Economic Survey 2018 -Vol.1, Ch.7: Gender & Son Meta-Preference: Is Development Itself an Antidote? (Download PDF)

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Introduction - The intrinsic values of gender equality are uncontestable. There is growing evidence that there can also be significant gains in economic growth if women acquire greater personal agency, assume political power and attain public status, and participate equally in the labor force.

  • In developing countries, working women invest more in the schooling of their children.
  • IMF chief Christian Lagarde, quoting IMF research, said that women՚s participation in the workforce to the level of men could boost the Indian economy by 27 % .
  • Correct a possibly pervasive methodological problem afflicting assessments relating to gender and other social issues. The problem is one of conflating “development time” and “chronological time.”
  • 📝 Gender equality is an inherently multidimensional issue. Accordingly, assessments in this chapter are made on three specific dimensions of gender:
  1. Agency relate to women՚s ability to make decisions on reproduction, spending on themselves & their households, and their own mobility and health.
  2. Attitudes relate to attitudes about violence against women/wives, and the ideal number of daughters preferred relative to the ideal number of sons.
  3. Outcomes relate to son preference (measured by sex ratio of last child) , female employment, choice of contraception, education levels, age at marriage, age at first childbirth, and physical or sexual violence experienced by women.
  • The main findings by Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) datasets from 1980 to 2016 reveal the following points
  • On 14 out of 17 indicators relating to agency, attitude, and outcomes, India՚s score has improved over time. On seven of them, the improvement is such that in the most recent period India՚s performance is better than or at par with that of other countries.
  • The progress is most notable in the agency women have in decision-making regarding, household purchases and visiting family and relatives. There has been a decline in the experience of physical and sexual violence. Education levels of women have improved dramatically but incommensurate with development.
  • On 10 of 17 indicators, India has some distance to traverse to catch up with its cohort of countries. For example, women՚s employment has declined over chronological time, and largely, in development time.
  • Analysis at household level indicates that on all but 2 measures, gender indicators improve as wealth increases.
  • While there is considerable variation within the Indian states and across dimensions, the broad pattern is one of the North-Eastern states doing substantially better than the hinterland states even in development time; some southern states such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu fare worse than expected given their level of development.
  • 📝 “Son preference” where development is not proving to be an antidote. Son preference giving rise to sex selective abortion and differential survival has led to skewed sex ratios at birth and beyond, leading to estimates of 63 million “missing” women.
  • There is another phenomenon of son metapreference which involves parents adopting fertility “stopping rules” - having children until the desired number of sons are born. This meta-preference leads naturally to “unwanted” girls which is estimated at over 21 million.
  • Collective self-reflection by Indian society on son preference and son meta-preference is necessary. Initiatives such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and Sukanya Samridhi Yojana and the mandatory maternity leave rules are important steps focused on addressing the underlying challenge

India and Other Countries

Level: India՚s Performance

  • summarizes the main findings. For each gender dimension.
Summary of Results
  • On 12 out of 17 variables, average levels in India have improved over time.
  • On 7 out of these 12 cases, India performs better than, or at par with the cohort of other developing countries even after accounting for levels of development.
  • India has some distance to traverse on several dimensions (10 out of 17) to be on par with other countries in development time.
  • One such dimension is the use of reversible contraception methods. For their level of wealth, the use of reversible contraception methods among Indian women is 51.6 % points lower than it should be.
  • Not many women use methods of reversible contraception, they have little control over when they start having children, but only seem to have control over when they stop having children. This could affect other milestones early on in a woman՚s life; for example, women may not get the same access to employment that men do.
  • Decline in working women. There is a long and contested literature on whether this decline is a cause for concern or will improve naturally with time and development. There is the more general phenomenon, India is on the downward part of the “U” but even more so than comparable countries.
  • Reasons for decrease in women work force.
  • Increased income of men allows Indian women to withdraw from the labor force; higher education levels of women also allow them to pursue leisure and other non-workactivities all of which reduce female labor force participation.
  • The structural transformation of Indian agriculture due to farm mechanization results in a lower demand for female agricultural laborers. Evidence also points to insufficient availability of the types of jobs that women would like to do-regular, part-time jobs which provide steady income and allow women to reconcile household duties with work.
  • Safety concerns and social norms about household work and caring for children and elders, militates against women՚s mobility and participation in paid work.

Is There a Convergence Effect?

  • In 15 out of 17 cases, gender indicators are more responsive to wealth in India than they are in the typical country. This suggests that even if India is lagging in development time, it can expect to catch up with other countries as household wealth increases.
  • It is notable that the only two cases where such a convergence effect is not visible and where India appears to be falling behind even in development time is on women՚s employment and sex of last child.

