cuisine can explain part of the variation. Does anybody know a place where one could get the numbers on per capita consumption of salt and milk by countries? It would be interesting to look at correlations to sex ratios.
Guest - Frank on Monday, 23 December 2013 21:15

Zak, the Health in times of transition study collects self assessed data on eating habits. I don't remember which foods were surveyed, but it's worth a look.

Also it's only the CIS countries, but if you found a strong link we'd all be interested!

http://www.hitt-cis.net/press-and-downloads/

Zak, the Health in times of transition study collects self assessed data on eating habits. I don't remember which foods were surveyed, but it's worth a look. Also it's only the CIS countries, but if you found a strong link we'd all be interested! http://www.hitt-cis.net/press-and-downloads/
Guest - George Papava on Monday, 23 September 2013 22:20

This relatively recent paper could be of interest:
http://researchonline.lshtm.ac.uk/1130041/1/3909713.pdf

This relatively recent paper could be of interest: http://researchonline.lshtm.ac.uk/1130041/1/3909713.pdf
Guest - Frank on Monday, 23 December 2013 21:10

If I might weigh in here, I've just finished some desk research on this topic.

As far as the biology community is concerned, the very few experiments that have been done thus far on so-called "natural" gender selection have returned little supporting evidence. Diets, rituals, and other folk attempts have been tested and pretty well rejected (you can find a good synopsis on the wiki page for "Sex Selection" under "History and Folk Beliefs"). There are clinical ways to encourage gender, such as embyonic implantation and sperm sorting, but they are expensive and I could find no instances of the practices in Georgia.

Natural systemic explanations (such as the "returning soldiers" concept) have little hard evidence, but cannot be rejected because the few attempts at testing were questionable; isolating the relevant factors without very good data is difficult. Also important to this explanation: related effects have been thoroughly demonstrated in the amphibian class of animals, but never in mammals.

Sex Selective abortion is the only society-level explanation that has been shown to affect gender ratios at birth in the real world. As science-types we're obligated to keep our minds open to the idea of systemic biological selection, but we cannot assume its true over more logical explanations without good reason... and "but Georgians wouldn't do that!" is unfortunately not a very good reason.

Abortions happen in the Caucasus, there is no doubt about it. In fact, the most recent EVS wave shows it's more socially acceptable in Georgia than many other places in the region, including East Europes (http://www.europeanvaluesstudy.eu/evs/data-and-downloads/). My view, weighing the evidence, is that gender selective abortions began after the option became available. To be clear, however, these gender ratios at birth would show that this happens rarely.

All that said, I'm proud to announce that my company is about to start qualitative research on this very topic! As always, it depends entirely on the client's whims whether the data is available, but I'll see what I can do. The research is limited by available data and social constraints, but we should at least be able to shine some light on the attitudes of Georgians and Armenians on gender preference and sex selection. I'll be sure to check on the publishability of the data and share it with interested parties when its finished in the spring :)

If I might weigh in here, I've just finished some desk research on this topic. As far as the biology community is concerned, the very few experiments that have been done thus far on so-called "natural" gender selection have returned little supporting evidence. Diets, rituals, and other folk attempts have been tested and pretty well rejected (you can find a good synopsis on the wiki page for "Sex Selection" under "History and Folk Beliefs"). There are clinical ways to encourage gender, such as embyonic implantation and sperm sorting, but they are expensive and I could find no instances of the practices in Georgia. Natural systemic explanations (such as the "returning soldiers" concept) have little hard evidence, but cannot be rejected because the few attempts at testing were questionable; isolating the relevant factors without very good data is difficult. Also important to this explanation: related effects have been thoroughly demonstrated in the amphibian class of animals, but never in mammals. Sex Selective abortion is the only society-level explanation that has been shown to affect gender ratios at birth in the real world. As science-types we're obligated to keep our minds open to the idea of systemic biological selection, but we cannot assume its true over more logical explanations without good reason... and "but Georgians wouldn't do that!" is unfortunately not a very good reason. Abortions happen in the Caucasus, there is no doubt about it. In fact, the most recent EVS wave shows it's more socially acceptable in Georgia than many other places in the region, including East Europes (http://www.europeanvaluesstudy.eu/evs/data-and-downloads/). My view, weighing the evidence, is that gender selective abortions began after the option became available. To be clear, however, these gender ratios at birth would show that this happens rarely. All that said, I'm proud to announce that my company is about to start qualitative research on this very topic! As always, it depends entirely on the client's whims whether the data is available, but I'll see what I can do. The research is limited by available data and social constraints, but we should at least be able to shine some light on the attitudes of Georgians and Armenians on gender preference and sex selection. I'll be sure to check on the publishability of the data and share it with interested parties when its finished in the spring :)
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