From Punjab to Phoenix – Culture, Economics and the Status of Women

By Alexander Sanger

India recently released its Census 2011, which, despite government efforts to the contrary, revealed a continuing deterioration of the nation’s child sex ratio. In the 0 to 6 age group, the number of females per 1000 males declined to 914 from 927 in 2001, 945 in 1991, 962 in 1981 and 976 in 1961 (the norm, sans female discrimination, is 950). The sex ratio at birth (males per 100 females) was estimated at 112 (the norm being 105), and there are some indications that it is improving slightly. India’s skewed sex ratio is due to increased female foeticide, neglect of the girl child and sex-selection abortion. There are indications that parts of India have long had a deficit of females.

The inferior status of women in India was confirmed by Census 2011 in that only 74% of girls ages 15 to 24 are literate (though the rate has risen 10 percentage points in the past 10 years). Only 33% of women over the age of 15 are “economically active,” compared to 67% in China. The dowry system remains in full effect, whereby a bride’s family transfers goods to the groom’s family as a payment for the marriage. Classical economics would seem to say that, given the shortage of women compared to men, the payment, if there is to be one, should go from the groom’s family to the bride’s, since brides are the rarer “commodity.” Why does the law of supply and demand not work in India’s market for marital “transactions?” Why does the child sex ratio continue to deteriorate? Why aren’t parents valuing their daughters more? To answer these, we have to look at why girls and women are commodified, devalued and sold in the first place.

Some background to the sex ratio. Pre- and post-natal sex selection in much of Asia is a horrendous problem. Sex ratios in countries like Korea, China, Taiwan and India have been or are skewed towards an excess of male births and male survival, or, on the other side of the coin, towards fewer female births and a lower rate of female survival. While critics, including me, have long pointed out that China’s One Child Policy was the culprit in that country, I and others have noted that Korea, Taiwan and India do not have a One Child Policy. What they do have are developing economies, rising standards of living and of educational levels for boys and girls, the concomitant desire by parents for fewer children, a pervasive cultural preference for sons and continually deteriorating sex ratios (i.e. fewer girls being born or surviving). In the past fifty years, as shown above, the number of girls ages 0 to 6 per 1,000 boys in India has fallen from 976 to 914, a demographically astronomical drop.

Sex ratios are not ‘fixed’ by nature, but vary, though within statistical parameters. Generally, for whites and Asians, the ratio is about 105 (i.e. 105 boys are born for every 100 girls, or the other way around, as India calculates it, 950 girls for every 1000 boys) and for blacks it is about 103. Ratios can vary within countries over time. It has been observed that the sex ratio increased (i.e. more males were born) in England and France after World Wars I and II. In the 20th Century, statistically significant increases were also reported in Belgium, Italy, Taiwan and Japan. Sweden had a rising sex ratio from 1750 to 1900.

Among the factors that influence the sex of a baby are the timing of intercourse during the menstrual cycle, the age of the parents and their socio-economic status. As rising standards of living reduce infant mortality and stillbirths, the sex ratio should naturally rise, since male infants, traditionally more likely to die than females, will be dying less. But this does not explain the totality of the rising sex ratios in Asia. The cause appears to be cultural, with smaller family norms increasing the pressure for sons. If you are going to have six children, you don’t have to worry much about having a son; if you are having only one or two, you do. Lack of a pension system is also blamed in countries where sons have traditionally taken care of their parents in old age. Neither China nor India has one. Taiwan and Korea now have pension systems that cover much of the old age population. The sex ratios in these countries are, in declining order (according to the CIA): China 113 (actually thought to be closer to 120), India 112, Taiwan 108, Korea 107. Vietnam is at 112, while Thailand and Pakistan are at 105, the norm.

