As I write this, David Cameron is flying with his all-male ministerial team to meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao of China. Questions were asked in the press yesterday about whether he will raise the issue of the human rights of Nobel peace prize winner, Liu Xiaobo. But in a country where experts estimate that about 100 million girls have been aborted, murdered, disappeared or trafficked I sincerely hope he will be raising this far greater human rights travesty.
Featured on the cover of the Economist back in March with accompanying superb articles, it is twenty years since another Nobel prize winner, Amartya Sen, published an essay in the New York Review of Books highlighting what he described as "what is clearly one of the more momentous, and neglected, problems facing the world today." And yet, nothing has changed. Impotent posters adorn walls in China, telling people that girls are equal to boys. Their mothers are obviously not convinced. And this is the other side of the tragedy - girls that have survived to become mothers still have such little self-esteem, such a sense of inferiority, such a fear of poverty or their daughter's abuse (maybe) that they will get rid of their baby girl in order to have a son. And that can be through abortion, infanticide, sold into the sex trade or dumped in an orphanage. 95% of children in Chinese orphanages are healthy baby girls; but such is the culture of neglect that deaths are frequent, in one case reaching 76% (as detailed in Death by Default).
It wasn't always this way. Chairman Mao gave women the legal right to vote, education, employment, marriage and inheritance rights. Their status was transformed, until in 1978 Deng Xiaoping brought in economic reforms that began to increase discrimination against women once again. It was a year later that the one child policy became law. By 2020 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that there will be 40 million more men aged 19 and under than women. That will be equivalent to the total number of young men in the same age bracket in the USA. Demographers can only guess at the societal impact. Already this increasing scarcity of women has spawned another nightmare. According to the US State department, domestic trafficking of women is now the most significant problem in China with up to 20,000 women trafficked each year, sold as 'brides' or into sex slavery.
So I hope our Prime Minister ask: when laws designed to protect women will be enforced? When will doctors will be prosecuted for an unequal male-female abortion ratio? Maybe Michael Gove can ask when will school fees will be abolished that have left 100 million girls illiterate in what is now the worlds second biggest economy? When changes to social security will ensure the parents of girls are not penalised in old age? Amartya Sen was asking such questions 20 years ago. I can't help feeling that it's a shame that a female cabinet minister isn't with him who could have embodied our political commitment, albeit imperfectly executed, to gender equality and status.