Overcoming son preference in India remains a daunting challenge as even educated women are prone to it

Have women fared better than men, and girls better than boys in the last decade or so? In the din over a dramatic reduction in poverty in the period 2009/10-2011/12 that is unlikely to die down, deep questions about the discrimination and deprivation that women face from the womb to the rest of their lives are either glossed over or, worse, just ignored.

The Sen norm

Amartya Sen sought to capture the cumulative impact of multiple forms of deprivation that women face over their lives in an intuitively appealing measure of “missing women.” It aims to capture women’s adversity in mortality and to better understand the quantitative difference between (1) the actual number of women, and (2) the number we expect to see in the absence of a significant bias against women in terms of food, and health care. First, the difference between the sex ratio norm of women per 1,000 males and actual sex ratio is computed. Second, multiplying it by the number of males, the number of missing women is obtained. This is an absolute measure. A relative measure requires division of missing women by surviving women. In the same way, absolute and relative estimates of missing girls are computed.

Dr. Sen’s original estimate of missing women in India in the 1980s was 37 million in a global total of more than 100 million missing women. Another estimate is lower for India (23 million) in a total of 60 million in selected countries, based on the western demographic experience. More recent estimates point to higher numbers of missing women. The important point, however, is not that the differences are large but the fact that “gender bias in mortality takes an astonishingly high toll” (Sen, 2003).

The sex ratio rose in India from 932.91 per 1,000 males in 2001 to 940.27 in 2011, implying a decadal growth of 0.70 per cent. Using the same norm that Dr. Sen used, our estimates of missing women rise from 46.35 million in 2001 to 49.73 million in 2011, an increase of 3.38 million. The decadal increase was thus 7.30 per cent. As the number of missing women depends on the difference between the sex ratio norm and the actual multiplied by the number of men, a narrowing of the difference between these ratios was more than compensated for by the larger number of men. However, as a share of surviving women, there was a reduction — from 9.33 per cent in 2001 to 8.48 per cent — implying a decadal reduction of 9.17 per cent.

Rural and urban picture

Disaggregation into rural and urban missing women reveals an interesting picture. The sex ratio in the rural areas rose slightly, from 946 in 2001 to 947 in 2011. The absolute number of missing women rose from 28.35 million to 31.30 million, an increase of 2.95 million. This implies a decadal increase of 10.40 per cent. However, the share of missing women declined from 7.9 per cent to 7.7 per cent, a decadal reduction of 2.53 per cent.

The sex ratio rose from 900 in the urban areas in 2001 to 926 in 2011, a decadal increase of 2.89 per cent. Yet the absolute number of missing women increased slightly — from 18 million to 18.42 million — a decadal increase of 2.33 per cent. This is a fraction of the much larger increase in rural areas. However, the share of missing women declined — from 13.3 per cent to 10.20 per cent — a decadal reduction of 23.30 per cent. This is considerably larger than the reduction in rural areas.

The sex ratio (girls/1,000 boys) in the age group <6 years fell from 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011, a decadal reduction of 1.40 per cent. The number of missing girls rose from 2.13 million in 2001 to 3.16 million in 2011, a decadal increase of 48.36 per cent. The share of missing girls in surviving girls also rose from 2.7 per cent to 4.2 per cent, an increase of 55.55 per cent. Both absolute and relative measures of missing girls thus shot up over this decade. That the bias against girls rose so sharply is alarming.

In the rural areas, the sex ratio fell from 934 in 2001 to 919 in 2011, a decadal reduction of 1.60 per cent. The number of missing girls rose from 1.23 million to 2.07 million, a decadal increase of 68.29 per cent. The share of missing girls rose from 2.0 per cent to 3.7 per cent, an increase of 85 per cent. As these rates are much larger than those at the all-India level, it follows that the already more pervasive sex-selective discrimination grew more rapidly in the rural areas.

Our regression analysis focusses on some of the key factors underlying discrimination against women resulting in missing women, using State level data for 2001 and 2011. This allows us to isolate the effect of each variable and assess its magnitude. As a few States that had a pronounced sex imbalance grew rapidly (e.g. Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Delhi, Maharashtra), it is not surprising that the share of missing women rose with higher income. States with higher female literacy rates, as a proxy for better schooling of women, witnessed lower shares of missing women, as also those with a higher ratio of female workers to male workers. The latter is often used as a women’s empowerment indicator. A higher proportion of adult women (15-59 years) raised the share of missing women, presumably because of higher maternal mortality. Higher proportions of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes relative to Others, as proxies for cultural factors, were associated with higher shares of missing women. The higher the number of crimes against women, the higher was the share of missing women. A north-south divide in the shares of missing women persists with the north and west regions faring worse than the south. Much of this disparity is attributed to whether it is a matriarchal or patriarchal society and whether inheritance laws favour women. Finally, media exposure significantly reduced the share of missing women.

The child sex ratio depends on two factors: sex ratio at birth and gender specific mortality rates among children ever born. While preventing the abortion of female foetuses reduces the masculinity of the sex ratio at birth, it has the likely consequence that unwanted girl foetuses grow into girls who will be deprived of nutrition and health care. These unwanted girls will then be more vulnerable to infant and child mortality.

Sex determination

Although foetal sex determination for selective abortion has been illegal in India since 1994 — the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994 however, became effective in 1996 — evidence suggests that the practice flourishes. A Lancet study shows that a woman is substantially more likely to have a boy if she has a large number of girls. For families who already have one child, the probability of the second child being a girl is 0.515 if the first child is a boy, but only 0.422 if the first child is a girl. On some assumptions — including the birth order effects — about 0.5 million sex selective abortions occurred annually. Other more recent estimates are higher (about 0.62 million in 2011 or well over six million including abortions largely performed in non-registered institutions, by untrained people, and in unhygienic conditions). Unsafe abortions account for nearly eight per cent of maternal deaths.

In sum, while women’s empowerment through education, employment opportunities and social networks that give them a voice against discrimination, greater media exposure and enforcement of laws that penalise violation of women’s rights are central to reducing this scourge, the challenge of overcoming son preference remains a daunting one, as even working and educated women are prone to it. Besides, and somewhat surprisingly, more rapid growth alone in States with pronounced sex imbalance, so often touted as a panacea for all forms of deprivation, is likely to make matters worse.

(Vani S. Kulkarni is a research associate in sociology, Yale University, while Manoj K. Pandey is a doctoral candidate in economics, Australian National University, and Raghav Gaiha is a visiting scientist, department of global health and population, Harvard School of Public Health.)

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