The Chinese One Child Policy was created in 1979 in order to curb massive population growth. It has since been called the “largest population control effort in human history.”1 As the name suggests, the One Child Policy allows couples to have one child per family. This policy has been encouraged through such mediums as economic benefits such as access to healthcare, education and housing. The One Child Policy has likewise been enforced through compulsory sterilizations and birth control, the absence of economic benefits and hefty fines for violations.2
Policy implementation and compliance has not been uniform—with great differences between urban and rural areas. Scholars suggest there is stricter implementation and compliance in urban areas and a more relaxed approach to the policy in rural areas. Often this policy has been reduced to a “One and a half Child Policy” in rural areas. This discrepancy in rural and urban enforcement and compliance is largely due to urban areas close proximity to central authority. Rural areas further from central government control find it much easier to hide successive children from the government census.3
By and large, the One Child Policy has effectively slowed population growth. However, the family policy has also resulted in consequences that no one ever intended. The first such unintended consequence is the massive imbalance in sex ratio at birth (SRB), the number of males per 100 females at birth. The national average SRB in China is 118, with several provinces as high as 140. This gender imbalance is largely due to a male-preference culture. Parents only allowed one child push for having a boy in order to carry on the family name, provide labor and stay with parents in their old age. Traditionally in China, when a woman gets married, she immediately moves in with her new in-laws and takes care of them in their old age. The Chinese system does not provide such programs as retirement and social security for the elderly. Having a boy ensures that parents will be looked after in their old age—a sort of cultural social security system.4
While a national sex ratio at birth of 118 does not seem very high, put into perspective this means that there are currently around 13 million more boys than girls in China. By the year 2020, there is expected to be 40 million marriage age men who will have no one to marry.5 Intense pressure for couples to have boys is not only leading to a massive gender-gap crisis, but many grave societal issues. Thousands of Chinese girls are killed each year due to female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. Nearly 100,000 baby girls are abandoned every year and end up in hundreds of Chinese orphanages. There has been a massive increase in kidnapping, prostitution and rape. Millions of girls are believed to be missing from China's population.
The research question focuses on the effects of the One Child Policy on gender equality. Existing literature on the One Child Policy provides many competing ideas about the effects the family policy has had on Chinese society. Some research shows that the One Child Policy has led to greater gender equality, while others argue greater gender inequality. My research reviews and analyzes the existing literature on the One Child Policy to examine the current status of Chinese women in urban and rural areas.
Data and Methods
I decided to complete a meta-analysis, or in other words a glorified literature review to answer my research question. I gathered articles from prominent family-issue journals from 1979—when the policy was first implemented—to the present. By sorting through case studies, examples, surveys, data, observations and policy descriptions I was able to identify general patterns and relationships.
I Found that the One Child Policy has both helped and harmed gender equality in urban and rural China. I have split my results into four categories that include the positive and negative outcomes concerning gender equality in urban and rural China.
1. Positive Outcomes in Urban Areas
-women more valued
-greater investment in daughters
-more educational and career opportunities for women
-women greater political participation
2. Negative Outcomes in Urban Areas
- “leftover women” --successful women unable to find husbands due to a clash with a cultural norm—men don't want to feel subordinate to women.
-increase in female infanticide and illegal sex-selective abortion
-increase in kidnappings
-increase in prostitution
-compulsory fertility limitation through forced sterilizations and birth control use
3. Positive Outcomes in Rural Areas
-women are able to “marry up” into better economic circumstances due to the shortage of women in urban areas.
4. Negative Outcomes in Rural Areas
-increase in sex-selective abortion which is largely available in rural areas
-increase in abandonment of females
-less ambitious care for newborn females that are sick
-increase in maltreatment of women for having a female child
Time for a Two Child Policy?
Relaxation to a Two Child Policy is a prominent suggestion in relevant literature. However, the results of my study show that this might not be the best course of action. The One Child Policy has led to both gender equality and gender inequality. In rural and urban areas, the One Child Policy leads to various abuses against women, yet it also creates a population of scarce women that are becoming more valued and invested in. It is not yet time for a Two Child Policy—instead, the basic underlying issue of the cultural preference for sons must be addressed. China has already started a media campaign to address this issue, but this effort must be accelerated. China must help women view themselves as more valuable, and help the Chinese people view females as a valuable and integral part of society. The One Child Policy was implemented under the belief that men and women were equal in society—by addressing the cultural preference for sons, it is possible to mitigate imbalance in sex ratio at birth and increase gender equality.
- Feng, Wang. 2005. Can China afford to continue its one-child policy? Asia Pacific Issues no. 77(Mar): 1-12.
- Doherty, Jim P., Edward C. Norton, and James E. Veney. 2001. China’s one-child policy: Theeconomic choices and consequences faced by pregnant women. Social Science andMedicine 52, no. 5 (Mar): 745-61.
- Cooney, Rosemary Santana, and Jiali Li. 1994. Household registration type and compliance with the “one child” policy in China, 1979-1988. Demography 31, no. 1 (Feb): 21-32.
- Hesketh, Therese, Lu Li, and Weixing Zhu. 2011. The consequences of son preference and sex-selective abortion in China and other Asian countries. Canadian Medical Association183, no. 12 (Sep): 1374-77.
- Larmer, Brooke. 2013. The price of marriage in China. The New York Times: Business Day.