Preference for sons? Health expert begs to differ

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The "meta-preference" for a son in Indian families has led to the loss of 21 million "unwanted" girls from the population, which involves parents adopting fertility "stopping rules" where they do not have children until the desired number of sons are born.

The pink-coloured Economic Survey tabled by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in Parliament on Monday recommended that India must confront its societal meta-preference for a son, observing that the adverse sex ratio of females to males has led to 63 million "missing" women.

According to the World Health Organization, the biologically determined natural sex ratio at birth is 1.05 boy for every girl. "What matters is the female sex ratio". More females die than males in early childhood. In 2014, this rose to 1108 contrary to the belief that development would mend the skewed sex ratio. The wealthy Punjab and Haryana states were most affected with a ratio of 1,200 boys per 1,000 girls in children younger than 7.

The report compares India's SRLC to that of Indonesia, where the sex ratio at birth is close to the biological ideal, irrespective of whether the last child is a boy or a girl. This drops to 1.55 for families with two children and rises to 1.65 for three, and drops to 1.51 and 1.45 for four and five children, respectively.

The extent of the problem can be measured when one considers that the sex ratio of last birth (females per 100 births) has merely changed from 39.5% to 39% between 2005-06 and 2015-16. This is regardless of birth order and whether or not the child is the last to be born.

The Survey pointed out several reasons behind preferring a male child such as compulsion of a woman to move to her husband's house post-marriage, inheritance of property, rituals performed by sons, and dowry, among others.

The preference for boys and the availability of sex-selective operations, although illegal in India, means there's a gender gap of as many as 63 million girls, classified in the report as "missing", CNN reported. "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, accounting for the level of development", the report stated.

The Survey acknowledges that Government's "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" and "Sukanya Samridhi Yojana" schemes, and mandatory maternity leave rules are all steps in the right direction, pointing out that measures such as increasing maternity leave will offer support to women in the workforce.