What is going on in Indian culture to account for the deteriorating sex ratio? Sons have been traditionally preferred in Indian culture: many Hindu sects call for the son to light a parent’s funeral pyre, and to protect and to take care of the parents in old age. Family lineage is traced through the male line. Girls were traditionally seen as not having any economic advantage for families and were seen, rather, as a detriment. They become, upon marriage, the property of the husband’s family, and did not support their parents in old age. Having a girl is like “watering your neighbor’s garden,” is an old Indian saying. Times have not changed. Census 2011 found that the child sex ratio was decreasing further in the wealthiest states (in the Indian system of reporting the sex ratio, a decreasing sex ratio is a bad sign, it representing a decline in the number of girls). Experts believe that more parents can now afford the pre-natal diagnostic tests and are using them. The declining birth rate is an additional spur to families to take extra steps to insure a son. The Census “shows that sex determination continues to be practiced robustly and rampantly. As is sex discrimination — girls are given less food, less health care, less education and even less affection. Also, it seems policies for the girl child haven’t done much to improve the situation,” (quoting Ravinder Kaur, professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi).

Can this picture be changed? India does have a law banning the use of embryo screening, sperm sorting, and other methods for sex selection, as well as sex-selection abortion. While arrests and prosecutions of doctors and clinics happen, they are infrequent, and most practitioners operate freely. The government has sponsored public campaigns on TV and radio promoting the value of girls. Some districts provide cash payments upon the birth of a girl child. This has all been largely ineffective so far, except that the child sex ratio is beginning to rise (a good sign) in Punjab and a few other states where it had been exceedingly low. In Kerala, a province of universal literacy for women and opportunity, the sex ratio is normal. In the state of Haryana, the sex ratio is also increasing. There, health officials have been conducting raids at private health centers to curb sex determination tests. The state has also provided financial incentives to poor parents who have a girl child. But according to India’s Home Secretary Mr. GK Pillai, “Whatever measures that have been put in over the last 40 years have not had any impact on the child sex ratio.” This may be overly pessimistic, given the above glimmers of progress. But can we identify what caused what little progress there is?

Is it the changing economic/demographic landscape? One would hope that classical economics would prevail: in theory, as girls become scarcer, they would become more “valuable,” and couples would begin to have more girls. Not so. In India, girls continue to be “sold” into marriage via the dowry system, and the expense to the girl’s parents is rising, not declining. The status of women continues to decline as girls’ numbers decrease. Classical economics is not working in the Indian marriage market, or not so far. Dowry remains pervasive, even though it is technically outlawed.

Dowry originated in times when women could not own property. Property was given by the bride’s parents in the bride’s name to the groom’s family to support the bride in the event of the groom’s death or divorce. It was, in effect, an advance payment of a girl’s inheritance, because only men were permitted to inherit family property. Dowry has evolved over the centuries and now often is not technically or legally in the bride’s name but becomes the property of the groom or his family. Originally, dowry was practiced in upper class families where the girls’ economic roles were circumscribed. In lower caste families, where girls were economic contributors, the custom of brideprice prevailed. Dowry is now universally practiced in all castes.

In higher caste families in the 19th century there was an expression, “sons are guns,” i.e. fit sons could better defend family property. In a world with famine and ecological uncertainty, including drought and warfare, the best strategy for long term family survival, it was thought, was to concentrate resources in one male heir with multiple wives or concubines. Son preference among elites (to preserve their assets) led to the custom of women competing to marry men of higher status (hypergamy). At the top, this doomed daughters, since there were no higher status men for them to marry. It was observed in 19th century India how few high caste daughters there were—they had been victims of infanticide or neglect. The first anti-infanticide laws in India were adopted by the British in the 1870’s.

Why does a girl’s family pay to marry her off? Because girls are often considered a financial burden, not an asset. In a self-perpetuating cycle, girls were traditionally not educated, perceived as less fit for manual agricultural labor and thus were “unproductive” (as if taking care of the household was not productive labor). Daughters were seen as a financial burden. In one study, sons paid back, via work, the cost of raising them by 15 years of age, while daughters, because they were sent out early into marriage and did not work outside the home, did not, and were a net drain on parental outlays.

The Indian system of honor holds that it is dishonorable to have a daughter work outside the home to supply income, and it is also dishonorable for a girl not to be married by age 20. Thus the social mores are in sync with the economic (it is beneficial to rid the family of a girl sooner than later). They are also in sync with the marital and reproductive systems. A girl’s family benefits by paying a dowry, since it no longer has to support what is viewed as a drain on family resources. A boy’s family benefits by receiving assets in exchange for supporting this “unproductive” girl. But the girl is productive or rather, “reproductive” for the groom’s family, since she will be providing heirs for the groom and his ancestors. This is the reproductive payoff to the dowry system. The bride’s and groom’s families may both see themselves as benefitting from the dowry transaction, because they have different standards and values by which they judge costs and benefits. Thus, the dowry market remains vibrant despite the law.

