Son Preference

A few weeks ago, my teacher’s assistant (I know, teaching at an international school has me exceptionally spoiled) announced that she’s expecting her second child. The conversation continued with the typical congratulations as well as the not-so-common discussion about China’s one-child-policy, as my T.A. is a Chinese national who already has a young daughter. She informed me of a recent change in the policy, dating back to 2013, in which “families can have two children if one parent is an only child”–the fortunate case for my expecting friend.

Amidst the countless questions of when is she due?, is her daughter excited?, etc., I automatically asked if her and her husband knew or intended to find out the sex of their baby and the answer I received was one that surprised me, although I suppose it shouldn’t have. They would not be finding out the sex of their little one because they simply aren’t allowed to. In China, it is illegal to discover the sex of the child prior to birth due to high incidences of sex-selective abortion. To put it more plainly, people prefer to have sons.

Though China is an easy target to point the finger at, this problem is in no way an isolated one. India’s population, with its surplus of men, still shows a bias for sons, though like China there are shifts occurring to this cultural phenomenon. Even the UK, a member of the developed world, has found, through census data, evidence that suggests that as many as 4,700 girls have been aborted due to gender, “identifying discrepancies in the sex ratio of some immigrant families.”

It may not be surprising that across many cultures parents are inclined to want sons over daughters, particularly when considering the inequalities and extreme challenges women suffer in many nations. Additionally, within some cultures there’s an economic component to this desire for boys as families consider the enormous expense in marrying off girls. Ultimately, however, the preference for sons is only perpetuating the cycle of inequality between the sexes, continuing to degrade the value of women within these cultures, and increasing the level of threat to the personal safety of women.

Speaking on the topic, specifically in regards to the issue in Pakistan, Dr. Anita Raj, director at the Center for Gender Equality at UCSD, states, “data from the region [indicates] that about one in four women would prefer to have more sons than daughters…Such preference is deeply rooted in beliefs that women and girls have less value than men and boys. Thus, not surprisingly, mistreatment and even violence against women and girls is more likely in households where there is ‘son preference’.”

In Afghanistan, this desperate desire to have sons has manifested itself in a practice known as ‘bacha posh,’ in which families lacking sons disguise their girls as boys. Yes, the yearning for boys is so strong within Afghan culture that it is preferable to have a pretend son than a real daughter.  Investigative journalist Jenny Nordberg, in her new book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, shares the details of this fascinating and, shockingly, not uncommon trend occurring in Afghanistan.“It is incumbent upon every married woman to quickly bear a son – it is her absolute purpose in life, and if she does not fulfill it, there is clearly something wrong with her in the eyes of others,” Nordberg explains.

In some of the world’s poorest countries, the disposition towards having boys is also playing a role in nation fertility rates. The graph below show the total fertility rate (the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime) of every country in the world. Upon examination, it is immediately apparent that the developed countries of the world–countries of Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Australia–have lower fertility rates in comparison to their poorer, still developing counterparts in central Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. Then, there is Afghanistan, the yellow colored country sticking out in the Middle East, with an average Total Fertility Rate of 5.0-5.9, that’s over double the world average at 2.36. This yellow shading shows part of the story: women that are desperate for sons, lacking access to family planning and adequate birth control, and living within a culture that views the role of women as that of a child bearer and little else. Though these implications may not necessarily apply to every nation with a higher than average fertility rate, some of them do. And, these problems aren’t to be solved solely for the benefit of our world’s women, but rather for the improved quality of life for all in this world.

The current world population is at 7.2 billion and on a trajectory of continual growth (more on that later). If we want to live better and to live in a sustainable, fair, and prosperous world, we need to tackle inequalities and embark on a path moving away from Business As Usual.

I leave you with these questions to consider, ones I’m considering myself:

-How do we alter the commonly held views of a culture to view women as equals?

-How do we effectively provide women access to adequate birth control in countries lacking infrastructure and health care management?

-What are the most effective methods of decreasing fertility rates?

-What other impediments are preventing women from being educated in poor countries?


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