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Professor examines son preference in India

  • Sonia Dalmia, professor of economics, grew up in India

Posted on October 29, 2013

Sonia Dalmia grew up in many different regions of India. Dalmia, a professor of economics at Grand Valley State University, had full support from her parents to pursue higher education, but that is not the case for many women in India. Dalmia said boys are preferred over girls in her native country and she studied data to find the underlying factors behind the gender bias in child survival rates.

“Son preference is an ancient practice and prevailed even before sex determination technology, in the form of female neglect — a passive strategy aimed at allocating a larger share of a family’s limited financial resources toward better education, health and food for boys and men from birth,” said Dalmia. “In view of India’s social and economic diversity and the interplay of cultural and economic factors, it’s difficult to pinpoint just 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 India’s 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 and 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 India’s 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 women’s education, training and employment, decrease women’s 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, Dalmia’s analysis found that a woman’s control over her income more than her labor force participation is the single most significant factor in reducing the preference for boys.

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