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Can Multiple Husbands Solve China’s Gender Imbalance?

Adopt Real Solutions for ‘One Child Policy’ Problems

© 2019 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

This week an economics professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University offered up a novel proposal to solve China’s very serious gender imbalance: polyandry – women having multiple husbands.

It’s an interesting idea, but we don’t think polyandry would necessarily be great for women. More husbands could mean more work – especially since globally, women do two-and-a-half times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men.

But China’s gender imbalance is a serious problem. The country has 30 to 40 million “missing women,” a situation caused by gender inequality and a preference for boys and exacerbated by the “one-child policy” in place from 1979 to 2015 and ongoing restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. This gender gap has made it difficult for many Chinese men to find wives.

It has also fueled a demand for trafficked women from abroad. Human Rights Watch documented bride trafficking in Myanmar, where each year hundreds of women and girls are deceived through false promises of employment into traveling to China, only to be sold to Chinese families as brides for about US$3,000 to $13,000 and held in sexual slavery, often for years. Most were pressured to become pregnant as quickly as possible; some were compelled to undergo forced fertility treatment. Those who had children and were lucky enough to escape could usually only do so by leaving their children behind. Several of the women we interviewed had been trafficked more than once. This type of bride trafficking to China has spread across Asia, with cases documented in at least eight countries.

Fortunately, there are real solutions to China’s gender imbalance that could both work and respect rights. Try combating deeply entrenched state and societal discrimination against women. Try ending government harassment of women’s rights activists and government censorship of their calls for gender equality. Try equality in the workplace, including equal parental leave for women and men and an expectation that both take it. And try remembering that women are in charge of their own bodies.

Chinese netizens furiously pushed back against the polyandry proposal, suggesting they want serious change. If only the Chinese government would listen.

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