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Why Is Son Preference So Persistent in East and South Asia? A Cross-Country Study of China, India and the Republic of Korea

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Son preference has persisted in the face of sweeping economic and social changes in the countries studied here. We attribute this persistence to their similar family systems, which generate strong disincentives to raise daughters - whether or not their marriages require dowries - while valuing adult women's contributions to the household. Urbanisation, female education and employment can only slowly change these incentives without more direct efforts by the state and civil society to increase the flexibility of the kinship system such that daughters and sons can be perceived as being more equally valuable. Much can be done to accelerate this process through social movements, legislation and the mass media.
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Why is son preference so persistent in East and
South Asia? A cross-country study of China,
India and the Republic of Korea
Monica Das Gupta
Development Research Group, World Bank, 1818 H Street NW, Washington, DC 20433
Tel: 1-202-473-1983, Fax: 1-202-522-1153
mdasgupta@worldbank.org
Jiang Zhenghua
Professor and Honorary Director, Interdisciplinary Research Center of the Academic Sciences of China, and
Population and Economy Research Institute, Xi’an Jiaotong University, Xi’an, China, and Vice-Chairman,
PRC National People’s Congress
Li Bohua, Xie Zhenming,
China Population Information and Research Center, Beijing
Woojin Chung, Bae Hwa-Ok
Korean Institute for Health and Social Affairs, Seoul
_____________________________
We are grateful for valuable comments from anonymous reviewers, Judith Banister, Pranab
Bardhan, Shelah Bloom, Birgitta Bucht, Minja Kim Choe, Mrinal DattaChaudhuri, Sonalde
Desai, Tim Dyson, Alice Goldstein, Gu Baochang, Supriya Guha, Gene Hammel, Ron Lee, Bob
Levine, Li Shuzhuo, Li Yongping, Emily MacFarquhar, Jane Menken, Mick Moore, and Arthur
Wolf, as also for comments from participants at seminars at Stanford University, the University
of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, The London School of Economics, Brown
University, the Population Association of America, the United Nations Population Division, the
United Nations Population Fund, New York, and the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi.
The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the
authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank, its Executive Directors, or
the countries they represent. Working papers describe research in progress by the authors and are
published to elicit comments and to further debate.
ii
Abstract
Son preference has persisted in the face of sweeping economic and social changes in these
countries. We attribute this to their similar family systems, which generate strong disincentives
to raise daughters while valuing adult women’s contributions to the household. Urbanization,
female education and employment can only slowly change these incentives without more direct
efforts by the state and civil society to increase the flexibility of the kinship system such that
daughters and sons can be perceived as being more equally valuable. Much can be done to this
end through social movements, legislation, and the mass media.
Contents
1. Introduction..............................................................................................................1
2. Levels, trends and patterns in the proportions of girls “missing” ......................2
Levels.....................................................................................................................4
Trends and patterns................................................................................................5
3. Cultural factors in son preference: the role of family systems............................7
Kinship systems and the construction of gender....................................................8
Implications for the position of women and of girls............................................10
Shifts in power over the lifecycle.........................................................................11
The role of ancestor worship................................................................................12
Different rules of family segmentation................................................................13
4. Economic factors influencing son preference..................................................14
Old age support....................................................................................................15
Dowry...................................................................................................................15
Labor force participation: paid employment and the value of wives versus
daughters..............................................................................................................16
Poverty.................................................................................................................18
5. The experience of son preference .........................................................................18
South Korea .........................................................................................................19
India .....................................................................................................................21
6. Forces of change.....................................................................................................22
Urbanization.........................................................................................................23
Social and legal reform movements.....................................................................25
The role of the mass media..................................................................................28
7. Conclusions.............................................................................................................28
Bibliography...................................................................................................................30
1
1. Introduction
Most societies show some degree of preference for sons, though mostly so mild as
to be virtually undetectable (Williamson 1976). However, son preference strong enough
to result in substantial levels of excess female child mortality is manifested in East and
South Asia, including China, South Korea, and India. Excess female child mortality is a
longstanding problem in all three settings. In China and India the practice of female
infanticide was noted at least a century ago, and in Korea and India high juvenile sex
ratios have been documented since the first modern censuses were taken. By contrast,
there seems to be little son preference in Southeast Asia or in most other parts of the
developing world (Map 1).
That these settings should be so similar in terms of son preference is especially
striking, given the wide differences between them in industrialization, urbanization, and
social development (Table 1). Moreover, the reasons given for son preference also differ.
In India the main cause is, it is argued, the need to pay dowries for daughters. In the
context of China it has been suggested that stringent fertility regulation is responsible for
heightened discrimination against daughters. In South Korea, son preference is attributed
more to patriarchal family systems and low female autonomy. In South Korea and China
son preference is sometimes also attributed to Confucian values.
Table 1. Social and economic indicators for India, China, and the Republic of Korea, 1998-99
India China Republic of Korea
GNP per capita(US$,PPP) 2,144 3,291 14,637
% poor(<$1a day,1997-8) 44.2 18.4 <2
% urban 28 32 81
% of GDP from agriculture 28 17 5
Total fertility rate 3.2 1.9 1.6
Female adult illiteracy (%) 57 25 4
Females as percent of labor force 32 45 41
Infant mortality rate 70 31 9
Source: World Bank (2000/1).
We argue that the striking similarities in patterns of son preference stem from
commonalities in the kinship systems in these settings, and that the local-specific
explanations are only serve to reinforce the exigencies of the kinship system. A
comparative approach also provides an opportunity to examine the reasons for the
persistence of son preference, and how we might expect this to change as populations
2
shift from living in largely agrarian societies to the very different exigencies of the
industrialized and urbanized modern world.1
This paper draws on our extensive fieldwork in these three countries and on
secondary sources, including published official data. We begin by analyzing the patterns,
levels, and trends in child mortality in these countries. We discuss the strong similarities
in their family systems, which marginalize women very effectively, and the resultant
social and economic pressures to bear sons. The kinship systems ensure that parents can
benefit little from daughters and have strong economic incentives to prefer raising sons
even if brideprice is paid rather than dowry, and even if adult women are economically
very active. Although older women can gain much status and autonomy in the household,
this can only be achieved at the cost of marginalizing the younger married women in the
household. Finally, we discuss how urbanization and efforts by the state and civil society
can help reduce discrimination against daughters.
2. Levels, trends and patterns in the proportions of girls “missing”
There are strong parallels between China, India, and South Korea in their trends
and patterns of discrimination against female children. Please note that we use the word
“discrimination” for several phenomena that have quite different ethical and
philosophical meaning. We use the same word because these phenomena are driven by
the same underlying motivation, which is to have sons rather than daughters. This
motivation leads people to discriminate between the sexes in very different ways:
before conception, by continuing childbearing until reaching their desired number
of sons and stopping after that. This is reflected in decisions to use contraception
or to have an additional child, contingent on the sex composition of the children
already born. This may have relatively little impact on the overall sex ratio of the
population, since families with no sons will tend to have several daughters.
during pregnancy, through sex-selective abortion. This is reflected in sex ratios at
birth which are more masculine than the normal biological range of around 105-
106 boys for every 100 girls born.
at birth, through sex-selective infanticide. This is often difficult to distinguish
empirically from sex-selective abortion, since a high proportion of infanticide
cases are unlikely to be reported as births. Thus this is also largely reflected in
1. Croll (2001) has also discussed various quantitative and qualitative aspects of son preference in
these countries, but her focus is not on the underlying causes for the son preference and its persistence over
time.
3
elevated sex ratios at birth, rather than in sex differentials in recorded child
survival.
during early childhood, through neglect and other mechanisms, as reflected in
higher mortality of girls than boys during infancy and early childhood.
For the present analysis we use the word “discrimination” for all of the above,
because they are all motivated by the same desire to have more sons than daughters. They
lead to an observed high juvenile sex ratio (i.e., an excess of male children relative to
female children in a population), as compared with populations without strong son
preference.
