Re:Sita's Fire Still Burns: Distorted Sex Ratios and the 'Male Tilt' in Asia

I've been wanting to comment on my friend Conrad Barwa's post, Sita's Fire Still Burns: Distorted Sex Ratios and the 'Male Tilt' in Asia, since he and I discussed it a few weeks ago. What pushed me into action last night was a program I saw on the French TV channel, France 2. It was about the acid-throwing male f**** in Bangladesh.

I've read the post many times, and must say that it is dangerously easy for one to agree with most of it. It is well-written and well-documented. In the end I took off some of my comments that only concurred but did not bring in anything new, or offer a different take. I'd like to thank Conrad for allowing me to "blog" on his thoughts, and Jonathan for having The Head Heeb, where Conrad's article appeared, and where their tandem is a delight to read, for the stuff they drop in the comments section is more than comments. Imagine the actual posts. Below is the entirety of the post, with my comments. Please visit the original post in order to read the many reactions that ensued. Here it is:

"A commentary piece in The Christian Science Monitor examines a new report on some of the implications of the increasing imbalance in sex-ratios in many Asian countries; particularly India and China; having said this I am somewhat irked by the slightly sensationalist tone and take by the"not improved all that much"

However, the sex ratio for children up to six years has slipped from 945 females per 1,000 males in 1991 to just 927 females 10 years later, indicating that despite government measures, such as a ban on sex determination tests, female foeticide is still widely prevalent. Many girls are also killed in infancy.
According to recent research, 90% of the estimated 3.5m abortions in India each year are to eliminate girls.

Even more alarmingly, the usual assumptions that urbanisation and rising incomes would neutralise or counter-act tendencies towards such imbalances have not been borne true:

Until now, it was believed that the bias against girls was especially acute in the countryside, where the high child mortality rate, combined with the prestige gained from having a male child, the need for wage earners and the prohibitive cost of marrying a daughter heavily tilted the scales in favour of sons.
But the census has come up with a startling statistic - the sex ratio in the national capital region of Delhi has plummeted to just 865 girls to 1,000 boys, well below the national average. In one district in Delhi, it has dropped below 800.

Having said this some of the concern over this phenomenon seems to be quite male-centric:

The book, "Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population," (MIT Press), by Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer, connects the dots of a huge demographic trend that carries international implications. ("Bare branches" comes from a Chinese phrase for adult offspring who don't bear children, like empty fruit trees.)
Policymakers should take note: China, India, and other nations that can't stop this practice might see great social upheavals, such as mass migration of young males or the widespread kidnapping of women.
"The security logic of high sex-ratio societies predisposes nations to see some utility in interstate conflict," the authors write.

I would have thought that the de facto purging of so many female foetuses and/or children would and should have been a great matter of concern in its own right; instead of worrying about whether it might impinge on mens' ability to find wives or on some aspect of social order, but obviously for some this isn't necessarily a primary concern in itself. Prescient in predicting and exploring the causes as well as difficulties in remedying this imbalance, was the “International Symposium on Issues Related to Sex Preference for Children in the Rapidly Changing Demographic Dynamics in Asia" held in Seoul, South Korea, in November 1994. It was sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Government of the Republic of Korea, and hosted by the Korean Institute of Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA). Its collation of key observations and policy recommendations are even more relevant and pressing today, that ten years ago and it is sobering to think how little progress seems to have been made in achieving macro-social goals in this regard. Amongst the more pertinent observations, it was noted that:

Conrad says: I would have thought that the de facto purging of so many female foetuses and/or children would and should have been a great matter of concern in its own right; instead of worrying about whether it might impinge on mens' ability to find wives or on some aspect of social order, but obviously for some this isn’t necessarily a primary concern in itself.

Rethabile says: You would have thought right. Many of the pundits I've read look not at the crime, but at its consequences. They do not say, "Look at that man raping that girl. It is wrong." They say, instead, "Look at that girl being raped by that man. What's she gonna do if she falls pregnant?"

