Preference for Sons Hurts Mothers

May 1, 2014

For more than a century, cultural norms and traditions in India and elsewhere have favored sons over daughters—a preference based on age-old beliefs that male children add to household wealth, provide for parents and relatives in their old age, and carry the family name. Female children are viewed as financial burdens that add little value to the family and deplete income come wedding time. But while researchers have tracked the ramifications of son preference and male-biased sex ratios at birth, little is known of the effects of the bias on adult female mortality.

Previous research has shown that parents in communities where sons are preferred over daughters do not support their unborn and living female children. Sex-selective abortions in India have risen sharply in the past decade, a development thought to be correlated with the emergence of technologies that enable parents to know earlier whether they are having a boy or a girl. Surprising to many is the fact that studies have shown that “sex-selective abortion is more common among educated women and after the first child is born.”

recent paper released by the World Bank suggests that son preference could be doing more than skewing sex ratios in India: It may be partly responsible for driving high mortality rates seen among mothers in India whose first child is a girl. The study found that women, especially poor and uneducated women, with first-born daughters are more likely to develop anemia and die in childbirth or afterwards, suggesting that these women may be engaging in risky fertility behaviors–including unsafe abortion and rapid repeat childbirth. Domestic violence may also be linked to these higher mortality rates as women with first-born girl children are more vulnerable to violence at time of birth than women whose first child is a son. Overall, anywhere from 2.2 to 8.4 percent of mothers with first-born daughters die because of son preference.

Son preference is not unique to India: gender-biased sex selection is prevalent in a number of other countries around the world. As the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) noted in 2012, “prenatal sex selection leads to distorted levels of sex ratios at birth, which today range between 110 and 120 male births per 100 female births in many countries, as against the standard biological level of 104 to 106.” These demographic distortions are achieved through what UNFPA calls “a deliberate elimination of girls” and will result in serious and lasting socioeconomic consequences on societies, especially as the number of men at marriageable age begins to vastly outnumber the women.

By prioritizing policies and programs that elevate the status of women and girls and combat gender-biased practices, policymakers can help secure a place for women and girls in families, communities, and economies around the world.