There is a shift from postnatal discrimination to prenatal discrimination as the
accessibility of sex-selective technology improves (Goodkind 1996). The former is the
method resorted to by people without physical or financial access to sex-selective
technology, and the latter is the method of choice for those who have such access. South
Korea today shows the highest level of sex-selective abortion, since their access to such
technology is the highest. China presents a more mixed picture, with the bulk of
discrimination taking place either before or at birth, but still showing some excess female
mortality among reported births. India still has most of the discrimination after birth,
though a shift towards sex-selective abortion is indicated by many studies.2
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 girls. This is suggested by the fact that in both South
Korea and China, sex ratios at birth started rising sharply around 1985, when sex-
selective technology began to become widespread. This is also of note because this date
does not coincide with the enforcement of the one-child policy in China, which began at
the end of 1979.3 Fertility decline and the availability of sex-selective technology both
work to raise discrimination against female children.
2. See for example, Booth, Verma and Beri (1994) and Premi (2001).
3. It has been argued that China’s family planning program may have exacerbated son preference.
Accelerating the speed of fertility decline reduces the time for parents to become accustomed to the idea of
having fewer sons when they have fewer children. Strict limits on the total number of children also increase
the risk of remaining sonless. Yet when fertility decline is more obviously voluntary, as in South Korea, the
sex ratios at birth are as high as in China, emphasizing the fact that son preference is not caused by a
specific kind of family planning program.
4
Levels
Levels of excess female child mortality are quite high in these three countries
(Table 2).4 Some of this results from sex-selective abortion, and is therefore not reflected
in excess female child mortality after birth. In the case of South Korea, for example, the
mortality statistics show no difference in survival by gender, although the juvenile sex
ratios are excessively masculine because of sex-selective abortion.
Excess female child mortality is substantial as compared with the 0-4 year
mortality rate. How high it is relative to the 0-4 year mortality rate depends of course on
the level of excess child loss resulting from discrimination, as well as the level of 0-4 year
mortality.
South Korea. Child mortality levels are low and excess female loss is high, so
prenatal discrimination creates more than double the child loss as child mortality.
India. Child mortality rates are still very high, and son preference is especially
strong only in the North of this culturally heterogeneous country. In India as a
whole, discrimination accounts for about one-fifth of child mortality.
China. The estimates of discrimination vary depending on whether we use the
published sex ratio at birth for China from the 1990 Census or the adjustment
carried out by Zeng and others (1993).Thus the estimates of child mortality due to
discrimination lies between 49-75 percent of the 0-4 child mortality rate.
4. We can derive the proportion of female births missing from the sex ratio at birth, given an
assumed “normal” sex ratio at birth of 106 males per 100 females. We have estimated this for China and
South Korea. In the case of India, data on the sex ratio at birth are not available, so we have estimated it
indirectly. This was done by estimating the number of female children missing during the intercensal period
1981-91 whose deaths are not explained by changes in recorded excess female mortality after birth (Das
Gupta and Bhat 1997).The extent to which these estimates consist of sex-selective abortion or female
infanticide is difficult to judge, since a case of infanticide is not likely to be reported as a birth. To this
estimate we have added the recorded excess female child mortality after birth, to derive a total estimated
excess female child mortality per 1,000 females (and per 1,000 children of both sexes) who would have
been born had the sex ratio at birth been normal.
5
Table 2. Number of girls “missing” per thousand livebirths
China
1989-90 South Korea
1992 India
1981-91
No. of excess deaths age 0-4, per 1,000
female livebirths1 13 - 36
No. of excess abortions per 1,000 female
livebirths2 48-81 70 9
Total number of girls missing per 1,000
female livebirths 61-94 70 45
Total number of girls missing per 1,000
livebirths (m + f) 30-46 34 22
0-4 mortality rate, 1991 61 14-17 109-119
Note: 1. Computed from the sex differential in recorded mortality, compared with West model life tables for the
prevailing life expectancy.
2. Computed from the recorded sex ratio at birth, assuming a normal ratio of 106.
Source: Das Gupta (1999); sex differentials in mortality from Huang and Yan (1995) and sample Registration
System of India; sex ratios at birth from 1990 Census of China (the lower estimates are based on Zeng Yi and
others 1993 recalculation of the 1990 figures) and Park and Cho (1995); intercensal estimates for India from Das
Gupta and Bhat (1997); and Child mortality rate (Lin and others 1996), Korean life tables (lower estimate) and
vital statistics (higher estimates); International Institute for Population Science (1995) report on NHFS survey in
India.
Trends and patterns
The juvenile sex ratio (ratio of boys to girls) has been rising steadily since the
1960s in all three countries (Figure 1), showing that the manifestation of son preference is
rising, as fertility has declined and sex-selection technology has improved. In all the three
countries, juvenile sex ratios have risen in recent decades. However, we do not find this
phenomenon in societies without strong son preference, such as in Southeast Asia.
Clearly, fertility decline and the new technology are not causes of son preferencethey
merely intensify the manifestation of gender bias where this bias is already strong.
When fertility levels fall in a society with strong son preference, there is
heightened pressure to remove daughters. For example in South Korea between 1959 and
1991, the ideal number of children fell from 5 to 2, while the ideal number of sons fell
from 3 to 1.2 (Choe and Han 1994). Although 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 2 to 0.8 per couple. In fact, the room for
tolerating daughters dropped even more sharply, because the most crucial requirement
(both in the past and in the present) is to have at least 1 surviving son. Having two
instead of three sons was far easier for couples in the past to accept than it is for couples
today to accept having no sons instead of one son. Thus the consequences of not meeting
6
the full ideal number of sons are far more drastic when fertility declinesputting couples
today under much more pressure to avoid having daughters. The Korean data indicate
little evidence of a desire to have at least one daughter to balance out the sex composition
of the family (Larsen, Chung, and Das Gupta 1998).
The pattern of discrimination against female children is similar in the three
countries, in that it rises with the birth order of the child. The burden of excess female
child mortality is concentrated on higher birth order girls. The sex ratio at birth in South
Korea and China rises with birth order, reflecting increasing removal of females at higher
birth orders (Choe 1987, Park and Cho 1995, Zeng and others 1993). In the case of China,
data on sex ratios at birth by family composition permit an estimate of excess female
child mortality by birth order, showing a pattern similar to that of Northwest India (Das
Gupta 1987, Zeng and others 1993).
Notes: 1. The figures for the year 2000 for China and the Republic of Korea will be updated when the data
from their latest censuses become available. For now, we have put the estimated sex ratio at birth for China in
2000, and the United Nations projected child sex ratio for the Republic of Korea.
2. The data for India are from the 2001 Census of India.
3. All the other data are from the published censuses of these countries.
Figure 1. Juvenile (0-4 year) sex ratios in China, Republic of Korea,
India and Punjab, 1950-2000
49 51
51
53 60
61
61
64 70
71
71
80
81
81
82
90
91
91
90
95
95 01*
01
00
00
0.85
0.9
0.95
1
1.05
1.1
1.15
1.2
China Republic of Korea India Punjab+Haryana
7
3. Cultural factors in son preference: the role of family systems
For all their other striking differences, Northern India, China, and South Korea
have strong commonalties in their kinship system, which is rigidly patrilineal. Studies of
son preference sometimes refer to patriarchy by way of an explanation, but we need to
sharpen our understanding of what exactly this means and how it affects the way in which
daughters are received in a family. Many societies are patriarchal, or to put it more
precisely, patrilineal and patrilocal. Patrilineality includes passing on the main productive
assets through the male line, while women may be given some movable goods in the form
of dowry or inheritance. This constrains women’s ability to sustain their economic level
without being attached to a man. Patrilocality involves a couple residing at the man’s
home, which goes hand in hand with inheritanceespecially in peasant societies where
land is the main productive asset that is inherited.
This description would broadly fit many societies around the world. Why then is
strong son preference manifested only in some societies and not in others? The answer to
this lies in the extent of flexibility in the logic of patrilineal kinship. In much of peasant
Europe, for example, there was considerable flexibility in the system. For example,
women could inherit land if their parents had no sons, and the daughter and her husband
would take over the property (Arensberg and Kimball 1968, Sieder and Mitterauer 1983).
The household was thus reproduced, though not the father’s lineage. This applied also in
Japan (Nakane 1967).5 A fuller comparison of these Asian and European kinship systems
and their theoretical and empirical ramifications has been developed in Das Gupta (1999).
