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.