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Valerie M Hudson and Andrea M den Boer, 'Bare Branches: the security implications of Asia's surplus male population'

MIT Press, 2004. ISBN 0 262 08325 6; 400pp; price US$35

Most PN readers would, I hope, be at least aware of the issue of the “missing women” of India and China and the growing problem of gender imbalance in the populations of these two huge countries. The increasing use of sex-selective abortion as an apparently more socially acceptable option than female infanticide is the latest twist to this tale, the chilling use of modern medical technologies to eliminate socially and economically undesirable girl children.

As a woman and a feminist, I have always found these developments deeply disturbing - I guess that having the privilege of being white and middle-class I've never routinely been on the receiving end of the idea that it might be desirable to systematically eliminate me. But this book takes the magnitude of the issue to whole new levels, through its look at the larger geopolitical dangers attendant on the development of seriously skewed Indian and Chinese populations.

Hudson and den Boer argue their case in an extremely clear, methodical fashion. The use of infanticide and other ways of controlling population throughout nature and human history is examined, followed by excruciatingly detailed accounts of historical sex-selective infanticide in the two focus countries.

Colonial-era tales of entire Indian castes with no female members were horrifically calmly recounted, and the logic of such behaviour is coolly explored, whether it be environmental pressures or the desire of castes or other social groups not to make themselves vulnerable to attack through the presence of a substantial female population.

Modern developments, though, are then looked at, with numerous attendant graphs, charts and statistics to demonstrate the impact of the desire for sons on the general population of India and China. In some areas the numbers of “missing women” touch half the expected female population - which means there are large numbers of young, often low-status men who will be permanently excluded from the stable state of family life and marriage.

Hudson and den Boer's next tack, then, is to trace what societies and states do when they are confronted with such excess males, which is to find ways to occupy them. And, more often that not, this means conscription and high levels of militarisation. The implications of this for two such enormous nations are terrifying - and largely ignored in wider considerations of future global developments.

We are all used to hearing about US imperialism and worldwide terrorism, but I don't recall much discussion of the fact that our world now includes two states of unprecedented size, which also have unprecedented levels of sex imbalance. Both countries are increasingly demanding positions in global politics which befit their size and growing economic weight. And both have ongoing conflicts of some variety sitting on their borders (Pakistan and Tibet, for instance). The potential repercussions of this state of affairs - and the authors of Bare Branches give us a few unpleasant possibilities to conjure with - are truly petrifying.

Topics: Women | Global South