Women have to be empowered - not just educated - to end son preference




By Charu Bahri

Mount Abu, Rajasthan: I wouldnt be around to write this story if the Bahri clan I hail from - Hindus from that part of Punjab which is now in Pakistan - had not stopped practising female infanticide in the early 1900s, with my grandparents generation. But a century on, the practice appears to have hit an all-time high.

Latest figures show that at 914, India's child sex ratio - a better marker of son preference than the overall sex ratio - is at its lowest since 1951.

This is despite the fact that female literacy in India has soared to 65.46 per cent as per Census 2011 and should have resulted in greater gender parity in the child sex ratio.

This implies that female literacy alone is not enough to improve the sex ratio as is commonly assumed and suggested by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (save daughter, educate daughter) campaign.

As Part 1 of the series (In India, as income rises, fewer girls are born/December 20, 2016) pointed out, the educated are more likely to afford sex-selective abortions.

The bias against daughters can only end if women's education is accompanied by social and economic empowerment, concluded a study conducted over a period of 30 years in Gove, Maharashtra, by Carol Vlassoff, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

Education is not changing gender norms

"Not only is it impossible to achieve gender equality without education, expanding education opportunities for all can help stimulate productivity and reduce the economic vulnerability of poor households," the UN said about the role of education in achieving gender equality, in its 2013 report, Making Education a Priority in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

But statistics in India do not bear out the UN's assumptions. Young graduate mothers gave birth to 899 girls per 1,000 boys, lower than the national average of 943, IndiaSpend reported in May 2016.

In Haryana, the female literacy rate has risen 25 percentage points over 20 years, to touch 65 per cent in 2011, and it is still known for its low sex ratio, IndiaSpend reported in November 2015.

"Education of women is clearly not enough to change preference for sons, a pervasive deep-seated social expectation," said Priya Nanda, group director, Social and Economic Development, International Center for Research on Women, Asia Regional Office. "While education does give women abilities, changing gender norms requires other complementary efforts."

The right to choose is as important as a degree

Netra Jangam, 24, from Gove village in Satara district, in western Maharashtra, holds a postgraduate degree in commerce. Her mother had studied only upto seventh grade.

Jangam did more than arm herself with a degree: She made the most of the freedom to travel - something her parents agreed to - and make independent decisions. "I pursued my higher studies in nearby Satara, living with relatives, visiting my parents at the weekends. Living away from home taught me to manage myself and broadened my thinking. My mother hardly ever travelled out of the village before marriage," she said.

Her mother earned some money from taking on small tailoring jobs and this had helped her realise the value of financial independence. "So she supported my decisions. I made it clear to my husband that I would always work after marriage. I always want to be financially independent," said Jangam.

Given the high cost of living, she wants only one child - "it doesn't matter if it is a girl or a boy"-and is confident her husband will support her decision. "I am not having a child to depend on in my old age; we will invest for our future."

Gender perceptions linked to empowerment

Education, travel, the freedom to grow and make decisions, and the opportunity to use education just like men are the key ingredients for changing gender perceptions, not education or economic development alone or jointly, Vlassoff and others concluded in their 2014 Asian Population Journal study, Economic Development, Women's Social and Economic Empowerment and Reproductive Health in Rural India.

"Social empowerment-an outcome of education, mobility (travel related) and the freedom to make decisions-and economic empowerment-symbolised by a woman's employment status-have a greater impact on a woman's reproductive health-including the number of daughters she is prepared to have in the hope of having a son-than economic development-quantified by family asset ownership," said Vlassoff.

In her study, Vlassoff saw great changes in Gove's social empowerment indicators: 58 per cent of women had eight or more years of schooling in 2008, compared to only 8 per cent of the 1975 respondents; 65 per cent of respondents travelled to the district capital at least once a month in 2008, compared to only 25 per cent in 1975.

The impact of all this: 86 per cent women were willing to stop trying for a son after three daughters in 2008 versus only 24 per cent in 1975.

"The more socially empowered respondents were, the more likely they were willing to stop at fewer children," said Vlassoff. To trigger social change, she added, "it is important for more women to take up formal employment to gain confidence and independence, start thinking for themselves and standing up for their beliefs".