To give women their due

Families have a preferred number of sons at any given fertility level as well as a preferred fertility level.

Published on:August 26, 2014 12:06 am

By Vani S. Kulkarni, Manoj K. Pandey and Raghav Gaiha

In his maiden Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lamented the neglect of daughters, restrictions on their movements, parental attitudes that favoured sons, shameful rapes of girls and women, the lack of toilet facilities and sanitation. In a populist vein, he urged parents to treat sons and daughters equally, doctors to refrain from female foeticide, and every school to build separate toilets for girls. Undoubtedly, these add up to a bold and ambitious vision of social development in which men and women are equal participants. The complexities of gender inequity, however, cannot be resolved by the rhetoric of a “change of heart”.

In a pioneering contribution, Amartya Sen captured the cumulative impact of multiple forms of deprivation that women face in an intuitively appealing measure of “missing women”. It measures women’s adversity in mortality and seeks to better understand the quantitative difference between the actual number of women and the number expected in the absence of a significant bias against women in terms of health care and other resources for survival. After computing the difference between the sex ratio norm of women per 1,000 males and the actual sex ratio, it is multiplied by the number of males to obtain the number of missing women. In the same way, estimates of missing girls are computed. Our own recent research throws light on changes in the numbers of missing women and girls during the period covered by the Censuses of 2001 and 2011.

The sex ratio rose between 2001 and 2011. Using the same norm that Sen did, our estimates of missing women increased from 46.35 million in 2001 to 49.73 million in 2011. Although the increase in missing women despite a higher sex ratio may seem surprising, it is explained by the fact that the number of men grew rapidly to compensate for the smaller difference between the norm and the actual sex ratio in 2011. 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 a skewed sex ratio at birth, it has the likely consequence that “unwanted” girl foetuses grow into girls who are deprived of nutrition and healthcare. These unwanted girls will then be more vulnerable to infant and child mortality.

Families have both a preferred number of sons at any given fertility level (son preference) as well as a preferred fertility level (family size preference). Indeed, there is a very strong preference for having at least one son, and the desired sex ratio falls as family size increases. This is illustrated by Haryana’s low fertility and worst male sex ratio. An important point, however, is that, although the preference for sons decreases with the ideal family size, it does not completely disappear.

As girls account for a large share of the “unwanted” fertility (about 60 per cent) in northern India, prenatal sex-selection technologies have thrived despite legal restrictions (the PNDT Act of …continued »

Do you like this story