Observation 7: Public concern about the "missing girl" problem in Asia focuses on the plight of the men who will be unable to find brides 20 years hence. This focus itself is male-oriented and reflects high valuation of males and disregard of the needs of females. Meanwhile, the fate of the abandoned, aborted, murdered, or maltreated girls is barely seen as a problem

One would like to think that things have changed, but sometimes can't wondering if they haven't; with the focus on difficulties for male bride-seekers and potential for social unrest that have emerged as the latest concerns for tackling this issue. This is arguably linked to two other factors noted by the symposium; the first being that family planning policies might exacerbate such gender imbalances in the population, by increasing the pressure to abort female foetuses for parents desiring smaller families and by state led programmes which focus obsessively on reducing the number of children per women in a quantitative fashion, where "if a country's population program is almost solely concentrated on reducing the number of births, this distorts the sex ratio at birth, where son preference is great".

There was also the worry that affluence, education, economic development and increased knowledge may not by themselves reduce this disparity and animus against the girl-child; which seems to not "have been misplaced "

And there's an even greater tragedy that lies hidden in those numbers 945 and 927. Where would you say the steepest declines in CSR have been? Among illiterate tribals lost in the wilds of a backward state like Bihar? Wrong again. The more backward states have seen relatively mild falls in their CSR. No, the steepest declines have happened in some of the most prosperous corners of this great country: Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi and Bombay. Some areas of our richest states now have a CSR lower than 800. Kurukshetra in Haryana (770, drop of 98 since 1991), Fatehgarh Sahib in Punjab (754, drop of 120) and Mahesana in Gujarat (798, drop of 101) are typical.
The quote above says: And there's an even greater tragedy that lies hidden in those numbers 945 and 927.

Rethabile says: It is a great tragedy that there are declines in CSR due to non-natural causes. I agree. But why is it a greater tragedy for it not to be more pronounced "among illiterate tribals?" Why is it a greater tragedy when "the steepest declines have happened in some of the most prosperous corners" of the country? The writer is probably trying to make the point that rich folks have the means to kill before the fact, and poorer folks to ill-treat after the fact. But still, why is that more of a tragedy? I have no qualms with the reasong but with the choice of words.

Though again these are qualified by significant regional variations, indeed, a cursory look at the differences in "sex ratios by district in India " and comparing it with another crude indicator of Human Development and Gender Equity, in this case Female Literacy; point towards a large geo-social divide that is opening up "within the country " With some exceptions, aggregating these results at the state level, further reinforce that the main divide is between the North and the South; the northern Hindi-speaking states in particular " suffering from this problem " much more than the Southern states (though it should be noted that some states such as Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat have highly differentiated results within their own "border between different districts" ). This is also something that was captured at the international level by the Symposium held by the UNFPA and KIHASSA in 1994, as some Asian countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand didn't seem to suffer from the same persistent demographic gender imbalances and didn't reflect the same societal preference for male children. One can then question to what degree conventionally used social and economic indices, commonly found in reports by international development organisations and NGOs, are the driving factor behind such preferences; as they don't seem to be able to fully explain both intra-state and regional differences all that well.

In particular, as some researchers have argued using data from the WDR and World Bank; countries with highly disparate social and economic indicators can exhibit a similarly high level of bias towards male children and the phenomenon of 'missing girls'. Two such countries often taken as comparisons in this regard are India and South Korea which have very different per capita incomes $2,114 (at PPP) for India and $14,637 for South Korea, the former being largely a rural society with only 28% of its society urbanised and the latter a highly industrialised one with 81% of its population living in cities. Total Fertility Rates also vary with the former at 3.2 and the latter at 1.6 (well below the accepted replacement level for the population) and female illiteracy rates are expectedly high in India (57%) and low in South Korea (4%) with the gaps in IMRs indicating a similar developmental difference being 70 in India and only 9 in South Korea. It is instructive to see, however, that despite these large differences in the socio-economic composition of their societies similar discriminatory outcomes in terms of adverse sex ratios can still occur. The word 'discrimination' in this application covers a wide range of ways in which different sexes are treated differently in reproductive terms: pre-conception by continuing childbearing until the desired number of sons is reached and stopping after that (reflected by decisions to use contraception or have another child, contingent on the sex composition of the children already born); during pregnancy, through sex-selective abortion (as the usual biological range is around 105-6 boys for every 100 girls born) and at birth through selective infanticide (hard to distinguish from sex-selective abortion as cases are unlikely to be reported as births); and finally during early childhood, through neglect and other mechanisms, reflected in the higher mortality of girls than boys during infancy and early childhood.