In China, South Korea, and Northwest India, the logic of patrilineality is very
rigid. For example, it would be extremely rare for a daughter to inherit land. A man
without sons might adopt one from among the man’s male kin, or take another wife or
concubine. The driving motivation is to continue the family line by whatever means
possible. Belonging to a lineage confers membership of society, so enormous importance
is placed on the maintenance of genealogies, carefully recording lineage ties between men
for generations on end. Of course, the kinship systems of these countries have many local
variations, but their broad organizational logic has a great deal in common. Our focus is
on the basic organizational logic of these kinship systems, which lies at the root of
discrimination against daughters.
5. Also Carl Mosk and Emiko Ochiai, personal communication.
8
Kinship systems and the construction of gender
In China, South Korea, and Northwest India, the traditional social organization
prevailing in the early decades of this century (and to a large extent also today in rural
areas) was one in which clans had their own territories. Villages had their dominant clan
(sometimes more than one), to which the majority of men belonged. Strict exogamy was
maintained by these clans, so wives would be brought in from elsewhere. A strong sense
of clanship pervaded the village, making men from other clans feel like interlopers. Such
interlopers are referred to caustically as “wild ducks” (as opposed to home-grown ducks)
in Northern China.6 A man who lives as a member of his wife’s home is subject not only
to humiliation, but also to the threat posed by other villagers who resent his usurping clan
property.
Thus it is that only men constitute the social order, and women are the means
whereby men reproduce themselves. Women are the biological reproducers, but it is
through the father that a child acquires a 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. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a genealogical record or in an
ancestor worship hall: one can literally see each generation of men, and the generations of
men to whom they gave rise. Women are recorded, if at all, only in the capacity of the
wives of the men who gave rise to succeeding generations of men.
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
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 makes it difficult, for example, for a woman in rural China to
return to live with her parents once she has been married and her land entitlement re-
allocated among village residents.7 This is also illustrated by our case-study from
6. Xie Zhenming, personal communication.
7. This is dramatically illustrated, for example, in the case of the kidnapped woman discussed in
Zhang and Li (1993).
9
Northwest India, which records the plight of a separated woman who managed to live in
her father’s home8:
Parmeshwari 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 neighbors, 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 more bilateral kinship systems of Southeast Asia,
in which relationships through both the male and the female line are recognized and
actively used. As might be expected, there is little evidence of gender discrimination in
Southeast Asian countries (Map 1).9 In South 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.10 This is reflected in regional differences in juvenile sex ratios in India (Map 2).
The less rigid construction of gender in the kinship systems in South India also
makes it easier for women to act as independent social and legal entities. This is
illustrated by many ethnographic accounts, as also by one of our case studies from the
Southern State of Karnataka:
8. Das Gupta, fieldwork in Rampur, 1975-92.
9. See also Wongboosin and Ruffolo (1996), Soeradji and Hatmadji (1996).
10. Dyson and Moore (1983), Karve (1965), Kolenda (1987), Saavala (2001).
10
Lakshamma is the eldest of five sisters, they did not have a brother. When
Lakshamma’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 sisters’ 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 evenhanded division of the
property. Neighboring households, who had known these women from childhood, were
especially supportive.
Similar regional differences exist in China (Map 2), where some of the non-Han
minorities with less rigidly patrilineal kinship systems show little or no son preference.
The Tibetans in particular have very balanced sex ratios, having a kinship system in
which females are not systematically marginalized (Levine 1988). The ethnic minorities
in Yunnan, sharing cultural patterns with bordering societies of Burma and Thailand also
show less strong son preference (Hua 2001), as do the Islamic groups in Western China.
Other minorities, such as those in Guizhou, show as strong son preference as the Han,
who constitute the overwhelming majority of China’s population.
Implications for the position of women and of girls
Once women are left out of the social order, they become dispensable essentially
because they count for very little as individuals. When stresses arise for the household,
women are the ones who have to yield so that men are protected from want. This is not to
say that women are not valued in the household: they have value as vessels of procreation
and for their labor contribution to the household.
Nor is there any simple relationship between the value of an adult woman as
compared with that of a female 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 husbands’ families. If
women’s earnings rise, this benefits 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
11
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 social pressure to ensure that their daughters marry, as
evidenced by the negligible proportions of women never-married in their thirties in the
censuses of these countries. Daughters must leave and make way for incoming daughters-
in-law.
There are thus some critical points of similarity in the nature of marriage between
these three countries, which distinguish them from most other cultures. For example, in
large 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.11 Besides, marriage was a matter of the couple’s own choosing, not
a pressing responsibility of the parents as in these East and South Asian societies. Thus in
Europe a shortage of available grooms would be more of a personal problem for a
woman, not an intolerable situation for parents to avoid by whatever means possible
including offering very high dowries and marrying girls to undesirable grooms.
Shifts in power over the lifecycle
Women’s status changes dramatically over the lifecycle (Das Gupta 1995). As a
young bride and young mother, a woman has little intrinsic source of standing other than
as the mothers of the future men of the lineage, as has been discussed above. But in the
later stages of the lifecycle, women’s power and autonomy in the household rise, and
women gain fuller access to the household’s resources. Margery Wolf (1972) has argued
that in their old age, Chinese women wield the main authority in the household, while old
men are relatively marginalized. Our ethnographic studies in Northwest India confirms
this observation. Old men withdraw from household affairs and become increasingly
shadowy characters, while their wives become the lynchpins of the home, managing their
sons, their daughters-in-law, and the grandchildren.
11. See for example Sieder and Mitterauer (1983), Arensberg and Kimball (1968), and Das Gupta
(1999).
12
However, this rise in women’s autonomy in old age depends on having the
support of grown sons. Without this, women can be very vulnerable (Cain 1981; Rahman,
Foster, and Menken 1992). This a powerful force making for son preference, as well as to
ensure that the sons are emotionally attached to the mother, becoming her firm supporters as
they themselves grow in household stature. Women are careful to bind their sons to
themselves through subtle webs of solicitousness and emotional manipulation. This has
been noted in Northwest India:
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 foods 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 (Das Gupta 1995).
Very similar strategies for forming a strong mother-son bond are noted in China
(Hsiung 1993, Wolf 1974). This is also a powerful motivation for marginalizing 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 a such a kinship system is at the expense of
younger women, which helps perpetuate the cycle of female subordination.
The role of ancestor worship
In China and South Korea, ancestor worship adds another dimension to the need
to have male offspring. In both these countries there are elaborate and explicit beliefs
about the afterlife and the need for performing the rituals of ancestor worship in order to
ensure the welfare of the departed souls. One’s entire afterlife is at stake: without sons,
grandsons and great-grandsons, one’s afterlife is insecure. Not fulfilling one’s filial duty
to continue the family line constitutes a major dereliction of duty, and the consequence is
that one’s own soul and that of one’s predecessors will become what in China is called
“hungry ghosts.” This is as important a filial duty as taking care of one’s aged parents
indeed, caring for ancestors is in many ways just an extension of caring for aged parents.
To help ensure compliance, there is also a belief that angering the ancestors through
unfilial acts can bring their wrath down on you in this life, bringing bad luck.
India has less elaborate rituals of ancestor worship, but male descendants are
central for ensuring one’s prestige during one’s lifetime and after death, and also for
13
performing a series of funerary rituals. Especially in Northwest India, it is very important
to achieve immortality in the form of having successfully left descendants to reproduce
the social order and carry on one’s family line. Without this, one is recorded in
genealogies as the loser whose line died out, or worse still, not recorded at all and
therefore condemned to oblivion.
Not all societies that practice ancestor worship should necessarily be expected to
manifest son preference. It is important to distinguish which forms of ancestor worship
generate a need to continue the male line. In China and South Korea, people worship their
male ancestors in systematic recognition of their dead kin, and the obligation to care for
the ancestors also falls systematically on their descendants. Other forms of ancestor
worship do not emphasize the continuity of the male line. Several sub-Saharan societies
fall into this category, since they worship ancestors on an ad hoc basis, selecting those
who appear notable or powerful. In Japan also, people exercise choice as to which
departed souls to care for (Smith 1974).
Different rules of family segmentation
One difference in the kinship system of South Korea compared with China or
Northwest India makes for a more pressing need in South Korea to have sons of one’s
own. In both Northwest 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 explicitly 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 to explain why son preference has
remained very strong despite the extensive social changes in the country.
