February 1, 2013 — Summary of "The Desire for Sons and Excess Fertility: A Household-Level Analysis of Parity Progression in India," Sanjukta Chaudhuri, International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, December 2012.
In India, "[s]on preference is deeply rooted in various patriarchal practices, including a patrilineal inheritance system, a patrilocal marriage system, the social custom of dowry and the dependence of aging parents on sons," according to Sanjukta Chaudhuri, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin.
Son preference has several implications for public health and demographics, such as contributing to increased average family size, if prenatal sex detection and abortion are unavailable; imbalances in the sex ratio by family size; and gender disparities in health, education and other areas because fewer resources are available for each child in larger families.
India's "population policy has not directly addressed son preference as a source of excess fertility and gender disparities," which could create larger problems as India becomes "the world's most populous country by 2025," Chaudhuri wrote. Her study aimed to analyze the impact of Indians' desire for sons on parity progression, or whether women continue to have more children.
Chaudhuri assessed data from India's 2005-2006 National Family Health Survey. She focused on a sample of 33,245 women who had a total of 112,805 births. The data included information that the women provided about the number of sons and daughters living at home, those who had left home or died, the birth order of their children, and the age of death for any children who were deceased.
Chaudhuri considered several factors that might affect the motivation to have more children, such as child mortality, socioeconomic measures and the women's media exposure, as well as their husbands' education and occupation.
Women in the study reported an average of 3.8 births each. Forty-five percent of the women had no education, 46% had primary or secondary education, and 8% had greater than secondary education. The majority (58%) had "a high standard of living," Chaudhuri wrote. Seventy-four percent of the women in the sample were Hindu, followed by Muslim (12%), Christian (8%), Sikh (3%) and other religions (3%).
Ninety-three percent of women whose first child was a boy and 95% of those whose first child was a girl went on to have at least one more birth. After two births, 85% of women with no sons continued to have children, compared with 73% of those with one son and 70% of those with two sons.
Among women who had no sons after four births, 81% continued to have children, compared with 67% of those with one son and 56% of those with two sons.
While the biologically expected sex ratio at birth is 105 males for every 100 females, the ratio was 143 males for 100 females among Indian women who stopped having children after one birth. By contrast, the sex ratio at birth was 106 males for every 100 females among women who continued childbearing.
"Similarly, sex ratios at birth were substantially higher among women who stopped childbearing than among those who had additional children at parity 3 (157 vs. 94), parity 4 (139 vs. 93) and parity 5 (133 vs. 96)," Chaudhuri wrote.
The study also found that "replacement of deceased children" significantly influenced whether women continued having children. High levels of education and media exposure were both negatively associated with women having more children.
"In general, women with more sons than daughters were less likely to progress to higher parities than were women with more daughters than sons," Chaudhuri found. She noted that while the findings provided "considerable evidence of desire for sons, parents were by no means completely averse to having daughters," which is consistent with previous research showing that parents typically desire sons more but also want at least one daughter.
Families with four or fewer children had a disproportionate number of sons, while those with five or more children had a disproportionate number of daughters, the study found. This finding supported the "sibling effect hypothesis by showing a positive correlation between family size and the proportion of daughters," Chaudhuri wrote.
Chaudhuri estimated that about 7% of births in India to women with one to five children were driven by the desire for sons. This suggested that "7% of births in India would be avoided if parity progression driven by the desire for sons were eliminated," according to Chaudhuri.
"As long as the desire for sons continues to be of central importance in determining fertility behavior, efforts to reduce fertility may be counterproductive, as parents will use sex-selective abortion to have their desired number of sons within smaller families," Chaudhuri added.
Chaudhuri concluded that "comprehensive policy packages are needed that challenge underlying patriarchal values, improve women's status and thus reduce desire for sons by making daughters and sons equally valuable to parents."
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