Obviously, the nature of the discrimination will depend on the means available as well as the existing pressures in society to access them. Normally one would expect postnatal forms of discrimination to be used by people without access to physical or financial sex-selective technology and prenatal methods to be used by those who have such access. South Korea today shows one of the highest levels of sex-selective abortions, due to the easy access to such technology; whereas in India, the bulk of gender discrimination comes after child-birth rather than before. However, the availability of sex-selective technology may actually increase net proportions of girls 'missing' rather than simply substitute for lower-technology methods, by making it easier to discriminate against girl-children in this fashion; it seems to be the case in South Korea and China at least, as sex ratios at birth started rising rapidly around 1985, when such technology became easily available and widespread – interestingly this date does not correspond with the one-child policy of China which began at the end of 1979. Fertility decline and the availability of sex-selective technology both work together in certain contexts to raise levels of such discrimination.

However, given the regional and intra-state variations in juvenile sex ratios (JSRs) and the fact that while some countries like South Korea and India have shown rising JSRs, others mostly in South East Asia have not displayed such a trend; there clearly has to be something other than just declining fertility ratios and the availability of new technology that motivates the source of gender bias. Fertility decline can act in co-ordination with existing male-preference in reproduction, as the case of Korea shows where between 1959 to 1991 the ideal number of children declined from five to two and the ideal number of sons fell from three to 1.2. While the proportion of sons desired remained constant, the number of daughters that could be accommodated within these ideal family sizes dropped sharply, from an average of two to 0.8 per couple. In fact, the room for 'tolerating' daughters could have been said to have dropped even more sharply, because the most crucial requirement was to have at least one surviving son. Having two instead of three sons was far easier for couples in the past to accept, than it is for couples in the present to accept having no sons instead of one son. Thus the consequences of not meeting the full ideal number of sons are far more drastic when fertility declines – putting couples today under much more pressure to avoid having daughters.

Rethabile says: There is underlying and non-foreground gender discrimination in Lesotho. I do not know of any infanticide related to it. But it it is widespread and is evident in the way boys and girls are named. First-born girls mostly have negative names: Consolation (Mat'seliso), Surprises (Limakatso), Tear (Mookho), and others, while first-born boys boast names like: Give thanks (Tumisang or Lebohang), Luck (Lehlohonolo), Be happy (Thabang) and others. There are girls with the nicer forenames, but they are usually not first-born, as are those boys with the "negative" names.

Structural Factors: The impact of Culture and Kinship Systems:

The one thing that does emerge as an underlying theme between nations and regions such as northern India, China and South Korea are the commonalties in their kinship systems which tends towards the rigidly patrilineal. Many studies of patriarchy refer to this as part of the explanation for the endurance of male-preference in children, but in terms of kinship systems it is usually reduced to certain elements in family structure; revolving around the attributes of patriarchy and patrilineality. Patrilineality includes passing on the main productive assets through the male line, while women may be given some goods in the form of dowry or an inheritance; this constrains women's ability to sustain their economic independence without being attached to a man. Patrilocality involves, a couple residing at the man's home, which goes hand in hand with inheritance – especially in agrarian peasant societies where land is the main productive asset that is inherited. The problem is that this description would fit many societies around the world and doesn't fully capture why son-preference is more strongly rooted in some regions than others. Part of the answer to this lies in the extent of flexibility in the internal logic of patrilineal kinship. In much of peasant Europe, for example, there was considerable flexibility in the system. Women could inherit land if their parents had no sons, and the daughter and her husbands would take over the property. The household was reproduced – though not through the father's lineage and still took place with a context where power relations were still dominated by men. In north-western India and South Korea, as well as parts of China; the patrilineal system is much more rigid. For example, it would be extremely rare for a daughter to inherit land; a man without sons might adopt from among the man's male kin, or take another wife as a concubine. The driving motivation is to continue the family line by whatever means possible. Belonging to a lineage confers membership of a society, so enormous importance is placed on the maintenance of genealogies, carefully recording lineage ties, between mend for generations on end.

