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Is Son Preference Hurting India?

By Business Standard
February 09, 2024 11:34 IST
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A cultural preference for sons in India may be expressed as 'son preference' or 'daughter aversion', arising from patrilocality, patrilineality, the cost of dowry, and old-age support from sons.

IMAGE: Girls perform the Giddha during Lohri celebrations for 501 newborn girls as part of the 'Save Girl Child' awareness organised by an NGO in Patiala. Photograph: ANI Photo

Socio-economic advancement, better educational facilities for women, and extensive government programmes have improved health outcomes for girls and narrowed the gender gap in child health inputs and outcomes.

However, India still has to go a long way. A new research paper -- published recently by the National Council of Applied Economic Research, which explores various dimensions of differential investment in sons and a fertility preference to have sons -- could be useful in framing policies in this context.

The data from the National Family Health Survey reveals India has closed most of the gender gap in child investment over time, yet girls continue to fare worse than boys on most indicators related to health and nutrition.

For instance, despite improvements in India's average female-male infant survival and vaccination ratios, they remain below the international average.

Further, boys tend to follow a more diversified dietary pattern and are more likely to be exclusively breastfed than girls.

States in the Hindi heartland -- Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh -- continue to suffer from high levels of excess female under-five mortality in the country.

Other than differential investment in children based on gender, the paper also finds evidence of son preference and favouritism towards the eldest son.

In India, eldest sons continue to do better than younger sons on various indicators like stunting and infant survival.

Cultural controls are strongly associated with a male-skewed sex ratio in the country.

A cultural preference for sons in India may be expressed as 'son preference' or 'daughter aversion', arising from patrilocality, patrilineality, the cost of dowry, and old-age support from sons.

The problem of 'missing female children' remains pervasive in the country.

An estimate by economist Amartya Sen in the 1990s showed that nearly 100 million women were missing across the world -- almost 40 million in India alone.

Indians continue to take advantage of weak enforcement of the Pre-Conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, which bans sex selection.

The willingness to have at least one son leads parents to engage in sex selection.

This results in the sex ratio getting skewed more towards males and the last child in the family is especially skewed towards sons.

The paper also notes the sex ratio at last birth is now considered a better way of capturing 'son preference' than the overall population sex ratio.

IMAGE: Models hold placards during an awareness campaign on 'Save the Girl Child' and 'Stop Violence Against Women' on the occasion of International Day of the Girl Child, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Photograph: ANI Photo

The paper provides some valuable policy insights. It gives evidence of the relative ineffectiveness of free health services in reducing preference for sons.

Policies, therefore, must focus on offsetting parents' time and hassle costs like providing payments to them for having healthy girls.

Similarly, female education has proven to have little impact. Development and educational attainment lead to smaller desired family sizes and, hence, couples are more likely to resort to sex-selective abortions.

Low fertility levels are positively associated with a male-skewed desired sex ratio.

The provision of financial incentives for having daughters also helps little due to the problem of infra-marginality of payments.

Instead, the government must strictly enforce the PCPNDT Act and empower schools to deliver timely health interventions.

The absence of social security also encourages families to have male children, with the hope that they will take care of their parents in old age.

This is, to be sure, a complex problem and various steps taken by the government have improved gender outcomes.

However, the desired change remains a slow process.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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