The Economic Survey presents the first ever estimate of the number of ‘unwanted’ girls in India — girls whose parents wanted a boy but had a girl instead — at 21 million. The number has been arrived at by looking at the sex ratio of the last child (SRLC) which is heavily male-skewed, indicating that parents keep having children until they get the desired number of sons.
The Survey points out that the huge number of ‘unwanted girls’ (in the 0-25 age group in the population currently) is a direct outcome of the ‘son meta preference’ where parents do not stop having children after having a daughter.
The idea is based on a bunch of papers published in 2017 by development economist Seema Jayachandran of Northwestern University. While the ‘son meta preference’ does not lead to sex-selective abortion, the Survey 21 million is the number of girls parents did not want: first such national data sums up Jayachandran’s paper to state that it is “detrimental to female children because it may lead to fewer resources devoted to them”.
The biologically determined natural sex ratio at birth is 1.05 boy for every girl. The Survey points out that in India, the sex ratio of the last child is skewed towards male all throughout — for first-born, it is 1.82, 1.55 for second born, 1.65 for third child and so on.
The report compares India’s heavily-skewed-in-favour-of-boys SRLC to that of Indonesia, where the sex ratio at birth is close to the biological ideal, irrespective of whether the last child is a boy or a girl.
The estimate on the notionally “unwanted girls” goes beyond the Amartya Sen framework of “missing women” (owing to sex selective abortion or girl children who die owing to deliberate neglect). Using Sen’s methodology of sex ratio difference, as devised in 1990, the Survey pegs the number of “missing women” as of 2014 at 63 million, an increase from the 37 million as per Sen’s estimate.
The sex ratio of last birth (females per hundred births) has merely changed from 39.5 per cent to 39 per cent between 2005-06 and 2015-16. It is among two of the 17 gender indicators used in the Survey that fails to show any decadal improvement with an increase in wealth — the other being the effect on women’s employment.
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Between 2005-06 and 2015-16, the proportion of women who took up paid work has gone down from 36 per cent to 24 per cent, making India a glaring outlier in this respect. One of the main reasons for this continues to be the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work that falls on women, including looking after elders and children.
The Survey points out that following the implementation of Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act, 1994, which outlawed sex selection, India has seen a relatively stable sex ratio at birth (SRB). The SRLC, as an indicator, points to the continued societal preferences for a male child.
The Survey looks at both SRB and SRLC to state that in Meghalaya, both indicators are close to the ideal benchmark. Likewise, Kerala does not seem to practise sex selective abortions as their SRB is close to the ideal benchmark but the son preference is evident in a skewed SRLC, while Punjab and Haryana, two of the richest states, have a highly skewed SRB and SRLC.
Using data from the Demographic Health Survey (DHS) and National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the Survey states that over the last 10-15 years, India’s performance has improved on 14 out of 17 indicators of women’s agency, attitudes, and outcomes.