Why has dowry not withered away as women have become more educated and economically productive? Girls are no longer universally a financial burden, but, rather, are increasingly an asset (one-third are “economically productive” according to Census 2011). Yet, dowries are becoming more common and more expensive as women progress, not less. Thus, a daughter’s dowry can be ruinous to a poor or modest family, hence the rise in sex-selection abortion and infanticide and the continuing deterioration in the sex ratio. While reliable figures are hard to come by, the incidence of violence against brides whose families do not pay the requisite dowry is also increasing.

If nothing else, India’s social system works as a reproductive system. India has been described as a society where hypergamy, i.e., women wanting to “marry up,” is the norm. India is a stratified society with its caste system, and parents want to elevate their daughters, and their descendants, into higher social levels in order to have a better environment for them—better housing, schooling and health (though the family name passes through the sons, the daughter’s descendants are still the genetic offspring of the parents and are a reproductive success). There is additional incentive for rural families to desire an urban husband for their daughters: in order to broaden their social circle, i.e. kinship network. Poor, rural families thereby benefit from hypergamy. The price is the dowry. Higher caste men, in turn, theoretically, want a lower caste wife in order to insure fidelity (the theory being that she will not risk her newly-elevated status) and to be able to extract a higher dowry, since the lower class bride’s family has more to gain than a family from an equal social level. Dowries enable parents of brides to compete for status—the more they can pay, the higher status husband they will get for their daughter, the better the kinship network they will acquire and the better chances for reproductive success.

There is in hypergamy a constraint on the number of husbands available to women above the lowest caste levels (assuming a population triangle that gets narrower as incomes and status rise). This is exacerbated by other selection restrictions, such as village and lineage exogamy (marrying outside the community and relatives) and by the decreasing fertility of the upper classes. There are thus fewer higher status men for women to marry, resulting in increased competition for suitable mates for women (we thus have the situation in Indian hypergamy whereby both males and females are rare, males by status and females by numbers!). With increased competition for higher status males, the currency becomes the dowry, and here classical economics does prevail, since dowries are rising. A generous dowry forms a kinship bond with the husband’s family and insures the daughter’s wellbeing (absent abuse from the groom or his family if continuing dowry payments are not made—a not minor point). Young couples also see a generous dowry as a means of enjoying materialistic affluence in an increasingly affluent society. The flow of resources to the groom’s family often continues over the life of the girl’s parents. Women, as well as men, are invested in the dowry system, even though two-thirds of women in one Indian state voiced disapproval of it to pollsters. Despite this, modernization and self-interest appear to be leading to more support of the dowry system, not less. Status, kinship and reproductive strategies all unite in India to perpetuate the system.

Is this system immutable? In Korea, which has a dowry system, the sex ratio at birth has declined sharply to almost normal from 116.5 in 1990 to about 107 in 2010 (Korea measures the sex ratio by the number of males born per 100 females). Some commentators credit a strict government campaign against sex-selection abortion that resulted in high profile indictments and stripping of medical licenses, combined with a government moral and religious campaign against the practice. At least one commentator, John R. Lott. Jr., dismissed the government campaign to value girls as being decisive and instead noted that with fewer girls and increased economic opportunities for those girls, men were forced to compete for them in marriage and, hence, girls became more valuable.

Two questions remain: why hasn’t this happened in India and why is there still a dowry system in Korea where the bride’s family pays the groom’s? Will demographics solve the devaluation-of-girls problem in India? As girls become scarcer will they eventually become more valuable, reversing centuries of history, culture and biology? Will a new mating system evolve as education and economic opportunities increase for women and girls? Perhaps economics takes time, as do changes in cultural mores. India is not Korea, and hopefully it will find a way to value its girls.