Conrad says: A man without sons might adopt from among the man's male kin, or take another wife as a concubine. The driving motivation is to continue the family line by whatever means possible

Rethabile says: God forbid that a man should lack a son! In Lesotho the couple will just keep trying until the boy arrives, or until the family grows even beyond the usually meagre means. The list of girls in such a case would then have names like: We're shocked (Remaketse), Expectation (Tebello), They aren't here (Halieo), and so on.

In many parts of India, particularly the north-west, the traditional social organisation, prevailing in the early decades of this century (and in many cases today) was one in which clans had their territories. Villages had their dominant clan (sometimes more than one), to which the majority of men belonged. These clans maintained strict exogamy, so wives may be brought in from elsewhere. A strong sense of clanship pervaded these villages, making men from other clans feel like interlopers. A man who would live as a member of his wife's home would be subject not only to humiliation, but also to the threat posed by other villages who would resent his usurping clan property. Thus, only men were seen to constitute the social order, and women were the means by which they could reproduce themselves. Women are the biological reproducers, but it is through her father that a child acquires social identity and is incorporated into the social order. Since only boys remain in the lineage, the significant social reproduction is that by the father of the son. In China and South Korea, this can be seen in an ancestor worship hall, where one can see literally each generation of men and the generations of men to whom they gave rise; women are recorded if at all only in the capacities of the wives of men who rise to succeeding generations of men.

Conrad says: Women are the biological reproducers, but it is through her father that a child acquires social identity and is incorporated into the social order. Since only boys remain in the lineage, the significant social reproduction is that by the father of the son.

Rethabile says: That is another similarity between India and China and Lesotho. In Lesotho, moreover, a son will take care of his parents, but not usually of his spouse's parents. The latter will by right be taken care of by their son, the spouse's brother. Women, in such matters, have zero influence and zero involvement.

Men are the fixed points in this social order, and women are the moving points because lineages are strictly exogamous. When women marry they leave their home and their lineage, to be absorbed into their husband's lineage. Neither in their father's nor their husband's lineage can a woman ever aspire to the central position which is the simple birthright of any male born into the lineage. When she marries, a woman is perceived to have been permanently exported from the family: her 'slot' in the household ceases to exist, and a new 'slot' is created for incoming brides. In the rare cases when women do return, they and their parents have to struggle to make it work, because other members of the village resist the incursion on their property rights. This is illustrated by the following case study, taken from Martha Alter Chen's in-depth research into the problems of rural women in India:

Lakshmi {name changed} had serious problems in her husband's home and returned to her own home. In another rare feat, she succeeded in bringing her infant son with her. Her widowed father was keen to protect his daughter, but his two sons disapproved of this and separated from his household, leaving him with a small share of the land for his own subsistence. He lived with his daughter and her baby. She worked very hard all day, cultivating the land and keeping cattle to make ends meet. A very energetic woman, she seemed never to rest from her work, always striding from one task to another. Her father looked after the child during the day.
Her neighbours, who were mostly her own relatives, were not obstructive to her but never included her in their circle. They treated her with some derision. What protected her was the fact that she worked so hard (no one could accuse her of being a financial burden), her loud and confident manner and readiness to defend herself and her child if challenged, and above all, her father's commitment to protecting her. By the time her father died her son had grown and found a job, so his mother could have her son's protection.

