Maria Isabelle Wieser - Asia has a male surplus unprecedented in human history: men outnumber women by 70 million in India and China. The consequences of this imbalance are far reaching and include security and crime, labour markets, real estate, everyday interactions between men, women and the wider society – and, notably, gender dynamics.
Through a combination of a general preference for male children, the availability of sex-selective abortions, and government programmes (notably China’s one-child policy), for every 100 women among under-25s today, there are 113 to 117 men in China and India. More than one in ten men will not be able to find a wife. This creates an epidemic of loneliness and distorts labour and property markets, consumption, and implies ramifications across the region and the globe.
Considering millions of unsatisfied and sexually frustrated men competing for fewer brides, this surplus has obvious implications on gender dynamics.
The implications on women in society
The lack of women in society means that their traditional gender roles, such as caring for children, husbands and elderly, become harder to fulfil and thus more essential to society. On the one hand, this can lead to an increase in a bride’s value, as it is the case in Haryana, India. The scarcity of female population has led bachelors to overcome harmful traditions such as dowries or the taboo on cross-regional or cross-caste marriages. Furthermore, the lack of available brides offers women in China and India more choice among eligible bachelors, which therefore gives them a more powerful position when it comes to marriage. However, the increasing need for care givers pushes women back into traditional family duties and out of the labour market, making them more dependent on their bread-winning husbands. The lack of available partners further leads to an increase in bride theft and kidnapping from families that wish to marry off their sons, but also to prostitution, women trafficking and constant sexual harassment.
The implications on the role of masculinity
The decrease of the number of women also entails a paradigmatic shift for the role of masculinity. Gender theory sees masculinity as a performance that is constructed by society and in relation to, or against, other gender performance. R.W. Connell, in her theory of hegemonic masculinity, gives an explanation on how feminine attributes - such as affection, emotion or love for a man - are seen as subordinated in relation to masculine attributes, which include physical strength, emotional restraint and toughness. According to this theory, “[h]egemonic masculinity can be defined as the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordination of women”. In other words, by performing traditional heterosexual “male” roles such as providing for their families, seducing women or exercising leadership, men increase their status within their society.
In societies with a male surplus, the competition to get a subordinated feminine to provide for increases. When men are less suited, physically or financially, to provide for a female. Other, they ultimately lose out and end up alone, oftentimes sad and frustrated. The fact that they fail to get married further increases their loss of masculinity. This leaves men from disfavoured backgrounds behind and therefore encourages an increasingly toxic masculine behaviour, including violence or aggression, in order to win the competition.
However, the lack of women in a society can also encourage a change of mindset in how masculinity is perceived. If daughters and wives are missing to take care of their elderly parents or to work as care givers and nurses, men will eventually have to step in to fill the gap. Ultimately, this phenomenon can shift the understanding of what is perceived as masculine within society towards a more caring role for men and a more equal relationship between genders. In the long run, the lack of wives to marry can further influence the way in which relationships between partners are seen. If it becomes nearly impossible for men to find a woman to marry, former taboos such as homosexuality, polygamy or short-term relationships instead of life-long marriage could become more socially acceptable.
This blog post, and its brother blog post, are results of the event Too Many Men – The Consequences of Asia’s Male Surplus, hosted by foraus’ Peace & Security Programme and foraus’ Gender Programme in Geneva in October 2018.
Image: Benno Zogg.