Published on Let's Talk Development

Son preference: Why we should care about it

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A group of school children walk hand in hand after school in rural Nepal A group of school children walk hand in hand after school in rural Nepal

Children are our future. What if daughters don’t get to be a part of that future? In several countries, parents’ wish to have at least one son—son preference—can lower the chances of daughters being born.

Son preference affects the quantity and quality of children

Son preference is centuries old and is driven both by economic and cultural factors (Dasgupta 2010). Historically, son preference has manifested itself in several Asian countries as “son-biased fertility stopping” behavior, wherein parents continue childbearing until they have achieved their desired number of sons. Not only does this increase fertility rates, it implies that girls tend to have more siblings than boys and grow up in families with fewer per capita resources, resulting in postnatal gender gaps in child investments and mortality (Jayachandran and Kuziemko 2011; Jayachandran and Pande 2017).

However, since the early 1980s, improvements in medical technology have changed the way parents express their son preference. The availability of cheap and reliable ultrasound scans has meant that parents can now detect fetal sex and abort unwanted female fetuses. Consequently, son-biased fertility stopping has been substituted with male-biased sex ratios at birth as parents no longer need to have “excess” fertility in pursuit of sons. The annual number of such sex-selective abortions increased from nearly zero in the late 1970s to 1.6 million per year in 2005-2010 globally (Bongaarts and Guilmoto 2015). Although India and China account for the bulk of sex-selective abortions, biased sex ratios at birth have been documented in a wide range of countries including South Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and among Asian populations in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Greece, and Spain.

An unintended consequence of this shift has been that girls born during time-periods when prenatal sex-selection is feasible are more likely to be “wanted” by their parents and hence receive less discriminatory treatment than would have been the case otherwise. This “selection” has been shown to have narrowed postnatal gender gaps in child investments and mortality without there being any change in son preference (Anukriti et al 2021).

Sex ratio imbalances resulting from son preference have long-term consequences

Most of the research on son preference is focused on the early phases of the life cycle as it emphasizes the resulting underinvestment in health and education of young girls. However, son preference can have long-term impacts at the micro (individual) level and even at the macro level. Lower levels of human capital have clearly far-reaching consequences for the neglected female individuals, who have less opportunities in the job market and lower earnings in their adult working lives.

Perhaps more startling are the (macro) impacts on marriage markets, crime, or even national and global security. A cohort made up of many more men than women means that a large group of men may end up unmarried and childless. This, in turn, might lead to potential destitution for these men in old age in countries like India and China that lack pension systems (Dasgupta 2010). Or, there may be a downward pressure on the marriage age for women (which has been observed in Afghanistan), increased trafficking of women, and higher prevalence of sexually-transmitted diseases (Ebenstein and Sharygin 2009) .

In the case of China, for the period 1980 to 2000 researchers at Nankai University calculated that about 30 million men were unmarried. Edlund et al (2013) link this unbalanced sex ratio at marriage age (16-25) to an increase in crime rates. Hudson et al (2020) go even further and argue that subordination of women is at the root of governance failure and increases the likelihood of civil and international conflicts. They build their thesis on a large body of empirical evidence where son preference plays an important role in their Patrilineality/Fraternity index which measures women’s security across almost 200 countries.

Policies expected to benefit women can turn against them when son preference is ignored

Emerging evidence points to more worrying findings: gender-friendly policies might not produce the expected equalizing gender impacts when parents’ desire to ensure birth of at least one son is strong and entrenched.

Studies from SAR have long documented that take up and impact of health, nutrition, and education service delivery is affected by parents’ gender bias when it comes to investing in their sons and daughters.

Policy efforts to lower fertility in societies with strong son preference (e.g., the One Child Policy in China (Li et al 2011) and fertility limits on Panchayat officials in India (Anukriti and Chakravarty 2017) is another example (Jayachandran 2017). These policies may have brought about the decline in fertility, but they have also perversely intensified sex-selection at birth with more boys than girls being born.

Research by Sonia Bhalotra and co-authors is shedding light on the gender differences in the impact of reforms in property rights and inheritance rights in India. Land reforms giving property rights to tenant farmers in West Bengal was beneficial for daughters in families with a firstborn son but not in families without a firstborn son (Bhalotra et al 2019). India’s historic reforms granting women equal inheritance rights to ancestral property appears to have had the unintended effect of exacerbating son preference  by increasing female feticide, female infant mortality, and fertility (Bhalotra et al 2020).

These findings compel us to ask: what can policymakers do to address son preference? This will be the topic of our next blog, following an upcoming workshop on policies to tackle son preference.

For more information: The forthcoming workshop will be one in a series of workshops started in September 2021, when we organized a workshop on Son Preference where four eminent researchers—Monica Dasgupta, Seema Jayachandran, Sonia Bhalotra, and Hongbin Li—shared key insights from their decades-long research on this topic.”


S Anukriti

Senior Economist, Development Research Group

Maurizio Bussolo

Lead Economist, Chief Economist Office for South Asia

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