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Son Preference, Science, and Modernity

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Amartya Sen first used the phrase ‘missing women’ to describe a survival disadvantage for women exposed to extreme gender discrimination in son-preference countries. In 1989 he estimated that, despite a biological survival advantage for females, there were 100 million fewer women in Asia and north Africa than expected. He blamed corrosive gender discrimination restricting the resources needed for survival. This systematic review examined demographic evidence on the impacts of profound gender discrimination on the survival of girls and women in son-preference countries. Thirty-four included studies provided consistent evidence of lower-than-expected female survival in 15 societies. Male-to-female sex ratios rose particularly in China and India between the 1980s and 2010s, despite general improvements in female mortality. High sex ratios in South Korea, however, returned to biologically normal levels. The number of ‘missing women’ rose steadily from 61 million in 1970 to 126 million in 2010 and was predicted to continue to rise until 2035. The number of ‘missing women’ in the world increased in relative and absolute terms between 1980 and 2020. Profound discrimination reduces female survival at every stage of life. Future research is needed to understand the complete pathways and mechanisms leading to poorer survival and the major policy drivers of these trends to devise the best possible ways of preventing the tragedy of ‘missing women’.
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It is well established that son preference is the crucial driver for sex ratio imbalance, and that there are risks stemming from such imbalance. Whether risks associated with a gender-imbalanced society may alter son preference will be explored in this study, which has so far received scant scholarly attention. Using data from the Consequences of Gender Imbalance Survey conducted in 2018, exploiting structural equation modelling, this paper shows that risk perception of gender imbalance has a significant and negative effect on stated son preference; however, entrenched traditional norms underpinning the institution of son preference, measured as gender role attitudes and the value of sons, are reinforced by risk perception. The effect of risk perception on weakening stated son preference is suppressed by gender role attitudes and the value of sons which are still upholding stated son preference. Overall, the effects of risk perception and social norms are additive, influencing stated son preference simultaneously, but traditional norms act as counteracting forces. This study makes an important step toward shedding light on both continuity and change in son preference in gender-imbalanced rural China, and offers new perspectives for future research.
Article
The number of missing women in the population of Pakistan in 2015 amounted to approximately 4.4 million. The age distribution of this male surplus (i.e. in the 40+ population) suggests that the collective exposure of selected birth cohorts to deleterious events (i.e. conflicts and natural disasters) may have precipitated a surge in female vis-a-vis male mortality. To analyse this, this paper first collects gender and age disaggregated (wherever possible) mortality statistics arising from conflicts and natural disasters that have occurred throughout the history of Pakistan (since independence) and evaluates their impact on the sex ratios (male/female) of the population by age. Subsequently, it analyses the historical sex ratio pathway by age to assess how these events may have caused deviations from the pathway. The analysis reveals that conflicts and natural disasters (independently or in the aggregate) have had no impact on the missing women phenomenon in Pakistan and hence cannot explain the surplus of men in the country. Nevertheless, it points to the severity and persistence of the missing women phenomenon in Pakistan, especially among the elderly (60+) population. It also indicates the likely endurance of the phenomenon in future cohorts of elderly population in the country.
Article
Vietnam recently demonstrated a skewed sex ratio at birth. Little research has examined postnatal impacts of son preference in Vietnam, such as in child health care seeking. Past research in other Asian countries with son preference has found that parents are more likely to take sons to a health facility when they are sick, to do so more promptly, and invest more resources in care, than daughters. Using data from a paediatric hospital emergency department, we analyse gender differences in illnesses, referral patterns, and outcomes among children to understand how gender disparities in paediatric hospital admissions arise. Almost twice as many boys were brought into the facility as girls. Compared to girls, boys were significantly more likely to have bypassed lower-level facilities and entered care at the tertiary facility, controlling for severity of illness and socio-demographic characteristics. This suggests parents provide preferential treatment to boys, potentially leading to excess morbidity among girls who become ill. However, we find no significant differences in delay of care seeking or evidence of provider bias. Ensuring that girls are able to access appropriate, quality care when needed, will improve equity of access to care for all children.