14
The system is rigidly formal, requiring parents to 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 parentsdespite the socioeconomic
transformation of the country, and residential mobility as sons go to work in other
citiesof those supported by children, over half received support from the eldest son,
while only 2 percent received support from daughters (Republic of Korea 1995: 231). In
some cases parents depend on another son, if for example if the eldest does not have a son
or is living in another city, but this represents a departure from the norm. Since the eldest
son is supposed to be responsible not only for the parents but also for the ancestors, this
places an additional source of pressure for them to have a sonand this is reflected in our
analysis of survey data which show that the eldest son’s wife has a significantly higher
probability than other women, of having additional conceptions if she has not yet borne a
son (Larsen, Chung, and Das Gupta 1998).
4. Economic factors influencing son preference
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 parentswhile 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 labor force participation, the harsh realities of
poverty, and the need for old age support. When asked about the reasons for son
preference, Chinese respondents typically mention the fact that only men are strong
enough to do the really hard work in the fields, and that sons are needed for old age
support. Korean respondents take a less directly economic line of explanation, stressing
more the need for continuing the family line.
The advantage of doing a cross-country study is that it helps throw light on which
factors are basic to son preference and which are simply additional factors. We discuss
each of the factors in turn, and conclude that economic factors serve only to add to
discrimination and do not explain the underlying reasons for discrimination. Moreover,
we argue that these economic factors are themselves culturally constructed, because they
result from the logic of the kinship system.12
12. Kandiyoti (1991) has made the same argument in the context of Islamic societies.
15
Old age support
The question of old age support is a good example of how kinship systems create
economic incentives for son preference. Explanations of son preference place much
emphasis on the fact that sons can provide old age support. It is certainly the case 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 an
important economic reason for wanting to have sons. The Korean data, for example,
indicate that this factor is significantly associated with higher son preference after
controlling for many socioeconomic factors (Larsen, Chung, Das Gupta 1998).
Whether only sons or also daughters can support their aged parents is, however,
not dictated by economic considerations. It is a cultural construct, as shown by data on
patterns of co-residence in Taiwan and the Philippines (Table 3). In both societies,
parents live with unmarried children of both sexes, or one could say that unmarried
children are still living with their parents. When it comes to living with married children,
however, there are strong differences between the two countries. In the Chinese society of
Taiwan (as in mainland China) it is rare to live with a married daughter, while in the
Philippines parents are equally likely to live with a married daughter as with a son. Thus
we have to go a step further back to understand why in some cultures only sons can
perform this role, while in others both sons and daughters can do so.
Table 3. Percentage of men and women age 60+ co-residing with children, by gender and marital status
of the children, Philippines 1984 and Taiwan 1989
Sex of elderly Son Unmarried daughter Son Married daughter
Philippines
Male 85 79 29 24
Female 77 75 28 34
Taiwan
Male 73 70 55 5
Female 69 58 63 7
Source: Casterline, Chang, and Domingo (1993).
Dowry
The costs of daughters’ weddings are a major drain on household resources in
India, and there is growing evidence of dowry inflation (Rao 1993). Indeed,
advertisements for sex-selective abortion sometimes state that making a small expense on
16
an abortion today will save a large expense on dowry later. Although marriages entail
some costs also for the groom’s family, these are trivial compared to those for the bride’s
family. In India, dowry costs are indeed a major disincentive for raising girls.
However, this cannot be a complete explanation of why people prefer to have sons
and discriminate against daughters. In China and South Korea, the net expenses of a son’s
marriage are estimated to be 3-4 times higher than that of a daughter’s marriage (Xie
1997, Bae 1996). Williamson (1976) reports that in Taiwan the costs were 4-5 times
higher for boys than for girls. The parents of the groom have to buy or construct new
housing for the couple, and bear the larger part of the other costs of marriage, including
feasts. The bride’s family provides some clothes and household items. If the bride’s
family is very wealthy and wants to show off their wealth, they can make more lavish
outlays, but this is not a prerequisite for marriage as dowry has become in India.
It is especially telling that in India, too, brideprice has been prevalent in the past,13
and has co-existed with discrimination against daughters, as in China and South Korea. If
people have to pay substantially more for sons’ weddings than daughters’ weddings, as
they did in Punjab in the early twentieth century and still do in China and South Korea,
they do not resent the expense because they feel the money remains within the family. By
contrast, even small expenses on daughters feel like a net drain on household resources.
The need to pay high dowries cannot be an underlying cause of son preference in
India, but it does add to the existing disincentives in the North for raising girls. Regional
differentials within India suggest that the kinship system plays an important role in
mediating the effect of dowry payments on the treatment of daughters. Although dowry is
a heavy burden across India today, levels of discrimination against girls continue to be far
lower in South India than in the North.14 This is because the kinship systems of the South
offer more room for give and take between a married woman and her family of birth. This
works to the advantage of both the parents and the daughters: the parents can hope to
receive some physical and other support from their daughter, and the daughter can
continue to receive support from the parents in case of need.
Labor force participation: paid employment and the value of wives versus daughters
The main form of female labor force participation in agrarian settings is through
women working on the family farm. However, data on this are notorious for under-
13. Imperial Gazeteer of India (1908:285), Bhat and Halli (1999), Rao (1993).
14. Caldwell, Reddy, and Caldwell (1983), Das Gupta and Bhat (1997), Rao (1993), Billig (1992).
17
reporting the extent of their participation are notorious. 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 in Northwest India has an especially low rate of female
labor force participation, but in fact women do almost all the manual labor on the fields
through the whole crop cycle, while men spend short periods of time ploughing with
tractors and operating tubewells (Das Gupta 1987). Thus even if women are responsible
for most of the actual labor 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. In this
context, it is important to note that respondents in China mentioned that serious efforts
have been made to have families and communities explicitly recognize the economic
contribution women make through their agricultural work (Xie 1997). For what the data
are worth, there seems to be little relationship between rates of female labor force
participation in different countries of Asia and son preference.15
Paid work is valued much more highly than 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 otherwise to be discounted. Having paid
employment is widely recognized 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 rigidly
part of their husband’s families, as they traditionally have been in Northwest India, China
and South Korea, 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.
How rapidly the growth of women’s paid employment translates into reduced son
preference depends on the extent to which public policy enables women to contribute to
their parents’ well-being. In China, efforts in this direction have generated a growing
trend for women to contribute to their parents’ family, especially when they participate in
the growing employment opportunities of the newly-industrializing market economy (Xie
1997). This radical departure from tradition is part of a general effort in Communist
China to break longstanding age and gender hierarchies. By contrast, women have
15. Das Gupta and others (1997).
18
participated extensively in paid work since the 1960s in South Korea, but conservative
public policies slowed the potential for parents to benefit from daughters as well as sons.
Poverty
There seems to be little evidence to support the hypothesis that the poor
discriminate more against their daughters than the rich the hypothesis being that
sharper resource constraints force the poor to allocate resources to the more valued males.
Census data from India show that in North India the higher castes (who tend to be richer)
had more unbalanced sex ratios than the lower castes (Miller 1981, Das Gupta 1987).
Similarly, district-level data from India and household-level data from South Korea
suggest that if anything the rich discriminate more than the poor.16
However, all these 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. For example, war and famine raised the level of
discrimination in China and South Korea in the middle of this century (Das Gupta and
Shuzhuo 1999). Of course, one would only expect to find such an effect in a society with
strong son preference not in societies whose kinship systems make for more equal
valuation of males and females.
5. The experience of son preference
Bearing sons is important in all these three countries, for a woman to gain
standing in her husband’s household. A woman’s main source of standing in her
husband’s family is as the mother of the future men of the family. In Northern India for
example, a woman is called “X’s mother.” If the first is not a son she will be renamed as
soon as she bears a son, because being called a boy’s mother is much more prestigious
than a girl’s mother. For men, too, having a son brings full membership of society as he
has now performed the critical function of social reproduction.
16 Krishnaji (1987), Murthi and Dreze (1995), Larsen, Chung and Das Gupta (1998).
19
South Korea
Of the three countries studied, South Korean parents seem to be under the greatest
pressure to bear sons. Unlike China and India, in South Korea even highly-educated
professional people who have only daughters describe this as a terrible tragedy. One
senior academic has only two daughters, and has told them that when he dies they should
give him a simple burial, not even troubling over his clothes. Since he has no descendants
to tend him in his afterlife, there is little point in fussing over his funeral. Besides, he
explained, daughters should not have to bear the expenses.
