Will gender imbalance lead to war?


Last weekend I saw an interesting headline in the local Saturday paper here in Auckland, The Weekend Herald. It read: “Bachelor Nations Risk Testosterone Overdose”. Looking at the author of the piece, I was even more interested to discover that it was written by one of the historians that I most enjoy reading – Niall Ferguson.  Of course, this may not seem that exciting, but for us long-suffering Herald readers an interesting headline and an interesting contributor in the same piece is like receiving manna from heaven after wandering in the wilderness. And then discovering that that manna is wrapped in bacon.

Needless to say, my hopes were not disappointed. The article was originally published in Newsweek under the title“Men Without Women: The Rise of Asia’s Bachelor Generation”and it draws attention to the startling gender disparity in certain areas of Asia.While it is true that there are far more men than women on the planet, “[t]he gender gap is especially pronounced in Asia, where there are 100 million more guys than girls.”

This figure of 100 million is provided by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen who “calls it the mystery of the missing women…When Sen first added up the missing women—women who would exist today if it were not for selective abortion, infanticide, and economic discrimination—he put the number at 100million. It is surely higher now. For, even as living standards in Asian countries have soared, the gender gap has widened.”

This gap has widened because there is a “cultural preference for sons over daughters”which leads “to selective abortion of female fetuses, a practice made possible by ultrasound scanning, and engaged in despite legal prohibitions. The American feminist Mary Anne Warren called it‘gendercide.’”

Although this “gendercide” is common in parts of North-western India, it is particularly problematic in China. Thus:

“In China today, according to American Enterprise Institute demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, there are about 123 male children for every 100 females up to the age of 4, a far higher imbalance than 50 years ago, when the figure was 106. In Jiangxi, Guangdong, Hainan, and Anhui provinces, baby boys outnumber baby girls by 30% or more. This means that by the time today’s Chinese newborns reach adulthood, there will be a chronic shortage of potential spouses. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one in five young men will be brideless. Within the age group 20 to 39, there will be 22 million more men than women.”

It is an interesting and surprising aside to note that the article does not mention the Chinese Government’s one-child policy as a contributing factor to these numbers.

Whatever the reasons for this gender-imbalance, Ferguson goes on to outline a potential consequence of it, war and domestic unrest.

“According to the German scholar Gunnar Heinsohn, European imperial expansion after 1500 was the result of a male “youth bulge.” Japan’s imperial expansion after 1914 was the result of a similar youth bulge, Heinsohn argues. During the Cold War, it was youth-bulge countries—Algeria, El Salvador, and Lebanon—that saw the worst civil wars and revolutions. Heinsohn has also linked the recent rise of Islamist extremism in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan to an Islamic youth bulge.”

According to Ferguson:

“Either this bachelor generation will be a source of domestic instability, whether Brazilian-style crime or Arab-style revolution—or, as happened in Europe, they and their testosterone will be exported. There’s already enough shrill nationalism in Asia as it is. Don’t be surprised if, in the next generation, it takes the form of macho militarism and even imperialism.”

Although Heinsohn seems to be too deterministic in his reading of history for my liking (at least according to Ferguson’s portrayal of his argument) this is a side of the gender-imbalance problem that I had not considered before. Aside from the fact that millions of men will never know the joy of marriage and life-long companionship, there is also the potential danger that too many men without women will help fuel military aggression. Let us hope that Ferguson is wrong on this one.  

Marcus Roberts teaches law at Auckland University, in New Zealand.


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