Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Thing About Girls

We all know that female children, like the adorable Isaan girls in this photo, are less valued than boys in many Asian countries.

It's true in Thailand.

When it's rice-planting or harvest time in Isaan, up in the Northeast of the Kingdom, the whole family goes to work in the fields.  The kids are in school, of course, but at peak work seasons, they're pulled out and plunked down in the paddies.

But the girls are pulled out first, and generally speaking, they stay out longest.  There's a reason for this: a boy's education is more valuable to a poor family than a girl's is.

In most Asian societies, especially those that lack a social safety net -- Thailand, China, and Vietnam are good examples-- the most sacred obligation of children is to care for their aging parents.  And in Buddhist countries, such as Thailand, the obligation is deepened by the precepts of the religion.

But in this arena, as in so many others, there's a division of labor.  Boys, when they grow up, take care of their own mothers and fathers.  Girls are responsible for the well-being of their husbands' mothers and fathers.

So let's assume you're a destitute Thai or Chinese peasant, living in some pig-stinking village and just barely scraping a living by working twelve-hour days.  You and your spouse have a child -- a girl -- and the amount it takes to keep your family alive immediately increases.  You have to work harder.  And you know that your daughter, once she's married, will vanish as though she's never lived there. You have another daughter.  No matter how conscientious a parent you are, no matter how much love you lavish on them, when you're old and unable to work, you'll be thrown back on the charity of your neighbors, who are exactly as poor as you are.

One of the great unforeseen consequences of the one-family, one-child policy in China was the abandonment (and abortion, where it was available) of girl babies and the subsequent attempt to keep the birth off the state records.  Some parents were imprisoned, and in a few appalling instances, women who already had two children (almost always daughters) were forcibly aborted.

Now the policy -- which did, one must admit, bring Chinese population growth under control -- has had two ironic outcomes.  First, alone of all the countries on Earth, China has more young men than young women.  There is already a widespread trade in taking marriageable young men to other Asian countries to find brides.

Secondly, poor village families who kept their daughter -- or even had more than one -- are sitting pretty all over China now.  The vast majority of workers in the factories that drive China's economic boom are young women, anywhere from sixteen years old to their late twenties.  They send most of the money they make home, where Mom and Dad build bigger, nicer houses and take it easy.  And graduates from those factories, women in their late twenties and early thirties, are in management positions in companies all over China.

Under Mao, there was a saying that "Women hold up half the sky."  But it's only now that women earn anything like half the money; and in China, at least, girl babies are widely welcome for the first time in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.


  1. Very interesting post you write here.

    I have understood and think that China's one-child policy was needed to keep the population growth down to a level in which the people could be fed and other needs met.

    While I totally support reproductive choice for all women, coercion in either direction isn't a good thing.

    I have heard the slogan that "Women make up half the sky," since my student days decades ago. I like that slogan. It's true worldwide, but in some countries, women hold up more than half, as they do an enormous amount of work, then take care of their families, too.

    I understood from articles a few years ago that the Chinese government had undertaken measures to build up women's rights in many respects, including in rural, agricultural areas.

    I did not realize that funds younger women and men send back to their families in rural areas allow them to buy larger houses; that's a point not heard often.

    Nor had I had I seen that women are becoming factory managers, although I do know of the enormous numbers of women who work in factories.

    Do you know where more can be read about this?

    It is hard to believe--after seeing the beautiful faces above--some of the conditions in Thailand which adversely affect girls, such as being pulled from school to work.

    But what is very worrisome is the trafficking of women and girls, often coerced, often for Westerners, often due to extreme poverty.

    I believe that you deal with this in one of your books, which is good. There should be a world outcry about this, about young lives stolen.