It is common for women to be mistreated if they do not have sons. The husband
might take to drinking and womanizing, and maltreating the wife. His parents might put
pressure of their own, and in the past they would ask their son to take a concubine,
threatening if necessary to disinherit him if he did not have a son. Such stories abound in
the interviews we conducted. Nor did one son suffice in the past, as illustrated by the
story of a woman now in her seventies:
Although my first child was a son, my mother-in-law was very angry with
me because the next three were daughters. Although I cooked rice for the
family, my daughters and I were allowed only to eat millet. Feeling very
guilty about bearing three daughters in a row, I felt I should be very
obedient to my mother-in-law. I would wake up very early and do all the
domestic work, work on the rice fields, feed the animals, and then weave
until late into the night. I served my mother-in-law carefully, making sure
never to sleep until she was comfortably asleep and could not need
anything further. After my second daughter was born, she sent me off to
work in the kitchen and the rice fields within days of the birth, not
allowing the normal period of rest. My third daughter died. Later I had
another son, but by then my mother-in-law had died.
When pressed as to why people did not want daughters, she said it was not
because they were unproductive or needed dowries to get married:
No, women did a lot of hard labor in the fields and their marriage cost
virtually nothing. People don’t want daughters because they are not helpful
to the familythey leave the family when they marry. Daughters are
useless! Unworthy! It is sons who are able to inherit assets and keep the
rituals of ancestor worship.
20
These forms of maltreatment are still common, though to a lesser extent than
before. For example, it is now rare to take a concubine.
It is crucial for a daughter-in-law to keep her mother-in-law on her side, to
minimize maltreatment if she is unable to have sons, and for domestic harmony as a
whole. Sometimes mothers-in-law can be supportive, as illustrated by the following
account given by a old woman of her daughter-in-law, who is in her forties now:
My daughter-in-law had six daughters in a row, and came close to being
thrown out of the house by my son. When the third daughter was born, he
removed the protective string placed on the threshold to repel evil spirits,
and placed no further strings for subsequent daughters. I tried to reason
with him, saying that a woman who can bear daughters can also bear a son.
When the fourth daughter was born, he began to drink heavily and have
relationships with other women. Though he did not actually beat her, he
punished her by ordering her to resume cooking three days after giving
birth. She cried every day. At the fifth daughter, he laughed harshly and
said nastily: “Another daughter? Feel free to eat more, help yourself, take
good care of yourself.” The sixth daughter died three days after birth: he
made no attempt to take her to a doctor, just as he paid little attention
when the other daughters fell ill.
I tried various rituals to help her bear a son, but to no avail. Finally I found
a shaman, who took her up a mountain to pray for a son, and that night she
became pregnant and had twin sons.
It should be added that this woman was bearing these children before the spread
of sex-selective abortion. Now people can avoid bearing a long string of daughters.
Both men and women suffer terribly in the absence of sons, though for somewhat
different reasons. Men suffer private grief at their lineage coming to an end, a sense of
having let down the ancestors, and fear of being untended in one’s own afterlife. Thus it
is not unusual for old men (comfortably supported in this life by their own savings and
pensions) to visit clinics and ask nurses for information on how their daughter-in-law
could bear a son. No amount of savings in this life can assure well-being in the next, in
the absence of a son to carry out the necessary rituals. Aside from the grief and fear, there
is also considerable public humiliation for men who do not have a son. It was commonly
reported that other men taunt them. It is also said to be humiliating to appear in public
places such as a public bath without a son.
21
For women, the suffering involves fear of rejection and mistreatment by the
husband. Moreover, they feel terribly guilty not to have borne a son. As a woman doctor
told us:
Every woman in Korea wants to have a son. Even though a lot of people
are aware that the sex of the child is determined by the father, women still
feel that if their husband had married some other woman, he might have
had a son. A woman’s domestic life is often badly affected if she does not
have a son.
Until the recent change in the Family Law, even women who could afford to sue
for divorce could not do so without losing custody of their children.
Ethnographic accounts from China,17 as well as our own interviews, show that in
earlier decades women were subject to considerable stress within their family of
marriage. In most ways women’s position in the household was much like that in South
Korea. A crucial difference, however, was that it was acceptable to adopt a son,
preferably from the father’s lineage (Hsu 1949) reducing the stress to all of not giving
birth to a son.
India
Like their counterparts in China and South Korea, young married women in North
India have to wake up before anyone else in the household and start all the domestic
chores (Das Gupta 1995). They, too, have to serve their mother-in-law well, being careful
not to incur their wrath or dissatisfaction. At the end of the day the mother-in-law must be
tended before going to sleep. Even after the advent of electric grinding of wheat, many
households continued to demand that their young wives wake up long before dawn to
grind flour by hand, just to make sure that they understood their position in the
household.
Here too it is very important for a woman to have a son to give her standing in the
household and community. As a young woman she will have limited bargaining power
vis-à-vis her mother-in-law and others in the household, and as an old woman she will be
vulnerable without a son to offer his protection. It is unusual for men to take a second
17 This is an enormous literature, but see, for example Andors (1983), Fried (1969), Gates (1996),
Hu (1948); Hsu (1949); Wolf (1985); and Wolf and Huang (1980).
22
wife if their wife does not have a son, but if this happens the first wife’s position in the
household is relegated to that of domestic help.
Yet the pressures to bear a son are softened by the fact that a man’s brothers’ or
cousins’ sons can substitute for his own, as shown in our case study from Northwest
India:
Shortly after I was married, I had two daughters spaced three years apart.
After that it was thirteen years till my next birth. This turned out to be a
boy, and my husband’s family celebrated greatly, distributing a lot of
sweets and presents. Even now, if the boy is sick his father stays up all
night fanning him. Five years later I had another daughter, and that was my
last birth.
My husband was certainly very anxious to have a son, and I tried many
medicines to bear one. But no, he did not maltreat me although for a long
time it seemed that I would never have a son. His brother had two sons,
and that gave him a lot of satisfaction. Some of the neighbors teased me
sometimes, but it was alright because I was not childless after all…They
called me the mother of my eldest daughter. Now, of course, they call me
the mother of my son, and my status is transformed as a consequence.
6. Forces of change
To reduce discrimination against girls, it is critical to have policies that raise the
value of girls to their parents, relative to boys. It is not enough to hope that policies aimed
more generally at raising the status of women will be equally effective at reducing
discrimination against girls. 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
employment. For example in China, there has been much emphasis on gender equality,
but far less effort to alter the fundamentals of the family system in order to make
daughters and sons more equally valuable to their parents. In fact, it has been useful for
the state to encourage the continuation of those aspects of the kinship system which
assure stable customary family residential patterns, with clear expectations that women
will care for their husbands’ parents, their children and other family dependentsthereby
helping maintain social stability and relieving the state of the burdens of caring for the
23
old, the young, the sick and the unemployed.18 Thus the situation of women has improved
but discrimination against girls persists.
This is especially evident from the experience of South Korea, where the
emphasis has been on raising incomes (including that of women), and relatively little
effort has been spent on ensuring gender equality for its own sake. Women’s lives have
thus improved dramatically in material ways but their position in the family has changed
very much less. Standards of living have improved, along with technological innovation
in domestic work. In terms of health women have benefited enormously from rapid
improvement in maternal and child health, as well as general health care which has given
them among the greatest longevity in the world. Education is virtually universal (Table 1)
and women’s participation in formal sector employment has also risen steadily (Table 4).
Table 4. Women workers as percent of total workers in each occupation group, South Korea, 1993
Occupation group Percent
Legislators, senior officials and managers 5
Professionals and technicians 32
Clerks 50
Sales and service 58
Agriculture and fishery 46
Plant and machine operators 23
Other 35
Total 40
Source: Korean Women’s Development Institute 1995: 163-5, based on National Statistical Office, Annual
Report on Economically Active Population Survey (1993-5).
There are, however, some important forces of change at work, which increase
flexibility in the kinship system and thereby help equalize the value of sons and
daughters.
Urbanization
The organization of urban life differs enormously from that of rural areas,
reducing the centrality of sons in their parents’ lives. Customary rules of inheritance are
most inflexible regarding immovable clan assets such as land, and customary rules of
post-marital residence are most inflexible in rural areas where clan exogamy is typically
synonymous with village exogamy. By contrast, urban parents and their daughters can
18 See Das Gupta and others (2000) for a fuller discussion of this.
24
give each other much more financial, emotional and physical support. Sons-in-law also
interact with them and can sometimes be called upon for assistance. Moreover, sons’
employment may take them to a city other than that of their parents.