This is in sharp contrast to the bilateral kinship systems of south-east Asia, in which relationships through both male and the female line are recognised and actively used. Similarly in Southern India, women are freer, to maintain mutually supportive relationships with their parents even after marriage, which makes for lower son preference by reducing the difference between the value of a daughter and that of a son. This is reflected in the difference in JSRs shown in the last two decennial censuses in India. The less rigid construction of gender in the kinship systems in South India also makes it easier for women to act as independent legal and social entities. This is shown in some of the case studies carried out by ethnographers in the region, this one as part of a village survey project by Hyderabad University in Karnataka:

Lakshamma is the eldest of five sisters, they did not have a brother. When Laskhamma's parents died leaving three sisters still unmarried, she moved back to her parents' village with her husband. She sold some of her parents' land to pay for her sister's marriages, and divided the rest between the sisters. When her second sister left her alcoholic husband and came back to her parents' village, she used some of her share of the property to set up a teashop near the village bus stop. This teashop has a flourishing business, and the sister has raised her daughter and son well, sending them to school and seeing to it that they studied hard.
The village as a whole was supportive of these women's actions, treating these women with respect and commending the eldest sister for her even-handed division of the property. Neighbouring households, who had know these children from childhood were especially supportive.

Similar regional differences can be seen in China, where some of the non-Han minorities with less rigidly patrilineal kinship systems show little or no son preference. The Tibetans for example, have a relatively balanced JSR and a kinship system in which females are not systematically marginialised. Ethnic minorities in Yunnan, sharing cultural patterns with bordering societies of Burma and Thailand also show less strong son preference, as do the Islamic groups in Western China. Once women are left out of the social order, they become dispensable essentially because they count for little as individuals. When stresses arise for the household, women are the ones who have to yield, to protect men from want. This is not to say that women are not valued in the household; they have value as vessels for reproduction and for their labour contribution to the household.

Nor is there any simple relationship between the value of an adult woman as compared with that of a girl child. In societies in which daughters are totally incorporated into the husband's household, the value of daughters to their parents can remain low, although adult women are very valuable to their husband's families. If women's earnings rise, this is then seen to benefit their husband's families, not their parents. This creates a gap between female children and women, in the way in which they are affected by recent changes in living conditions. For example, in all three settings adult women's life expectancy has been rising steadily relative to that of men. Adult women have benefited from improvements in living conditions and social development, including education, better opportunities for employment and health care. At the same time, levels of excess female child mortality have been rising, as parents seek to ensure having sons.

A daughter's appropriate place is in her father's home only until she marries. Moreover, it is the norm for all girls to marry; there is very little scope for a grown woman to find a socially acceptable role as a resident of her family of birth, except as a visitor. Parents are under much more social pressure to ensure that their daughters marry, as evidenced by the negligible proportions of women never married in their thirties in the census. The fate of daughters is to leave and make way for incoming daughters-in-law. What is important to note is the difference between not just 'traditional patriachical' and 'modern gender-neutral' societies (assuming the latter do exist) but how patriarchal societies themselves can differ with widely divergent results for women. In contrast to the more rigid patrilineal and patrilocal societies found in northern India and parts of China; in many parts of rural Europe, it was completely acceptable, and even the norm, for grown daughters to remain single for many years and look after their parents or work on someone else's farm. The growth of personal choice and the absence of heavy parental pressure for marriage to preserve wider kinship ties; meant that any shortage of suitable matches would be more of a personal problem for individuals rather than an intolerable situation for the parents to seek to avoid.