Performance of the Indian States

The graph below shows the average score of each state in the two time periods. The scores of the states in 2005 - 06 are on the x-axis and the score in 2015 - 16 are on the y-axis,

Average Gender Score for Indian States

The observations from the graph can be given as

  • All states (with the exception of Delhi) are above the 45-degree line, underscoring the earlier results that there is improvement over time.
  • Indeed, there is also a “convergence” effect in that the poorer performers in the earlier period improve their score more over time.
  • The North-Eastern states have much better gender scores given their levels of income (they are well above their line of best fit) .
  • Accounting for their levels of income, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar and Tamil Nadu perform less well.

Son Preference: Skewed Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB)

  • Son preference is a matter for Indian society as a whole to reflect upon. Because it is a long-standing historical challenge, all stakeholders are collectively responsible for its existence and for its resolution.
  • The biologically determined natural sex ratio at birth is 1.05 males for every female. Any significant deviation from this is on account of human intervention - specifically, sex-selective abortion.
  • India՚s sex ratio during 1970 - 2014 also increased substantially from 1060 to 1108 whereas if development acted as an antidote, it should have led to improvements in the sex ratio.
  • The graph below shows the sex ratio for the different states in India in 1991 and in 2011.
Sex Ration (0 - 6 Yr.) & Real Per Capita Income for Indian States
  • A negative correlation between income and sex ratio is a worsening in development time. Most striking is the performance of Punjab and Haryana where the sex ratio (0 - 6 years) is approaching 1200 males per 1000 females
  • The stock of missing women as of 2014 was nearly 63 million and more than 2 million women go missing across age groups every year (either due to sex selective abortion, disease, neglect, or inadequate nutrition) .

📝 Son “Meta” Preference: Sex Ratio of Last Child (SRLC) and “Unwanted” Girls

  • Parents may choose to keep having children until they get the desired number of sons. This is called son “meta” preference.
  • A son “meta” preference - even though it does not lead to sex-selective abortion - may nevertheless be detrimental to female children because it may lead to fewer resources devoted to them.
  • The important thing to note is that this form of sex selection alone will not skew the sex ratio - either at birth or overall. Therefore, a different measure is required to detect such a “meta” preference for a son.
  • Sex Ratio of Last Child (SRLC) of close to 1.05: 1 would imply that parents՚ decisions to continue having children is uncorrelated with previous birth being a son or a daughter. Parents continue to have children until desired number of sons.
  • Fertility stopping rule will lead to skewed sex ratios but in different directions: skewed in favor of males if the last child is male, but in favor of females if it is not
  • India after outlawing sex selection saw a stabilization of its sex ratio at birth, albeit at an elevated level. However, it is not clear whether it resulted from changes in societal preferences or due to increased state regulation of sex-detection technology.
  • Meghalaya stands out as an ideal state because both sex ratio at birth and sex ratio of last child are close to the benchmark.
  • States such as Kerala do not seem to practice sex selective abortions (since their sex ratios at birth are close to the biological benchmark) but indicate some son “meta” preference (skewed SRLC) .
  • Punjab and Haryana, exhibit extremely high son preference and meta preference - the overall sex ratios are significantly above the biological benchmark, and the sex ratio of the last child is heavily male skewed, implying parents are unlikely to stop after having a daughter.
  • The sex ratio of the firstchild for households that have strictly more than 1 child is 1.07. Similarly, 0.86 is the sex ratio of the second child among families that had strictly more than 2 children.
  • For India, the sex ratio of the last child for first-borns is 1.82, heavily skewed in favor of boys compared with the ideal sex ratio of 1.05. This ratio drops to 1.55 for the second child for families that have exactly two children and so on.
  • 📝 A number of reasons for such a son preference, including
  • patrilocality (women having to move to husbands՚ houses after marriage) ,
  • patrilineality (property passing on to sons rather than daughters) ,
  • dowry (which leads to extra costs of having girls) ,
  • old age support from sons and rituals performed by sons.


  • India՚s performance has improved on 14 out of 17 indicators of women՚s agency, attitudes, and outcomes. On seven of them, the improvement has been such that India՚s situation is comparable to, or better than, that in a
  • On several dimensions, employment and use of reversible contraception in particular, India has some distance to traverse to catch up with other countries
  • Gender outcomes exhibit a convergence pattern, improving with wealth to a greater extent in India than in similar countries so that even where it is lagging it can expect to catch up over time.
  • There is significant heterogeneity, with the North-Eastern states (a model for the rest of the country) consistently out-performing other states and not because they are richer; hinterland states are lagging behind but the surprise is that some southern states do less well than their development levels would suggest.
  • The adverse sex ratio of females to males led to 63 million “missing” women.
  • The state and all stakeholders have an important role to play in increasing opportunities available for women in education and employment.
  • Just as India has committed to moving up the ranks in the ease of doing business indicators, it should perhaps do so on gender outcomes as well.

- Published/Last Modified on: February 8, 2018


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