Whether urban parents derive support from a child often depends more on who
lives in the same city and the nature of their relationship, than on the sex of the child.
This is critical to making daughters less of a drain and more of an asset as compared with
sons. Besides, older people in urban areas have typically worked in jobs that give them
pensions and health care coverage, reducing their need for financial support from their
children. Going against this trend is the continued need for sons to support them in their
afterlifeas no earthly pension system can take care of this need.
Empowering adult women certainly helps set the stage for a higher valuation of
daughters, even if separate strategies have to be adopted in order to increase the value of
daughters more directly. Decades of urbanization with concomitant social change, as well
as female education and employment seem to be having some impact on the pressure to
have sons. In South Korea, a small but growing proportion of husbands are accepting of
their wives even if they do not bear a son:
My husband’s youngest sister was supported by her husband although she
had only two daughters. They decided to get sterilized because they felt
they could not afford to raise more children. The husband’s parents were
terribly angry about this, but they could not say anything much since it was
their son who took the decision. A few young couples now are able to bear
the pressure of not having a son.
In Shanghai, the sex ratios have become fairly normal, in stark contrast with
evidence of heavy discrimination against females around 1900 (Xin 1989).
The market reforms in China since the early 1980s may have reduced the
disincentive to have daughters. Girls can now earn wages, and while they are unmarried
their earnings contribute to their parents’ household expenses and their wedding
expenses. If they continue to earn wages after marriage, they are also better placed to help
their parents even after leaving home.
However, the market reforms may also be contributing to reinforcing women’s
marginalization. Firstly, women in the new market economy are not protected as they
were before, and are vulnerable to being terminated when they marry or have children.
Secondly, the boom in commerce and trading has revived traditional ways of forming
25
business networks and contacts through family and personal connections. Women are
consequently disadvantaged, because they lose their father’s lineage networks when they
marry, and it takes time for them to develop new connections based on their husband’s
family connections.
Government officials and villagers whom we interviewed in the economically
booming coastal province of Zhejiang pointed out other ways in which the new market
economy has contributed to increasing the manifestation of son preference. Clans have
begun to function once again as organizations which provide their own with protection
and assistance in exploiting the newfound business opportunities. And of course
subscribing to clan ideology puts a heavy premium on having sons to perpetuate and
strengthen the clan. They also said that when people become richer they become more
concerned with having a son to pass on their wealth. In the collective farming period, clan
and kinship ties were of relatively little economic significance.
Social and legal reform movements
In China and India, the early twentieth century was a period of intense questioning
of many aspects of the social order. Gender hierarchies were one focus of this rethinking,
as reflected in social movements and literature written for raising social consciousness in
the early decades of this century. Like Tagore and his contemporaries in India, major
literary figures such as Lu Xun wrote explicitly about the problems generated by the
family system, especially for women. In India, this process was incorporated into the
popular movement for independence, helping disseminate the radical social messages
very widely. As a result, the concept of gender equality is firmly established in civil
discourse, and women’s movements have flourished as a major force of change. While
the gains to women from these efforts are not as dramatic as those achieved through state
intervention in East Asia, the fact that they emanate from civil society means that they are
also less subject to reversal.19
In China, the process of social change was interrupted by the civil wars and
invasions which dominated the first half of the twentieth century. After 1950, the
Communists’ ideological commitment to gender equality resulted in much effort to
improve the situation of young women vis-à-vis their mothers-in-law and husbands. The
difference between the sexes was de-emphasized, even in clothing. Women gained much
freedom of movement and visibility in local official positions. Women’s contribution to
19 The role of public policy in shaping women’s autonomy is discussed further in Das Gupta and
others. (2000).
26
production, even in agriculture, was explicitly recognized. It is instructive, though that
these changes take a long time to effect: in rural China the authorities are still
emphasizing the importance of women’s contribution to production. During the decades
of strict Communist control, they also sought to eradicate ancestor worshipbut many
people continued to quietly leave some food in their home for their ancestors, and as soon
as the control was loosened people went back to more public manifestations of their
customs.
The thrust of these efforts was to make people aware, as Mao put it, that “Women
hold up half the sky.” By this we assume that he meant that women should be perceived
as having a social and legal persona, so that they could be full-fledged social actors and
have their social contribution formally recognized. Yet for all his efforts at raising the
status of women, Mao did not alter the basic rules of kinship. The rules of residence in
rural areas continued to be that men stayed in their father’s village, and women went to
their husbands’ homes at marriage. Even today village land is allocated according to these
rules, deleting a daughter’s share of land on her marriage and granting her a share in her
husband’s village. Thus although women’s situation is enormously improved in modern
China, girls continue to be marginal to their parents’ family and their birth continues to be
unwelcome. In urban areas, where the exigencies of life break these traditions, gender
discrimination has decreased.
Especially in rural China, it is still a tragedy for people if they do not have a son.
A woman without a son is vulnerable to terrible taunts by others in her community, for
example in the course of an altercation, and she suffers much loss of face as a result.
Nevertheless, very considerable improvements have been achieved in women’s position
in the household. As a result, women who fail to bear a son are likely to be subject to far
less maltreatment today than their counterparts in South Korea. This is illustrated by the
following story of a man now in his early fifties:
When my child was born and it turned out to be a girl, I was so
disappointed that I flung my cigarette out of the window. I did not dare to
tell my father about it, though of course he guessed the truth from my
silence. My wife was so upset that she did not want to care for the child,
and I had to persuade her to nurse it. I always regretted not having a son.
Some years later, my cousin sister found a boy from my home area for me
to adopt, but my wife would not hear of it. She said she was too busy with
her work to be bothered to look after a small child again. My father has
become resigned to this now, and so have I, but when I got my first
personal computer I said “This is my son.”
27
Legal changes can be highly effective in increasing women’s voice. In India, for
example, women have become much more active in public fora since the recent
legislation requiring that one-third of panchayat (grassroots administration) positions
should be composed of women. In China too, the state has striven to bring women into
the public sphere and reduce their in-laws’ hold over them, as illustrated by the case-
study of a woman who was married shortly before the revolution:
My mother-in-law was a very harsh woman… I had to serve her hand and
foot. In the morning I had to wake up and begin work before she woke up.
I also had to empty her chamberpot in the morning. Then I worked all
through the day, and could only go to sleep after she did...
My first child was a son, but she would not let me hold him. She insisted
that I just lie him flat on the bed and leave him alone all day while I
worked. She would not let me eat rice, only inferior grains…
When the Communist youth meetings began in the village, I attended a
couple of them. They made me feel as though I had some group to which I
belonged which was outside my husband’s household. But my mother-in-
law forbade me from going to any more meetings, and I did not dare
oppose her.
Persistent efforts to bring young women out of their homes to participate in these
meetings bore fruit in the face of resistance, and helped transform women’s lives simply
by allowing them to function as part of a large group
Korean feminists recognize the need to alter the position of women in the family,
and they place much emphasis on the need to revise the Family Law. After many years of
debate, some changes were made in the Family Law in 1989. These changes open up the
possibility of women being able to have custody of children after divorce; encourage
equal inheritance of sons and daughters; allow the eldest son to relinquish family
headship; and allow recognition of blood ties up to the same generational distance on
both the mother’s and the father’s side. The nature of the changes may seem bizarre to
Western feminists, but for Korean feminists the main point is to increase the recognition
of women as social actors. Their case for gender equity was strengthened by the state’s
concern about the potentially negative social repercussions of a shortage of women.
28
The role of the mass media
The mass media can be a powerful tool of social engineering, within the context
of a broader process of social and legal reform.20 The state-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 to enforce them. In addition to these efforts at
bringing about greater gender equity in social values, 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. For example, soap operas can be used to portray women
(and also their husbands) helping her parents, emphasizing that this is socially acceptable.
Parents can be shown dividing inheritance equally between children of both sexes The
fact that the relationship with a daughter is often emotionally more rewarding can be
emphasized, and parents can also be portrayed living with married daughters.
