In much of emerging Asia, persistent bias in favour of sons remains a barrier to girls’ life prospects – and often to life itself. Pre- and postnatal sex selection, including abortion and infanticide, have led to significant demographic imbalances.
Son preference also perpetuates large-scale social problems. Because a majority of the population still values sons more highly than daughters – a preference reinforced by cultural traditions in which sons play an important role (like performing funeral rituals in Hinduism) – South Asia is rife with domestic violence, child marriage, and deaths due to dowry disputes.
And parents’ cultural preference for sons can create additional human-development challenges.
Nowhere is this more evident than in India. Educational and economic opportunities for boys and girls remain deeply unequal, as the country’s rapid economic growth since the 1990s was not accompanied by large-scale changes in gender attitudes and traditional social values. And, owing to sex selection, the country’s ratio of males to females is imbalanced, with millions of girls and women missing from schools and the labour market.
The problem is getting worse. Most deaths among girls under five are due to postnatal sex selection, and the spread of ultrasound technology has aggravated the imbalance.
Consequently, the number of “missing” women in India has doubled over the last 50 years.
According to the United Nations Population Fund’s State of the World Population 2020 report, India alone now accounts for 46 million missing girls, nearly a third of the global total of 142 million.
Understanding sex bias in fertility is important for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 4 (quality education) and SDG 5 (gender equality), because it helps to explain parents’ unequal treatment of daughters, particularly in rural or poverty-stricken areas.
The large gender disparities in South Asian educational outcomes must be addressed at the root.
Traditional gender norms – men as breadwinners and women as homemakers – could explain the higher value placed on male children, as could the perceived economic benefits of having sons (who, for example, will receive a dowry rather than costing his parents one).
These traditional views underpin gender inequality in educational attainment, with the gap perpetuating further inequalities in the next generation. In contrast, more educated women tend to have smaller families, with healthier and better-educated children.
Ending son bias in desired fertility, curbing the preferential treatment of boys, and addressing parents’ underinvestment in daughters requires increased spending on public education for girls. Bangladesh offers an example of the long-term social returns of such an approach.
In a recently published paper, we analysed the desired and actual fertility choices of thousands of Bangladeshi women of childbearing age. Although fertility decisions are still influenced by son preference, our results confirm a decline in the desire for sons.
Moreover, women with secondary schooling are more likely to desire gender balance in fertility. This finding contrasts with a 1994 study, which suggested the opposite relationship between Bangladeshi mothers’ secondary education and son preference. What has changed?
Three decades ago, educated Bangladeshi women had limited income-earning opportunities, and their economic status remained low.
There simply were not enough educated women to shift son preference in favour of daughters. Since then, however, girls’ education has benefited from the nationwide Female Secondary School Assistance Project, which was introduced in the early 1990s. The program provided financial aid for girls, and encouraged them to delay marriage in favour of education. Bangladesh has since leapfrogged neighbouring India in girls’ secondary education.
Moreover, Bangladesh is closing the large gender gap in school enrolment that prevails throughout South Asia, aided by changes in the labour market. Improved access to schooling coincided with a boom in the ready-made garment export sector, which now employs millions of young Bangladeshi women. We found that the desire for gender balance in fertility was stronger among women living in areas with more opportunities for paid work.
Thus, as a consequence of increased female education and employment, son preference is giving way to a desire for gender balance.
This is reflected in improvement in Bangladesh’s sex ratio. Excess female deaths as a share of overall under-five mortality rate is now around 3%, indicating a decline in pre- and postnatal sex selection.
In 1992, former World Bank chief economist Lawrence H. Summers famously identified women’s education as the single most influential investment that can be made in the developing world.
Our research confirms this finding. The policy lesson from Bangladesh is that investment in girls’ schooling and the creation of economic opportunities can have important intergenerational effects at birth, in education, and beyond.
M. Niaz Asadullah, Professor of Development Economics at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, is Head of the Southeast Asia cluster of the Global Labor Organization. Nazia Mansoor is a lecturer at the University of Paris-Dauphine’s London campus. Teresa Randazzo is an assistant professor at Cà Foscari University of Venice. Zaki Wahhaj is an associate professor at the University of Kent.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.