Research Fall 2013

Son preference in India

Professor examines gender bias

by Dottie Barnes

Sonia Dalmia grew up in many different regions of India before her family settled in New Delhi. Dalmia was encouraged by her parents to follow her dream of higher education in India, earning a bachelors and masters degree from the University of Delhi. At 24, Dalmia moved to the U.S. to pursue higher education.

Dalmia, professor of economics, had full support from her parents, but that is not the case for many women in India.


Sonia Dalmia, far right, is pictured with her children and parents in the Leh District in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Dalmia said boys are preferred over girls in her native country; she studied data in hopes of finding the underlying factors behind the gender bias in child survival rates in her homeland.

Son preference is an ancient practice, explained Dalmia. A larger share of a familys limited financial resources for education, health and food would be allocated for boys and men from birth.

In view of Indias social and economic diversity and the interplay of cultural and economic factors, its difficult to pinpoint one reason behind son preference.

Dalmia examined data collected by the National Council of Applied Economic Research in India from 1956-1996, which surveyed both men and women living in north and south India. More than 1,000 households spread over five districts in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, and 800 households spread over five districts in Karnataka in southern India, were surveyed by NCAER for a larger study, Poverty, Gender Inequality and Reproductive Choice.

Dalmia said girls are seen as an economic liability and burden, partly because of the very expensive dowry that must accompany them at the time of their marriage. She said dowry is not the only cause for gender bias in child survival rates, noting that sons carry on the family name and often the business, and usually inherit family property and perform last rites.

Despite Indias growing economic prosperity and education levels, Dalmia said the 2011 census figures reveal low sex ratios (849 to 900 girls per 1,000 boys) in some of the richest states in
the nation.

Her research shows positive linkages between son preference, socioeconomic status and educational attainment. This contradicts the explanation that sex selection is an archaic practice common only among the uneducated, Dalmia explained.

Some women surveyed indicated they did not want daughters, a choice motivated by the financial security provided by sons in old age, the cost of marrying a daughter and a strong desire not to want their daughters to live the kind of life they lived in India. This ideology has led to a declining female to male ratio in India that Dalmia described as alarming. In some areas, the ratio is as low as 80 females per 100 males.

If the sex ratio at birth remains at 2001 levels, there will be 47 million more men than women in 2050, said Dalmia. She added that even if the sex ratio at birth were to remain at the normal level of 106 boys per 100 girls, the female deficit in the age group 20-49 would be at least 25 million in India by 2030.

Dalmia said the economic and social implications of these ratios will be far-reaching in the decades to come, especially given Indias demographic weight and the recent decline in population growth.

This will not only affect marriage rates but will also result in early marriage for women, she said. The latter will be detrimental to womens education, training and employment, decrease womens labor force participation rates and, consequently, weaken their political voice in public decision-making.

Dalmia said trafficking of and violence against women will increase, brides will be imported from other regions and the demand for male labor, especially in the low-skilled and low-wage sectors largely occupied by women, will rise.

Although wealth and economic development do not reduce son preference, Dalmias analysis found that a womans control over her income more than her labor force participation is the single most significant factor in reducing the preference for boys. But, she also found the size of dowry payments is the largest driver of son preference, particularly among the Hindu households in north India.