Challenging Son Preference: Success Stories and Persistent Challenges in Asia
By Elina Yohannan
Son preference remains a persistent and deeply rooted issue in many Asian countries, with serious consequences for women and girls. Although the global sex ratio at birth is around 105 males for every 100 females, several Asian countries have failed to maintain this ratio due to cultural and economic factors.
In India, the birth of a son is often met with much celebration and excitement, with cries of "Beta hua hai!" (It's a boy!), while a daughter's birth, in many homes, is not always met with the same enthusiasm. This preference for sons is deeply rooted in rigid patriarchal norms and is influenced by various factors. Sons are seen as the ones who will carry on the family lineage, provide financial and emotional support for their parents in old age, and take on major family and religious roles, while daughters are considered weak and in need of protection, and are often viewed as paraaya dhan (someone else's property after marriage). Moreover, the issue of dowry, which has been banned in India since 1961, is still practiced in the form of giving "gifts."
This preference for sons has resulted in the rise of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide in the country. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, sex-selective abortions in India have contributed to at least nine million female births “missing” between 2000 and 2019. It is predicted that by 2030, there will be approximately 6.8 million fewer girls born in India due to this practice.
Even though sex-selection is illegal in India and campaigns such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the Girl Child, Educate the Girl Child) exist to raise awareness about the importance of girls' education and the issue of declining sex ratio, India still has a long way to go to change the deeply ingrained cultural attitudes that continue to favor sons over daughters.
Like India, China also has a long history of patriarchal traditions, where sons are seen as more valuable than daughters. China’s one-child policy, which was introduced in 1979, has majorly contributed to this and resulted in increased widespread sex-selective abortion and female infanticide. Studies show that in the early 1980s, there were 108 male births to every 100 females, just a little over the natural rate; but by 2000, this ratio saw a jump in the male births to 120, even crossing 130 in some provinces. This resulted in millions of girls “missing” in the country.
Though the one-child policy is no longer in effect, and the government has made some efforts to address the problem of son preference – including a ban on sex-selective abortion and efforts to promote gender equality, the impact of these policies has been limited. A report shows that between 1980 and 2020, there have been 30-40 million more male births than females who will probably not be able to find brides within the country.
While some countries in Asia continue to struggle with this issue, some have made significant progress in reducing son preference and its negative consequences.
South Korea is one of the pioneer countries to have made significant strides in reducing son preference. A combination of education, public policies, and urbanization has been key to reversing the trend. During the 1990s, the child sex ratio was 114 boys per 100 girls, but it has now decreased to 104 boys per 100 girls. Legal reforms played a major role in promoting gender equality within households and public life. In the late 1980s, the Family Law saw some pivotal revisions which included equal rights to inheritance for sons and daughters. With the pension reform in the 1990s, urban workers could save for their own retirement instead of depending on their sons to farm the land. The establishment of national health insurance and gradual expansion of pension plans also eroded people’s financial dependence on sons in their old age.
In recent years, Taiwan has also progressed well in addressing the issue of son preference. The government has implemented policies to promote equal opportunities in education and employment. A study showed that the proportion of desiring more boys than girls declined from 27% in 1992 to 12% in 2002. The study also showed that education reduces son preference and leads to a higher degree of gender neutrality.
Though these are tremendous developments, there is much that still needs to be done to address the root causes of son preference in Asia, and to promote basic human rights for girls and women, gender equality, public health, and socioeconomic growth.
In India, the Vanishing Girls campaign actively works to fight against sex-selective abortions and save the lives of thousands of girls who are killed in the womb every day. With efforts to raise awareness and advocate for the rights and fundamental freedoms of the unborn girl child, the campaign aims to protect and promote the inherent dignity of daughters, which should not be any lesser than a son’s.
Elina organizes trainings and events to build network with community leaders, lawyers, and students in South Asia. She also coordinates operations for Areté Academy Asia – a training programme for young professionals & students. Elina earned her master's degree in social work from Madras School of Social Work, specializing in Community Development.