Article
How much of the increase in sex ratio (male to female) at birth since the early 1980s in China is attributed to increased prenatal sex selection? This question is addressed by exploiting the differential introduction of diagnostic ultrasound in the country during the 1980s, which significantly reduced the cost of prenatal sex selection. We find that the improved local access to ultrasound technology has resulted in a substantial increase in sex ratio at birth. Our estimates indicate that roughly 40 to 50 percent of the increase in sex imbalance at birth can be explained by local access to ultrasound examinations.
Article
Over the past quarter century the sex ratio at birth (SRB) has risen above natural levels in a number of countries, mostly in Asia. This rise has been made possible in populations with strong son preference by the increasing availability of safe, effective, and inexpensive technologies to determine the sex of a fetus and to end unwanted pregnancies. This article documents levels and trends in the sex ratio at birth, in preferences for male offspring (using information on desired number of girls and boys), and in the implementation of these preferences. DHS surveys from 61 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and for Indian states are the main source of data. A comparison of desired with actual SRBs finds large gaps in most populations, implying a substantial pent-up demand for male offspring and the technology to implement this preference. TYvo types of actions to implement preferences are considered: the practice of contraception to stop childbearing after the desired number of sons has been born and the use of sex-selective abortion to avoid female births. The second part of the article discusses factors that could influence the SRB, including the promotion of gender equality, and the implications of these factors for future trends.
Article
This article adopts a comparative perspective to review the recent increase in the sex ratio at birth (SRB) across Asia. It first describes and compares the most recent birth statistics in Asia in order to identify commonalities in the gradual rise of SRBs observed from Armenia to South Korea. This comparison provides the basis for identifying specific transition patterns in the changes in SRBs. Their recent rise is then interpreted in a social and historical framework borrowed from fertility decline and based on three preconditions: access to sex-selection technology, preference for male births, and pressure from low fertility. On a broader plane, the process of growing imbalances in the sex composition of the population gives rise to a tragedy of the commons. This article indicates the factors that appear most likely to trigger a turnaround in this transitional demographic situation and to facilitate a return to biologically normal sex ratios in the future. Copyright (c) 2009 The Population Council, Inc..
Article
China’s giant project in social engineering has drawn worldwide attention, both because of its coercive enforcement of strict birth limits, and because of the striking changes that have occurred in China’s population: one of the fastest fertility declines in modern history and a gender gap among infants that is the highest in the world. These changes have contributed to an imminent crisis of social security for a rapidly aging population, provoking concern in China and abroad. What political processes underlie these population shifts? What is the political significance of population policy for the PRC regime, the Chinese people, and China’s place in the world? The book documents the gradual “governmentalization” of China’s population after 1949, a remarkable buildup of capacity for governance by the regime, the professions, and individuals. Since the turn of the millennium the regime has initiated a drastic shift from “hard” Leninist methods of birth planning toward “soft” neoliberal approaches involving indirect regulation by the state and self-regulation by citizens themselves. Population policy, once a lagging sector in China’s transition from communism, is now helping lead the country toward more modern and internationally accepted forms of governance. Governing China’s Population tells the story of these shifts, from the perspectives of both regime and society, based on internal documents, long-term fieldwork, and interviews with a wide range of actors—policymakers and implementers, propagandists and critics, compliers and resisters. This study also illuminates the far-reaching consequences for China’s society and politics of deep state intrusion in individual reproduction. Like Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Deng’s one-child policy has created vast social suffering and human trauma. Yet power over population has also been positive and productive, promoting China’s global rise by creating new kinds of “quality” persons equipped to succeed in the world economy. Politically, the PRC’s population project has strengthened the regime and created a whole new field of biopolitics centering on the production and cultivation of life itself. Drawing on approaches from political science and anthropology that are rarely combined, this book develops a new kind of interdisciplinary inquiry that expands the domain of the political in provocative ways. The book provides fresh answers to broad questions about China’s Leninist transition, regime capacity, “science” and “democracy,” and the changing shape of Chinese modernity.
More than 100 million women are missing. The New York Review of Books
  • A Sen
Rethinking son preference-Gender, population dynamics and social change in the People's Republic of China
  • L Eklund