One other aspect which is frequently overlooked is the change in women's status over the life-cycle. As a young bride and young mother, a woman has little intrinsic source of standing other than as the mother of future generations of men of that lineage, as pointed out above. But in later stages of the life-cycle, women's power and autonomy in the household rise, and women gain fuller access to the household's resources. Margery Wolf argues that in their old age, Chinese women wield the main authority in the household, whole old men are relatively marginalised. From anecdotal and village studies in northern India, there does seem to be some evidence for this as well. Old men in rural parts of Uttar Pradesh and along the Gangetic belt tend to withdraw from household affairs and become increasingly reticent figures, while their wives become the lynchpins of the home, managing their sons, their daughters-in-law and grandchildren. However, this rise in women's' autonomy, such that it is, depends crucially on the support of having grown up sons. Without this pillar, women can be very vulnerable – and this is a key factor in establishing son-preference amongst mothers. There are real incentives as well as social pressures that encourage a mother to make sure that her sons have powerful emotional attachments to the mother, becoming her firm supporters as they themselves grown in household stature. Women are careful to bind their sons to themselves through subtle webs of solicitousness and emotional manipulation. This has been noted by researchers who have examined such family relationships as Monica Das Gupta observes:

Conrad says: A woman has little intrinsic source of standing other than as the mother of future generations of men of that lineage.

Rethabile says: This is true as far as women are concerned in Lesotho. It is evidenced by the forename change they undergo at the birth of their first son. A young maiden named Palesa (flower), for example, will suddenly become 'MaThabo (mother of Thabo) if her son's forename is Thabo. From then on, very few people will ever refer to her as Palesa. She exists through and because of her son. In my clan or totem, the Bakhatla (or Bakgatla), the mother gets the name of the first child, boy or girl. But I believe we're the only Lesotho-based clan that does so.

The woman is careful to bind her sons to herself through various measures. She can be solicitous of their needs, the gentle nurturer who cooks food they like. She can allow her sons to see how she suffers at the hands of her in-laws and even her husband. She can allow them to see how hard she works. She can be careful to communicate that all her sacrifices will be rewarded if her sons have successful lives, while also subtly communicating that she expects unquestioning loyalty from them in compensation for her sacrifices.

Very similar strategies were noted by Wolf for forming a strong mother-son bond in China. This is also a powerful motivation for marginalising the son's bride, to ensure that the son's loyalties are to the mother above all. Unfortunately, the successful self-assertion of women in such a kinship system is at the expense of younger women, which helps perpetuate the cycle of female subordination. One difference in the kinship system of South Korea compared with China and northern India, makes for a more pressing need in South Korea to have a son's of one's own. In both north-western India and China, sons are in principle equal, though the eldest son is viewed as the senior and therefore second in authority only to the father. They are expected to inherit equally. The principle of equality of brothers introduces an element of flexibility, in that it is possible for those without sons to be sustained in this life and the afterlife by their brothers' sons. If brothers co-reside, as is the ideal in the joint family system, such maintenance takes place with little need for adjustment within the family. Obviously it is far less preferred to be supported by brothers' sons, because the ties are more easily ruptured than with one's own son, but nevertheless the possibility exists. By contrast in South Korea brothers are not interchangeable. The custom is that the eldest brother inherits the largest share of the property and is responsible for taking care of the parents and ancestors. Therefore in each generation brothers separate from each other and form a new branch of the lineage. To receive support in this life (and the afterlife), one has to have one's own son; a brother's son will not do. This inflexibility heightens the urgency of having a son of one's own; without this, one is destined to be a lost soul forever. This may help explain why son preference has remained very strong despite the extensive social changes in the country.

The system does tend to be rigidly formal, requiring that parents be supported by the eldest son, even if they might be more comfortable with another son. It is striking how much the eldest sons continue to be the main support for their parents - despite the socio-economic transformations of the country, and residential mobility as sons go to work in other cities - of those supported by children, over half received support from the eldest son, while only 2% received support from daughters. This places an additional source of pressure on parents to have a son.

Conrad says: Of those supported by children, over half received support from the eldest son, while only 2% received support from daughters. This places an additional source of pressure on parents to have a son.

Rethabile says: Yes it does, indeed. In the countries we're considering, not many people have the means, or deem it wise, to contribute toward old-age pension. It happens in rural areas but also in places where "socio-economic transformations" have taken place. Having many children, especially sons, therefore becomes a sort of insurance against abject poverty and neglect in old age. What such societies fail to realise, however, is that the enourmous strength and resources spent on having and raising a large family could, instead, have amply given the parents a more than comfortable pension in old age. Conrad discusses the issue of old-age support more extensively below.

