Financial empowerment key to check male child preference

The government has recently released new data based on the Census 2011 relating to family size and sex ratios.

The data reveals that preference for a male child continues and families with fewer or no sons are choosing to have repeated trials for another child. One-child families with only a son outnumbered those with a daughter by nearly 25 per cent. The number of two-child families with both sons were double than those with two daughters.

Similar anomaly existed for families with three children having two or more boys compared to two or more girls. The trend does sober down after three children according to the Census data.

Another study authored by Hu and Schlosser, and recently published in the Economic Journal, also concludes that girls are more likely to be born in larger families, after the urge for sons is somewhat satiated, given pre-natal sex selection.

The above trends are a cause for concern. Since the last five centuries, reformers such as Guru Nanak, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, have been encouraging spiritual, social and economic equality between genders.

They have been urging the society to respect girl child, and not resort to female foeticide or infanticide. However, even after centuries of reforms, the record is dismal as evidenced above.

The results are not surprising as one good indicator of preference for sons — sex ratio — measured in terms of male children to female children in the country has persistently been bad in many states, especially those with high per capita income like Punjab and Haryana where pre-natal sex determination and foeticide are affordable and painless.

What is surprising is the fact that despite numerous initiatives by the Central and state governments, especially since 1992, significant improvement has not being observed in sex ratios across the country. This aspect needs to be examined.

There could be various reasons for the persistence of this male-child preference. The sociological reasons are well-known and extensively documented in various academic studies and government reports. But there are several cultural and religious issues, too, where the importance of male child is stressed.

In agrarian societies, like Punjab and Haryana, equal rights in inheritance of land between male and female child can be a cause of concern for the family.

On marriage of the female child, if inheritance of land is sought, either the existing plot of land has to be fragmented or an equivalent amount of monetary compensation to be provided. In any case, land fragmentation or monetary compensation could create a burden on the family, which is reflected in the non-preference for a girl child.

In general, the key menace of dowry, despite increasing levels of literacy, per capita income and westernisation, continues unabated. The above, and some more, issues have been ascribed as a cause of persistently a adverse sex ratio.

But there are a few crucial economic factors which have neither been examined in detail nor focused on by the policy-makers in relation to the psychology of seeking a male child.

One such factor is the need for financial independence in old age which can be achieved through pension.

The Atal Pension Yojana, recently announced, is an initiative in the right direction; but is limited in scope because of the eligibility criteria that requires holding a bank account and with applicability to young adults between 18 and 40 years of age.

A few other social security schemes like Prime Ministers Jeevan Jyoti Yojana and Prime Ministers Suraksha Bima Yojana have similar limitations in terms of having a bank account and a stipulated age profile. As many citizens, especially women, in India do not have a bank account despite efforts under Jan Dhan Yojana, this may not yield the desired change in social behaviour.

It needs to be stressed that India has many more female widows than male widows, and the gap widens with age as women tend to live longer than men. Further, the elderly population – above 60 years of age – working in the unorganised sector does not generally have any social security protection.

Low employment rate
Another detrimental factor is employment opportunities. In India, in sharp contrast to our neighbouring countries, only about 30 per cent of women are employed. In Nepal, nearly 80 per cent of women are in the workforce followed by China (71 per cent), Bhutan (67 per cent), and Russia (57 per cent).

The women in workforce can be expected to be relatively financially independent than those dependent on the income of a male member in the family.

In old age, there is always an insecurity regarding shelter as well as financial resources for not only food but also medical expenditure. The opportunity to work provides financial independence to women and, in case of need, the decision to provide shelter to and meet medical expenses of parents is easier.

The need is to financially empower the girl similar to a boy, offering equal opportunities and encouraging independence in decision-making. Until parents internalise the value of a female child on par with a male child, at least financially, change in preferences is difficult to achieve as has been witnessed in India.

To facilitate this change, various political, religious and social institutions may have to play a role. Reformers may have to devise ways to ensure that a female and male child enjoy similar status in observing social norms and rituals.

The government, must also contribute to this effort by assuring the elderly and offering universal old age pension, covering not only expenditure for food and living but also for accident and medical purposes.

This financial independence of the elderly, demonstrated for at least a generation, may succeed in lowering the preference for a male child.
(The writer is RBI Chair Professor of Economics, IIM Bangalore)

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