Is this problem localized in India? Alas. No. The cultural preference for sons travels with Indian and other Asian immigrants to the West. There are reports that, among Indian, Korean and Chinese immigrants to the United States, there is an increasing sex ratio after the first birth. If the first child is a girl, the sex ratio for the second birth increases to 1.17:1, and if the first and second children are girls, the ratio increases more dramatically for the third birth to 1.51:1 in favor of boys. Similar ratios were found in England among Indian immigrants there. Studies in Canada have confirmed the same result as in the US and England. These are all developed countries, with prosperous immigrants, educational and employment opportunities guaranteed for women, an old-age pension system and hi-tech pre-natal diagnosis technologies. In Canada, the sex ratio was the highest among the most prosperous, higher among Sikhs and Hindus (the Christian and Muslim immigrants had normal sex ratios, reflecting their religious proscription against abortion) and, interestingly, higher among second-generation immigrants than first. The melting pot is not melting in this regard—changing the environment is not resulting in a change of culture, or not yet.

The provision of a pension system and livelihood opportunities for girls has not changed the dowry system or the sex ratio problem. More fundamental change is needed, including that brides do not become the groom’s “property” and both son and daughters take care of parents in old age and daughters as well as sons can perform Hindu rites. This may sound impossible, but they are possible if the marriage system changes with it to something that gives reproductive success to parents. Unless this happens, sons will make do by marrying younger and younger cohorts of brides, and economics will not be able to right the situation and value girls.

In the meantime, in the U.S., which has no sex ratio problem to speak of, laws are passed copying India’s.

The Virginia-based fertility clinic that holds an exclusive license to a sperm-sorting sex selection technique has announced that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will no longer allow its use in a clinical trial for “family balancing”—that is, to bring “the number of children of each gender in a family closer to equal” just because that’s what the parents want. 

In a recent, the Genetics & IVF Institute (GIVF) wrote that the FDA has notified it that “[a]t this time, MicroSort® cannot enroll new participants in the clinical trial for the family balancing indication.” GIVF’s positive spin was that the FDA is allowing it to continue offering MicroSort “for genetic disease prevention for families who have an increased risk of a sex-linked or sex-limited disease,” at least for the next six months.

Meanwhile, the state of Arizona recently banned abortions based on the race or sex of the fetus. One wonders what “race” means here. A black woman will perforce be giving birth to a black baby. Does this mean she is disqualified automatically from having an abortion? The legislature is adopting the ‘abortion is racist’ language of anti-abortion campaigns and is transplanting an Indian cultural problem as excuses to erode access to abortion for all women, Hindu nor not, in Arizona. Race aside, Arizona is now banning sex-selection abortion. It also requires an ultrasound before an abortion, which would seem to defeat the purpose. Arizona is not interested in consistency, only in putting as many roadblocks in a woman’s path to an abortion as possible.

India meanwhile is trying to figure out what additional steps it can take to improve its sex ratio. At a high level meeting in New Delhi on May 20, government health officials considered requiring mandatory counseling before an abortion to include such topics as the value of the girl child, the reasons for delaying having a family and the dangers of an abortion to future pregnancies. This sounds like a script from Arizona.

How does one criticize the rampant abortion of girls, while still defending abortion in general as a valid choice? There is no simple answer, but it is vital to recognize that abortion itself is not the problem—the girl child has been a victim of neglect and infanticide for ages. The root cause, rather, is an economic/ cultural/marital/reproductive structure in which male children are a financial gain for a family, female children are a financial loss and having daughters leads to real economic hardship in the form of excessive dowry. And as long as that structure persists, at least some parents will be driven to great lengths to avoid the burden of daughters—whether via female infanticide, as was common in the past, or the more modern technological innovation of sex-selection abortion. We cannot ignore that the girl child has value in creating a kinship network for the girl’s family through marriage and in creating progeny for the boy’s family. This realistically will not change, though it can be minimized by recognition that a daughter’s progeny are as valuable as a son’s.

Criminal laws, as in India, are not the solution, try as the authorities might to eliminate illegal ultrasounds. The solution is cultural. It took a generation or two for the birthrate in India to fall from six children per woman to three. These things take time. In Korea, it took less time to right the sex ratio, but it did. Change can happen, but it must take into account parental desires for reproductive success and give parents avenues to attain it other than by devaluing their daughters.

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