What it feels like for a girl -- in China

The controversial one-child policy still results in baby girls' being abandoned -- virtually all the country's orphans are female.

Published November 18, 2005 11:15PM (EST)

November is National Adoption Awareness month, and California first lady and celebrity Democrat Maria Shriver is working for the cause. While accompanying her husband, the Governator, on a trade trip to China this week, she's trying to draw attention to the country's ongoing orphan crisis. China's one-child policy, combined with a common cultural preference for male heirs, has resulted in the widespread abandonment of baby girls. Ninety-five percent of the children up for adoption in China are female, with hundreds of thousands of Chinese girls currently living in orphanages.

If they aren't adopted, these girls face grim futures: The orphanage environment effectively subjects inhabitants to sensory deprivation, with the lack of stimulus and human contact leaving orphans developmentally delayed. Upon visiting the orphanages, adoptive parents often call the girls' condition "vegetating" and "deteriorating."

Adoption-minded American parents are adopting more Chinese children than they used to -- the number climbed from 61 U.S. adoptions from China in 1991 to 5,053 in 2000 -- but a staggering number of girls are still languishing in instututions. And adoption costs can run as high as $20,000 a child, even before you add diapers, day care, orthodontia and all the other price tags that American parenting often brings.

Shriver, along with nonprofit organizations like Half the Sky, is working to raise money and awareness to improve orphan services in China. Happily, Half the Sky founder Jenny Bowen says her own adopted daughters managed to catch up with their peers developmentally once they were loved and held and encouraged. Her Berkeley, Calif.-based group has helped 10,000 other children so far.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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