Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

How Does Son Preference Affect Populations in Asia?

Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

How Does Son Preference Affect Populations in Asia?

Article excerpt


In China, the peasants have a saying: "The birth of a boy is welcomed with shouts of joy and firecrackers, but when a girl is born, the neighbors say nothing."1 In India, until recently, billboard messages promised: "Invest Rs. [rupees] 500 now, save 50,000 later," encouraging prospective parents to abort female fetuses in order to avoid future dowry expenses.2

The preference for sons reflected in these quotes has deep social and cultural roots in some East and South Asian societies. Male children carry on the family name, inherit the family property, and play a special role in family traditions. In Hindu families, a son lights the funeral pyre when his parents die. In countries with a strong Confucian influence, such as China and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), family rituals must be led by the eldest son of the most recent male ancestor. If no sons are born, the family dies.

Powerful economic factors also support son preference. In many Asian societies, married sons are expected to live with aging parents and provide financial support. By contrast, when a woman marries, she joins her husbands household and does not normally contribute to the support of her own parents. Her marriage itself may impose a financial burden- through expectations of a large celebration, as in South Korea, or expensive dowry payments, as in India.

In South Korea until very recently, family law reinforced Confucian traditions of son preference.3 The Korean Civil Code of 1958 stipulated, among other things, that families must be headed by eldest sons, that inheritance is exclusively through the male line, that women are transferred to their husbands' family register upon marriage, and that children belong to the family of the father. Not until 2005 did the Supreme Court abolish the legal basis for male dominance over South Korean families. In China and India, by contrast, governments in the modern era have consistently promoted gender equality, although with varying levels of forcefulness.

In its most extreme manifestation, son preference can affect how many boys and girls survive into adulthood and even how many boys and girls are born. In most human populations, women give birth to slightly more boys than girls. The result is an average ratio of 104 to 106 males for every 100 females born. Within each age group, slightly more men die than women, so that at some point in adulthood the number of men and women becomes roughly balanced. If son preference alters these general features of human biology-so that many more boys are born than girls and more boys than girls survive to adulthood-the result will be an unusually large proportion of men in an adult population.

This paper summarizes birth and death rates for boys and girls, explores some of the social consequences of unbalanced sex ratios, and describes recent policy responses of Asian governments. The focus is on three Asian populations that have shown strong evidence of gender imbalance in their birth rates- South Korea, China, and the north Indian state of Punjab.

High Death Rates for Girls

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen was one of the first to call attention to Asia's "missing women." Using population data from the mid-1980s, he estimated that India and China alone had "lost" more than 80 million women and girls due to unusually high female mortality.4

Around the world, death rates between birth and age five are higher for boys than for girls. But the balance is reversed in four Asian countries-China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.5 In the early 1960s, girls in South Korea also had higher death rates than boys,6 but today under-five mortality is the same for both sexes.

Unusually high death rates for girls probably result primarily from favoritism toward boys in food allocation, prevention of diseases and accidents, and treatment of illness.7 The highest death rates tend to be for girls with older sisters. Findings from Punjab provide a striking example. …

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