Structural Factors: The Economic Angle:

It is commonly argued that parents prefer sons because their perceived net value is higher than that of daughters. The argument is that sons can help on the family farm, and provide old age support to their parents – while daughters have much less to offer and can even be a major economic drain if their marriage expenses are high. These are the terms in which discrimination against daughters has typically been explained, at least in India and China. In India, discussion has focused especially on the high costs of dowry, while also noting the low levels of female labour force participation, the harsh realities of poverty, and the need for old age support. I am more interested in last three factors and want to look at them in some more detail.

The question of old age support is a good example of how kinship systems create economic incentives for son preference. Explanations place emphasis on the fact that sons can provide old age support. It is certainly true that in China, South Korea and India, sons do provide old age support. The majority of the old live with married children, and these are overwhelmingly sons. This would seem to be and important economic reason for wanting to have sons. Cross-sectional data surveys carried out by sociologists looking at South Korea, have found that this factor is significantly associated with higher son preference, after controlling for many other socio-economic factors. It is however, unclear whether only sons, or also daughters can support their aged parents, is dictated by economic considerations or not. Examination of comparative studies with other Asian countries such as Taiwan and the Philippines show a much wider variance of co-residence by aged parents. In both these societies, parents live with unmarried children of both sexes; differences emerge when the children are married but even here in the Philippines, parents are as likely to live with married children of both sexes while in Taiwan it is rare to live with a married daughter, though there seems to be no bar in living with unmarried daughters. Clearly economic constraints can't tell the whole story here and there is no simple reason why they should account for parents preferring residing with sons over daughters.

With regards to the labour contribution of women, it is often argued that this is less of a gain than that of men. In agrarian settings the main form of such labour is female employment on the family farm. However, data on this is notorious for being under-reported in most official and research surveys carried out by state or other official organisations. Women's' work on the family farm tends to be discounted as merely an extension of their domestic work; little distinction is made between whether the woman did the harvesting or the cooking. This is further complicated by the fact that the extent of under-reporting is greater where women's' position in the kinship system is more marginal. For example, official statistics show that the state of Haryana has an especially low rate of female labour force participation, but in fact women do almost all the manual labour on the fields through the whole crop cycle, while men spend short periods of time ploughing with tractors and operating tublewells. So, even when women are responsible for most of the actual labour input into agriculture, the production is perceived to be that of the men because they own the land and take the managerial decisions around it. Paid work is valued much more highly than the work on the family farm, and this may be especially important for ensuring recognition of women's' economic contribution in societies in which women's' work tends to be otherwise discounted. Having paid employment is widely recognised to increase women's' decision-making power within the household. However, the fact that adult women's' status improves or that their perceived contribution to their household rises does not necessarily suggest that daughters will become more welcome to their families. As long as adult women continue to be part rigidly of their husband's families, they can contribute little to their parental family. Investing in daughters will continue to be perceived as investing in another family's daughter-in-law.

Rethabile says: Women do all the work in Lesotho. They work the fields, gather wood, gather wild vegetables, fetch water (those clay gourds balancing on their heads), usually with a baby strapped to their backs, do the laundry, cook, do the housework, and act as a punching bag [ Alarming statistics show that gender-based violence is on the rise in Lesotho ]. None of that counts for diddley. People still want a boy. Even when, unlike in India, the boy has to pay lobola (dowry, bride-price), not the girl! This has several implications, in my view, among which are the fact that lobola might have little to do with gender preference or gender-based infanticide. The problem, I believe, is deeper and more entrenched into society itself. Boys are just better, we say, for whatever reason we might cook up and tote as if it were the truth.

