It is now nearly 30 years since Amartya Sen famously argued in an essay that the world was missing 100 million women. Scholars have since come up with different estimates as well as provided a range of explanations of why many countries have fewer women than expected. These explanations range from female infanticide to cheaper prenatal sex determination technology to inadequate nutrition given to young girls. The underlying reason is a strong preference for sons. China and India are the biggest culprits. Can the tide ever turn?
The Haryana government said in October that there has been a steady rise in the sex ratio at birth within the state—from only 833 girls per 1,000 boys in 2011 to 920 girls per 1,000 boys in 2019. This is a remarkable achievement that needs to be replicated in other states, though the results of the 2021 census will give a better idea of what is happening across the country. It is in this context that the recent work done in a small Chinese village called Lijia by an anthropologist from Case Western University is highly relevant.
Lihong Shi found that the preference for sons has been declining in this rural corner of China, despite a 1986 law that says that rural families with a first daughter are not bound by the nation’s law that every family can have only one child. In her recent book Choosing Daughters: Family Change In Rural China, Lihong provides five main reasons families in rural China are quite happy to have a single daughter rather than a single son.
First, the spread of the market economy has redefined the idea of happiness. It now revolves around material possessions and leisure. Families see child rearing as something that jeopardizes the pursuit of happiness.
Second, the strategy of child rearing has undergone a remarkable change. The focus is now on providing the child with a good education as well as a higher level of consumption. That is more likely when there is only one child, irrespective of gender.
Third, there has been a gradual decline in the preference for sons. The families Lihong covered in her ethnographic study said that daughters are more filial than sons and daughters-in-law, or that the former are more likely to take care of parents.
Fourth, a shortage of girls in rural China altered the dynamics of the marriage market. The groom rather than the bride is now expected to bear most of the financial burden of the wedding, the costs of which sometimes drive families into debt.
Fifth, there is an erosion in the old belief that it is important to have sons to maintain family continuity. Lihong says that financial ability has replaced family continuity as the marker of social status.
These five reasons suggest that a change in social norms is as important as economic progress to break the stranglehold that a preference for sons has in many countries. This is also broadly the main finding of a 2008 study published by the World Bank on the improvement in the sex ratio at birth in South Korea.
South Korea faced the same problem that India faces right now. Its initial burst of economic growth was accompanied by deepening discrimination against daughters. The easy availability of sex selection technology added to the problem. However, South Korea became the first Asian country to push back as its sex ratio at birth declined between 1991 and 2005. Woojin Chung and Monica Das Gupta showed in a study of survey data that much of the change was driven by a change in social norms. Nearly three-fourths of the decline in the preference for sons was because of normative changes in South Korean society, while the rest was explained by a rise in education and urbanization.
The scholars also said that South Korea was better placed than either India or China for a reduction in child sex ratios. It was more industrialized, urbanized, and had more social cohesion because of its smaller size. Yet, they argued that India and China could begin to normalize their sex ratios at birth well before the two reach South Korean levels of development. The availability of jobs outside agriculture, greater internal migration, and higher levels of urbanization would reduce family pressure to have a son. Also, the study observed, “Public policies in China and India have sought hard to increase gender equity, through a wide range of interventions aimed at changing people’s perception that girls are less desirable than boys, as well as to bring women firmly into public life… This contrasts sharply with South Korea, where successive military regimes sought through their public policies to uphold muscular authoritarian Confucian traditions and keep women marginalised. These policies were gradually reversed only when three decades of military rule came to an end.”
Recent developments, be they in Haryana or rural China, suggest that their optimism is not misplaced. However, these are in all likelihood early victories, rather than the end of a longer war.
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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.