7. Conclusions
What factors are responsible for son preference, and why is it so persistent in the
face of sweeping economic and social changes? Why does a highly urbanized society
such as South Korea manifest the same patterns of gender bias as the more agrarian
societies of China and India? To understand this, a cross-country comparison is very
useful because it indicates which factors are central to the problem. These three settings
have strong similarities in their family systems, which are strongly patrilineal. Women are
effectively marginalized in the social order. This is one of the most fundamental aspects
of their culture, capable of persisting despite rising incomes, education, and urbanization.
We have argued that despite local variations on the ground, these kinship systems
have a common organizational logic which generates son preference. It is interesting to
note that variations in the kinship systems confirm the theoretical implications of their
common organizational logic. For example, South Korea has different rules of family
segmentation from China and Northwest India, placing the burden of continuing the
family line more squarely on the shoulders of the eldest son, and this is reflected in the
eldest son empirically manifesting stronger son preference than other sons.
20 For an analysis of the powerful effect of the mass media on values and perceptions regarding
childbearing, see Bhat (1998).
29
These kinship systems generate a critical dichotomy between the value of a girl to
her parents and her value to her husband’s family. As long as the custom persists for
women and their future productivity to be totally absorbed by their in-laws, parents are
likely to perceive daughters as a drain and prefer to raise sons. Women can contribute
little to their parents’ welfare, so even when levels of women’s education and formal-
sector labor force participation increase, the fruits of these go to her husband’s home.
Even though women can gain considerable power in the household in their old age, this
depends on having sons who support their mother’s voice in the household at the expense
of their own wives. In short, the vulnerability of women in these settings is well-designed
for reinforcing and perpetuating itself with little need for direct reinforcement from the male
world. This is a vicious twist to what Kandiyoti (1988, 1998) has termed the “patriarchal
bargain.”
We also argue that the economic pressures for son preference are culturally
induced. If people have to pay large dowries to get their daughters married, this is just an
additional factor in the equationthe levels of “missing girls” are high even when
brideprice is the norm as in China and South Korea today and in Northwest India in the
early twentieth century. The fact that sons are the main source of old age support is
clearly culturally determined, as there is no intrinsic reason why parents cannot seek such
support from their daughters as they do elsewhere in Asia. Nor can adequate pensions and
savings offer peace of mind for one’s old age, as long as people believe that they will be
“hungry ghosts” in the afterlife unless sons provide the necessary rituals.
Efforts to raise the status of women as a whole are a somewhat indirect route to
reducing son preference, because of the dichotomy between the value of a girl to her
parents versus that of a woman to her in-laws. Increasing female education and paid
employment gives women greater ability to function independently and offer support to
their parents. However, the speed with which this will reduce son preference can be
greatly accelerated if measures are also taken to make it socially acceptable for daughters
to help their parents. What is required is to reduce the incentive to discriminate against
girls by making daughters and sons more equally valuable to their parents. This can be
left to take place naturally with the cumulative effect of decades of urbanization on family
arrangements, but for societies like China and India which are still heavily agrarian this
would be a very slow process. Fortunately, much can be done to accelerate the process of
reducing son preference through social movements, legislation, and the mass media.
30
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Map 1: Juvenile Sex Ratios in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 2000
Sources: UN Projections, 2000.
This map was produced by the Map Design Unit of The World Bank.
The boundaries, colors, denominations and any other information
shown on this map do not imply, on the part of The World Bank
Group, any judgment on the legal status of any territory, or any
endorsement or acceptance of such boundaries.
IBRD 30990
AUGUST 2000
< 1.045
1.045–1.07
1.07–1.1
1.1+
No Data
International Boundaries
India
China
This map was produced by the Map Design Unit of The World Bank.
The boundaries, colors, denominations and any other information
shown on this map do not imply, on the part of The World Bank
Group, any judgment on the legal status of any territory, or any
endorsement or acceptance of such boundaries.
IBRD 30989
AUGUST 2000
< 1.045
1.045–1.07
1.07–1.1
1.1+
No Data
Province/State Boundaries
International Boundaries
Map 2: Juvenile Sex Ratios in
Provinces of China and States of India,
1990–91
Sources: Census of India, 1991; Fourth National Population
Census of China, 1990.
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Son preference seems to be disappearing in the current discursive environment, replaced by the emergence of daughter preference in social communication. Different from previous studies of son preference in China that focus on quantitative data, this paper is based on an ethnographic study of a remote rural village in Shanxi Province, China. Through the use of participant observation, focus groups, and semi-structured interviews, the paper concludes that patriarchal systems persist, and son preference develops dynamically. Among others, the author concludes that (1) the patriarchal system is a necessary foundation for the existence of son preference, (2) the concealment of son preference is an aftereffect of gender reproductive selection and a major variable of marital stress, and (3) daughter preference is a variant of traditional gender expectations.
... As for the "time constraint", relative to the association between people's characteristics and the people's experience of meeting healthcare needs, the people's characteristics that were positively associated with their experiencing the "time constraint" were as follows: residing in the Seoul metropolitan area, having a job in a labor market (a blue-or white-collar job), not being in the highest quintile of household income, being a current smoker, being an alcohol consumer, and reporting poor self-assessed health. These characteristics seem to be related to the lack of time to visit a healthcare facility either because of living conditions or workplace environments [62][63][64]. This study's findings align with those of prior studies in concluding that employed people use healthcare services less frequently than unemployed people [65][66][67]. ...
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Using 68,930 observations selected from 16,535 adults in the Korea Health Panel Survey (2014–2018), this study explored healthcare barriers that prevent people from meeting their healthcare needs most severely during adulthood, and the characteristics that are highly associated with the barrier. This study derived two outcome variables: a dichotomous outcome variable on whether an individual has experienced healthcare needs, and a quadchotomous outcome variable on how an individual’s healthcare needs ended. An analysis was conducted using a multivariable panel multinomial probit model with sample selection. The results showed that the main cause of unmet healthcare needs was not financial difficulties but non-financial barriers, which were time constraints up to a certain age and the lack of caring and support after that age. People with functional limitations were at a high risk of experiencing unmet healthcare needs due to a lack of caring and support. To reduce unmet healthcare needs in South Korea, the government should focus on lowering non-financial barriers to healthcare, including time constraints and lack of caring and support. It seems urgent to strengthen the foundation of “primary care”, which is exceptionally scarce now, and to expand it to “community-based integrated care” and “people-centered care”.
... Traditionally, women have been discriminated against in China [50,51]. During the OCP, the preference for boys increased [52] and the "little emperor syndrome" is seen as potentially stronger among boys in China [53]. On the other hand, girls in one-child families could benefit from being an only-child since families may invest more in them when there is no competition from siblings and especially not from brothers [26]. ...
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In this paper, we present evidence from a lab-in-the-field experiment of the effects of the Chinese one-child policy on adults in China who were born just before and after the introduction of the policy. We measure risk, uncertainty, and time preferences, as well as subjects' preferences in the social domain, i.e., concerning competitiveness, cooperation, and bargaining. We sampled people from three Chinese provinces born both before and after the introduction of the policy in 1979. We utilize the fact that the one-child policy was introduced at different times and with different degrees of strictness in different provinces. Overall, we find a statistically significant effect only on risk and uncertainty aversion and not on any other preferences in the experiments: Those born after the introduction of the one-child policy are less risk and uncertainty averse. These results hold for various robustness checks and heterogeneity tests. Hence, our results do not confirm the general wisdom and stereotype of only-children in China being "little emperors."
... Thus, most of the Chinese people preferred sons rather than daughters. Son preference symbolized gender discrimination and cultural norms in traditional Chinese society [35]. This differentiated gender value further reinforced women's subordination to men. ...
