Change on a grassroots level: challenging the imbalanced sex ratio at birth in China

Already in the 1980s a skewed sex ratio at birth (SRB) occurred in China. More boys than girls have been born ever since then, reaching a record 121.18 birth ratio in 2004. It’s a challenge deeply rooted in Chinese society. “And for years, mainly the symptoms were addressed. Ultrasounds were monitored to prevent people from finding out their child’s sex. However, for this project we wanted to dive deeper and address the root causes for the imbalanced SRB,” explains Wen Hua, Programme Specialist at the UNFPA, who managed a project on addressing imbalanced SRB. She’s happy to tell us more about the project, which was carried out with support from the Netherlands’ Embassy in Beijing.

Skewed SRB is by definition a multi-faceted problem, driven by a declining fertility rate, the rise of technology and strong son preference. “These factors increased our sense of urgency. In this project we tried to address the underlying and deeply rooted gender inequality. We already facilitated pilot projects before but we wanted to invest more in researching and documenting evidence. Many projects in the past had a top-down approach, but we wanted to bring change from a grassroots level, using a bottom-up approach,” Wen Hua explains.

Mobilizing the community to revise village rules and regulations

Starting from people’s day-to-day lives

“Our approach focused on village/community rules and regulations. Already back in 2008 we had an expert team look at root causes. Many families who prefer sons believe they need these sons for the property and lands, and also to take care of them when they get old and carry on the family name. This made us realize that changing this mindset is really about people’s daily lives.  Customary law and village rules are a useful starting point, as it’s a factual approach. For instance, we revised gender discriminatory terms to make sure that actually women can inherit lands,” says Wen Hua. “To achieve this we developed a toolkit together with gender experts and we involved local governments and villages.”

Different places and villages have different processes in place. The toolkit developed by the UNFPA offers best practices and lessons learned to aid other villages throughout the process. “We also included the most common issues or discussions villages run into and offer practical answers. It’s about how to engage people, what to do when you’re going against the customs and people don’t want to participate, how to mobilize the township and village committees,” Wen Hua explains. She uses women participation in village council meetings as an example, as this is a key factor in the UNFPA’s project. “One of the most inspiring moments for me personally was when we joined a villager representative meeting, villagers debated its village rules and regulations and one topic was about changing the ‘quota’ of women representation in village committee. When discussing it, at first men proposed 35% women against 65% men. One lady raised her hand and said: ‘We’re talking about equality, so why not just change it to 50%’. It’s really great to witness the change of mindset.”

Besides interventions aimed at people’s daily lives the UNFPA also found a second way to approach the SRB from a gender mainstreaming perspective. Wen Hua: “We developed gender sensitivity trainings and trained teachers at Party Schools to offer gender sensitivity courses, because Party Schools are important platforms where party members and local policy makers can be trained for gender sensitive policy making. After all, we also want to make an impact in the long run, by realizing awareness of how policies can impact SRB.”

Measuring impact

Capturing and accurately measuring impact is always challenging. “We clearly see a positive trend when it comes to the SRB on the long term as we have observed a downward trend of SRB in all 6 project sites. However, we of course have to be cautious linking this to such projects. We can’t say that change happened only because of our project intervention, but we definitely contributed to the change,” Wen Hua analyses. “However, we also see very practical changes on the short term. Of the villages in the participating townships, already one third of the total number of communities/villages in six countries have revised local village rules and regulations. We also see that already fifteen policies have been revised by county government in six project sites.

“The abolishment of the one-child policy was an important milestone and it is great to see how this project has managed to work on grassroots levels to address the challenges which continue to exist. It is very important to improve the position and participation of women and girls, and with this project we can build on a better future,” explains Maarten Heetderks, Policy Officer at the Netherlands Embassy in Beijing. 

Lessons learned will not just be applied in China. The skewed sex ratio at birth is already a cross-border issue in terms of cross-border marriages, for instance with Vietnam. Local experiences can go national, and even international.

As Wen Hua concludes: “We often hear we can’t change these customs. But change takes one step at a time and we really can contribute.”