  2. Hi, Kathy --

    The best book about China that I've read in years is Leslie T. Chang's "Factory Girls." Chang was for years the Beijing correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, and she spent almost five years (I think) befriending female factory workers in Shenzhen and other southern Chinese cities and following them through their careers. It's heartbreaking, inspiring, funny, sad -- and it makes the point that the real face of China's economic miracle is young and female. Chang's husband, Peter Hessler, was the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker for a decade or so, and his newest book, "Country Driving" ia an amazing companion to "Factory Girls." (Not surprising, since they wrote their books in adjoining rooms.) He starts off by wanting to drive the length of the Great Wall but ends up by writing about the very villages that Chang's factory girls left behind, and the last section of the book, in which he's on hand as a new factory is built, staffed, and either succeeds or fails (I'm not telling), with the whole enterprise powered by dreams, is unforgettable. GREAT books.

    The book of mine that deals most closely with the sex trade is the fourth and most recent of the Bangkong books, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, in which we go back in time to see how one of the series' main characters, the wife of the male protagonist, was transformed from an unworldly village girl into the "queen" of the biggest bar on the notorious Patpong Road. By the way, in the books, this character, whose name is Rose, runs an apartment-cleaning service to give bar workers a way out of the life.

  3. One more word to Kathy. The trafficking of young Asian women for the sex trade is overwhelmingly for Asian customers, at a rate of probably twenty to one. When you visit a city like Bangkok, you see the garish "entertainment areas" for Western customers, but the enormous sex trade aimed at Thais is pretty much invisible. And one of the biggest and brightest of the four main "entertainment areas," Thaniya, is exclusively for Japanese -- Westerners aren't even allowed in the bars.

    Similarly, there's a huge prostitution industry in China and it, too, is aimed almost entirely at Chinese and other Asians.

    Western media just doesn't think there's much news value to Asian women and girls being exploited for the benefit of Asian men. It's only news when the customers are Western.

  4. That strikes a chord in what I'm reading right now, Jassy Mackenzie's book Stolen Lives set Jo'burg and the UK about human trafficking in the sex trade. These women are primarily Eastern European but also poor African woman and the customers and procurers are whites - male and female. Just makes one realize how pervasive this is all over the world.

  5. The value of women has been constant throughout history. They don't have any.

    From the beginning of recorded history, women are of no value to their families because when she marries, as she will have to do, she and the children she bears will belong to her husband's family. Female children were bargaining chips. No matter what her class, she had to have a dowry because even though her children will enrich the tribe, she has little value in any other meaningful way.

    In August, Time magazine, on its cover, had the picture of a 19-year old who had her nose and ears cut off by a leader of the Taliban for defying her in-laws when she tried to escape their cruel treatment. It is barbaric and outside the understanding of people in the west. women in the modern, civilized world may not be mutillated in the same way, there are programs in which medical personnel donate their services to women who have been so badly beaten that they are disfigured. There are victims of spousal abuse in numbers impossible to define. For every woman who escapes to a crisis center, there are hundreds who don't. The single most dangerous place for women is their home.

    There are teenagers, born in the United States, who will for religious or cultural reasons have an arranged marriage.

    Women are exploited everywhere. We just don't see it. No one knows what happens to the woman at the next desk or the female physician, or the kindergarten teacher when she goes home.

    At the risk of being accused of blatant self- promotion, I invite you to read a review of an extraordinary book on the Murder By Type blog. I reviewed FINDING NOUF by Zoe Ferraris. Nouf is the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Saudi Arabia. Nouf and the story are fiction; the circumstances and barriers in the lives of Saudi women are not.

    Better yet, read the book. It is a stunning reminder that there are cultural differences we don't know we don't know.


  6. Yes, the book "Factory Girls," has been mentioned to me by friends. I did not know about "Country Driving," but will try to find both of them.

    What's covered here in the news are often the scandals when Westerners are involved in the trafficking in Asia, especially Thailand.

    I have heard/read only good things about your series, and want to read them. I was a bit worried that "The Queen of Patapong," would upset me, as this is fiction based on reality, real horrors, but I'll venture forth and start with an earlier book.

    And on books, I read "Finding Nouf," and Ferraris' second book, "City of Veils." The latter was truly disturbing, both on the conditions of women, but also on Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system which affects men as well...horrifying.