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At the beginning of the twenty-first century, in the post-industrial period a fertility decline became a growing social problem in the Euro-Atlantic cultural sphere. In the mid-term horizon, demographers have said this will lead to depopulation in most European countries and all of Europe. Apart from the migration of young people from different cultures, a population decrease can be stopped by the increase of birth rate. This process can take place by increasing the number of families with many children in postindustrial societies. Researchers who study demographic shifts claim that families with a minimum of 4 children are needed to replace a full generation, but to rejuvenate a population, families of 4+ are necessary. Various studies across different disciplines are being undertaken to better understand the causes of low birth rates; however, since families with one or two children or no children at all constitute the majority of families in European countries, the perspective of such families dominates current research. As a result, the causes of higher reproductive rates in families with multiple children are unknown. This research aims to help fill this knowledge gap, especially by focusing attention on families with multiple children in countries with low birth rates, which has not been given due consideration in current Polish and international sociological literature. This conceptualization of the issue results from the author’s own experiences and is based in theories of new institutionalism developed in Anthropology and Sociology. A sociological approach to the issue moves away from Bronisław Malinowski’s model of the procreative institution, which meets the social reproductive needs and includes the following institutions: courting, marriage, family, clan, society. Malinowski viewed the procreative institution as universal, existing in all societies in order to support the goal of reproduction of the group. Building on this concept of the procreative institution, this research presents reproduction in the context of the history of the Euro-Atlantic sphere and contemporary post-industrial societies. This research focuses on a specific segment of Polish society: families with multiple children in which the mother has a higher education. This focus is in response to the claim that higher education rates characterize both contemporary post-industrial societies and a lower birth rate, which suggests an interrelatedness between different spheres of social life, broadly understood. Qualitative methods were employed in this research on the conditions that impact on reproductive rates, which enabled attention to complex, interrelated issues that inform family decisions about procreation. In-depth interviews were the main research tool, which was supported by an analysis of the situation of the families with multiple children included in the sample and participant observation in the place of residence of those families. The interviews and observations were carried out in two phases – in 2013 and 2017 – which allows this study to note the impact of family-oriented policies that aim to support demographic growth and that were introduced after the first phase of the study. Overall, 40 interviews were collected with mothers and fathers in families with multiple children. The informants constitute a diverse sample in terms of income and the age of the mother. The sample includes families in which the mother can still bear children as well as families in which the mothers have passed reproductive age. The analysis shows that having multiple children was a matter of conscious choice made by the married couples, above all, in accordance with the mindset/ believes and attitudes they had developed through their own family up-bringing and through the youth groups they were affiliated with as young people themselves. Their believes and attitudes related to families with multiple children, marriage, reproduction, and upbringing influence their willingness to have multiple children. This study found that the norms and informal rules that constitute social expectations, both in the immediate community and in the broader society, as well as the parents’ exposure to family models, significantly influence the decision to either limit or to continue with reproduction in the case of 3+ children. Forming families with multiple children depends on both formal and informal norms and rules that make up the social system and the mental models of the informants, which give them a sense of subjective perceived control. These factors include: the relations in the married couple, the family planning methods that are used, the mothers’ health during pregnancy and birth, the child-care and child-rearing practices, the professional life of the parents, as well as the housing and financial situation of the family. Moreover, moral and religious rules influence families with multiple children. A diachronic analysis of the families in the sample allowed the definition of five strategies used by couples who form families with multiple children: a general openness to having children, an analysis of desires and possibilities, a situational openness, planning, an excitement for reproduction. All the families taking part in the study claimed to be happy or very happy. This study also enabled an indication of directions for future research, for example: links between families with multiple children and care, the professional engagement of the parents, social norms about family size, contraception and family planning methods. The study was based in a small sample size, which further underlines the need for further research. This study can serve to orient future investigations. This research raised a key question about the conditions that must be secured in contemporary post-industrial societies, both by future parents and the broader cultural context, in order for future generations to be regenerated. Such studies should be undertaken in the field of sociology and it might be worth considering defining a separate subfield of the sociology of procreation. These studies should focus on the social conditions and factors that influence procreation as a social activity, and in the field of new institutionalism, reproduction as dependent on institutions on different levels of society. Procreation is not just a private issue of the married couple, but an activity that is socially influenced, as this study has shown.
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Statistical power is important for genetically informed research, especially when using publicly available datasets. Such datasets can make research conclusions more generalizable, but accurate records of zygosity are not always obtainable. Some researchers tend to fit models with other kin pairs rather than MZ and DZ twins, who have a less than .5 genetic relatedness difference (ΔR). However, no research has systematically investigated the impact of using such two groups of kin pairs on ACE model performance. In our study, we did mathematical derivations and simulations to illustrate how genetic relatedness of same-sex twins (RSS) and sample sizes influence ACE model performance. Specifically, we analyzed those factors’ impact on statistical power of heritability (h2) estimation, the overall power, and the frequency of negative estimates based on univariate ACE models. Our algebraic and simulation results suggest that heritability power, overall power, and reduction of negative estimates are positively associated with larger RSS and larger sample sizes. We also found addressing sex limitations would cause slightly worse model performance under most circumstances. Simulation results were discussed from both statistical and empirical perspectives, and suggestions are proposed for studies using kin pairs with ΔR < .5.
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The “expressivist objection” argues that prenatal screening leading to termination of embryos or fetuses with disabilities sends a harmful message to people with disabilities, such as the message that their lives are not worth living. I first argue that whether it sends such a message depends on how a reasonable person would see the motives behind the screening. I then argue that a reasonable person would see a harmful message, not when individuals terminate embryos, and not for severe disabilities, but when the state allows the screening and termination of embryos with less severe conditions, such as Down syndrome. This sends the message that it is permissible not to pay a higher cost to support people with disabilities, when there is an abled alternative. This attitude is harmful to the welfare, rights and self-worth of people with disabilities because it reinforces the refusal to provide them with equal opportunity. The state therefore has a strong pro tanto reason to ban prenatal screening for less severe disabilities.
Chapter
The family forms of historic Europe have been fascinating in their variety. Their importance for the historical development of our continent would be difficult to exaggerate; for our relationship with the peoples of the other continents of the world as well. This book is an attempt to recover the different familial systems and compare them with one another. The studies range from Russia, Poland, Hungary and Austria to Scandinavia, Flanders and Britain. All the influences which have affected the character and composition of European households are taken into account. The analysis covers their function as productive work groups, in the procreation and bringing up of children, and in the support of the elderly, and their relationship with the wider society and its norms along with its political organization, central and local. Claims that inheritance customs and inheritance practice and the occupation of the household head exerted a powerful influence on the size and composition of households are subjected to rigorous and systematic investigation.
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Data on ever-married women of reproductive age from six Chinese provinces were obtained from the 1987 In-Depth Fertility Survey, Phase II, to examine whether government population policies related to child mortality, rural residence, ethnic group and gender of the firstborn child, or individual characteristics such as educational level and living standard, are more important in determining which women have more than one child. Among women who had a first birth during 1977-1987, the proportions in each province who had a second birth within 10 years of the first ranged from 30% to 93%, and the proportions who had a third birth within 10 years of their second ranged from 15% to 80%. While all covariates proved important, the most significant covariate for predicting a second birth, particularly in areas where few women have more than one child, was the death of the previous child. Having a daughter the first time also had a strong positive effect on the likelihood of having a second birth in some areas. While living standard had a significant effect on the likelihood of having a second birth in some areas, the findings do not support conjecture that rural families with the economic means to pay the penalties are more likely to have a second child. The results for third births were similar to those for second births.
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Recent evidence from East Asia suggests that parents use prenatal sex testing to selectively abort female fetuses, a practice manifested in rising sex ratios (males per females) at birth. Many observers have condemned prenatal sex testing, arguing that it results in discriminatory abortion against females. However, observers have neglected the dynamics between this new prenatal discrimination and traditional postnatal discrimination against young daughters. If the option of sex-selective abortion implies that daughters carried to term are more likely to be wanted, postnatal discrimination might decline. Evidence from East Asia is used to investigate this "substitution" hypothesis. In societies where excess daughter mortality existed in the 1970s, rises in the sex ratio at birth in the 1980s tended to be associated with declines in excess daughter mortality. This preliminary support for the substitution hypothesis suggests that judging the morality of sex-selective abortion requires prior consideration of the prevalence and relative evils of both prenatal and postnatal discrimination.
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Many demographers and population planners have considered son preference in Asian countries to be a major barrier to reducing fertility. Some of these countries, such as South Korea and China, however, have recently achieved replacement-level fertility, in spite of their strong adherence to son preference. By use of sex-selective abortion and other means, the sex ratio at birth in these countries has been changed at three levels: in the population at large, between families, and within families. At the population level a rising sex ratio has been recorded; at the between-family level an inverse relationship between sex ratio and family size has been observed; and at the within-family level a rapidly rising sex ratio with birth order has been noted. This article presents empirical evidence of these changes and discusses their implications, focusing on the situation in Korea.