There seems to be little evidence to support the hypothesis that the poor discriminate more against their daughters than the rich – the usual argument being that sharper resource constraints force the poor to allocate resources to more valued males. Census data from India show that in North India, the higher castes on the whole have had more unbalanced sex ratios than the lower castes. Similarly, district level data from Korea, suggest that if anything the rich discriminate more than the poor. However, an important caveat is that all these conventional analyses look at the relationship between gender discrimination and absolute economic differences between groups. There is evidence that resource constraint affects discrimination in another way: people increase the level of discrimination when they experience a tightening of circumstances relative to their own previous position. When people are impoverished by crop failure or other stress, they discriminate more heavily against girls. Famine is the most common example of this and one which sees such discrimination where it occurs severely.

Scope for Transformation: Looking to the Future:

The implications of some of the above need to be taken into account for any strategy that seeks to reduce and eliminate gender discrimination; of which imbalanced sex ratios is only one aspect. I don't think it is enough to think that economic growth, rise in literacy or vague programmes to 'raise the status of women' are or will be enough, given that the problems run deeper than just ignorance or poverty. As long as daughters continue to be totally absorbed into their husband's home, and cannot contribute to their parents' welfare, son preference will continue to persist even though adult women are integrated into education and formal economic activity. South Korea is the best example of this; as women's' lives have improved dramatically in material ways but their position in the family has changed little. Standards of living have risen, along with technological innovation in domestic work. In terms of health women have benefited enormously from rapid improvements in maternal and child health care, as well as the general level of public health services which has given them amongst the greatest longevity in the world. Education is virtually universal and participation in employment is rising steadily. Yet this has been accompanied by the same status roles for women, discrimination against girl-children and plays a great role in the country's lop-sided sex ratios.

Here legal and political changes can play an important role and measures such as reserving seats for women on village panchayats, as recently implemented in India or reservation in other areas or political representation; have a large long-run impact in widening the access to public life for women and bringing in masses of women into the public sphere where they can take part in the process of deliberative democracy. Historical experience has shown that once given a foothold in the public domain, hitherto marginalised social groups are able to exert an influence on the mainstream political agenda and become a permanent presence. Increasing the scope for such access not just at the local village level, but also at the state and national level should be an important priority for increasing this form of gender empowerment. The mass media too can be a powerful vehicle of social change. The state and private run television and radio in India and China has sought to use this to raise awareness of the problems and constraints facing women, and to project images of women who are able to take charge of their lives at home and at work. They have also sought to use the media to disseminate information about women's' legal rights and how to try sand enforce them. In addition to these efforts at bringing about greater gender equity in social value, much more can be done to reduce son preference by tackling the more specific issue of making sons and daughters more equally valuable to their parents. One method has been the so-called 'developmental-soap opera' which has been used to impart various types of civic values to audiences and through demonstration effects impart cultural lessons to its recipients. A crude form of engineering to be sure; but showing strong and positive female role models, able to help her parents, being able to conduct herself in her own right and not just as an extension of her husband can play an important role in making such behaviour more socially acceptable.

Lastly, the economic aspect cannot be overlooked. Most rural development programmes that seek to encourage entrepreneurship or to give micro-credit to help those outside the formal banking system to build up their own assets or improve livelihoods; should have a gender aspect interwoven into their operation and lending. Targeting women, who are often the hardest workers and a good credit risk; due to their familial responsibilities and role as the main carers of children; can give them access to paid employment in a range of cottage small-scale industries, credit and training so that they can command their own share of household income at a relatively early state in the life-cycle, build up their own assets and not need to depend on either their husband's families or their sons for economic support in old age or even before. This should also remove the 'patriarchal bargain' whereby they improve their socio-economic position in their husband's households by relying on their sons' support who do so at the expense of their own wives.

These and several other policy recommendations can improve the social and economic factors that impede removing obstacles to ending gender discrimination but there are also important cultural factors that determine how quickly these can happen. There is no intrinsic reason why parents cannot seek support and maintain strong economic and personal relationships with their daughters after marriage; making it socially acceptable for daughters to help and keep ties to their parents in this way and for parents to seek to depend on them as well, will play a key role in ending such discriminatory structures.

Posted by Conrad at July 16, 2004 08:05 PM on The Head Heeb