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Thursday, 30 June 2011






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Preference for boys and the role of education

A Gallup poll conducted in the U.S. earlier this month asked Americans the question “Suppose you could have only one child, would you prefer that it be a boy or a girl?” Results showed that about 40 percent of Americans would prefer a boy, 28 percent would prefer a girl, and the rest have no preference or opinion. Gallup has asked some version of this question 10 times since 1941 and the result has always indicated a preference for boys-in fact, the figures have not changed very much, with 38 percent preferring a boy, and 24 percent preferring a girl, in 1941.

The existence of son preference in Asia and its horrifying consequences are well documented. A new book, released just before this poll, titled “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men” by journalist Mara Hvistendahl has been hailed as “a shocking expose of the causes of Asia’s massive gender imbalance and its consequences across the globe”. The book calculates that Asia has 163 million females “missing” from its population.

The term “missing women” was first used in this context by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s 1990 essay in the New York Review of Books whose startling title “ More than 100 Million Women are Missing” drew attention to the enormity of the problem of excess female mortality. In that article, Sen highlighted the fact that sex ratios in Asia were highly skewed, and he attributed higher female mortality to the neglect of women as evident in disparities in healthcare, nutrition and education.

Sen reminded us that biology favours women: if women are given similar care to men, their biological advantage in resisting disease enables them to live longer. This is evident in Europe, North America and Japan, where females do not suffer discrimination in basic nutrition and healthcare and where women outnumber men substantially (for every 100 men there are 105 women). Yet, in most of Asia and North Africa, men outnumber women-for every 100 men there are 94 women.

Sen estimated the number of missing women in these countries by calculating the extra number of women there would be in these countries if they had the same ratio as in countries where men and women receive similar care. The deficit-or proportion of missing women-is 11 percent, so that a great many more than 100 million missing women are “missing” in the world. “These numbers” he wrote in 1991 “tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women”.

That story continues today, 20 years later. In China, a country with rapidly declining fertility and an abnormal sex ratio at birth, the strong preference for sons and the increasing use of pre-natal ultra- sound technology has led to sex-selective abortions. Hvistendahl’s book states that there are 163 boys for every 100 girls under the age of four in the port city of Lianyungag, in northeastern Jiangsu province. It is not necessarily the case that this is entirely due to female feticide; higher female and infant and child mortality due to neglect is also possible. Whatever the cause, the consequences of these figures are electrifying: by the time these children reach adulthood, their generation will have twenty four million more men than women.

What factors diminish the strength of son preference? Research on India, where sex ratios at birth are normal, but are skewed thereafter, found that wealth and economic development do not reduce son preference but women’s education and media exposure do make a difference. In fact, women’s education is the single most significant factor in reducing son preference. [Son preference and daughter neglect in India, Rohini Pande and Anju Malhotra, 2006, International Centre for Research on Women].

Interestingly, this finding is not limited to India, or even to poor countries. Similar findings have been observed in Korea, where son preference is high, and in the recent Gallup poll of Americans. Americans (both men and women) with lower education levels (high school or less) were more likely to say they would favour a boy while those with postgraduate education break even. Gallup also noted that there is no concomitant income skew-higher income Americans are exactly the same as the national average in their preference for a boy than a girl [http://www.gallup.com/ poll/148187/Americans-Prefer-Boys-Girls-1941.aspx]

This would not surprise Sen, who in 1991 highlighted the case of Kerala, whose sex ratio, like that of Sri Lanka, was closer to sex ratios in Europe and North America than to the Indian national average, or South Asia in general. Like in Sri Lanka, female life expectancy in Kerala exceeded that of males’ by four years as early as 1981. Sen attributed this achievement to Kerala’s exceptionally high literacy rate, especially for females-higher even than in China. This is supported by research by ICRW in India in the 1990s which found that women in villages with higher female literacy are less likely to prefer sons than women in villages where most women are illiterate.

How was Kerala able to achieve high female literacy when much of India did not? tSen attributes it to the state’s long history of state-funded basic education which began nearly two centuries ago, led by the rulers of the kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin and was consolidated by left-wing state governments in recent decades. Sen quotes Rani Gouri Parvathi Bai, the young queen of Travancore, who in 1817 issued clear instructions for public support of education:

“The state should defray the entire cost of education of its people in order that there might be no backwardness in the spread of enlightenment among them, that by diffusion of education they might be better subjects and public servants and that the reputation of the State might be advanced thereby.”

In Sri Lanka, state-funded education is likely to have played a large role in the fact that Sri Lankan women are more educated than men.

Female secondary school attainment and enrolment in Sri Lanka is higher than male, while in tertiary education, female enrolments are higher than male in all faculties except Engineering. Even if women are paid less in the labour market than they should be, state funding of education makes it still worthwhile for families to educate their daughters. In a scenario where state provision of education is substantially reduced, families are less likely to be

willing to make the outlay to educate daughters, when it is clearly more economically beneficial to educate sons.

The case of China has shown that positive trends are reversible: in 1979, when reforms were introduced, female life expectancy was well ahead of men’s. But it appears that along with a general increase in mortality rates, the relative survival of women has declined and with it the ratio of women in the population. We, in Sri Lanka, would do well to keep this in mind and protect what we have achieved.

(The writer is a Senior Lecturer in Economics, Department of Economics and Statistics, University of Peradeniya)

Women’s issues: ‘be realistic and different’

Daily News Gender Forum interviewed well known Sri Lankan writer Sunethra Rajakarunanayake, who has extensively dwelt on women’s issues throughout her writing career.

Sunethra Rajakarunanayake

According to Rajakarunanayake, Sri Lankan women are not in a position to fight for their rights and necessities but must address their problems in a new form which could be called the third wave. Fighting for rights, equal employment opportunities, equal payments, maternity leave are not necessary today, because we have almost gained those. But this is the ideal time to start addressing the remaining issues in a different and an effective way. It is obviously a long term process. The whole society has to be involved in this, not only women. Men’s participation in this regard is vital.

“I strongly recommend women to work hard. Hard work brings us golden opportunities. In my case, I can frankly say that today I am in a very good position because of my hard work. Women are intelligent and possess many skills, which could be used to make society feel that women are self-dependent having their own voice, power and recognition as do men. Society will never offer freedom to women on a platter, but we need to earn it by using our capabilities,” said Rajakarunanayake.

“The main point I want to emphasise as a female writer is women should be more educated and literate and adopt the habit of reading. Reading is an asset and provides a solid background to a woman, which directs her to think in a new and a mature way. Reading gives women power and strength to make them feel that they are independent and capable in their own way. There are a number of fields in which women can excel. It could be writing, engineering, medicine, management, beauty culture, dress making nursing, teaching etc. So the field is not an important matter, what matters is the quality of the work which is bound to bring you recognition,” noted Rajakarunanayake.

There had been some restrictions on women: “Some of which I have also experienced,” she said. “In Sri Lanka women were restricted to engage in occupations such as nursing, medicine and journalism. Today things have totally changed. But it is sad to note that some people still hold on to these unrealistic beliefs which disgrace the Sri Lankan woman. The best way to get rid of them is, just to go on our way and not listen to them, because if we stop and listen to them, it will delay our journey. Today’s women are really enthusiastic to go forward to achieve what they prefer.”

According to this accomplished author, it is a must and provisional need to address the remaining issues based on gender. It is realistic that we cannot forget the fact that there are hundreds of issues local women face. One of the most important and unavoidable problems is gender based violence. One cannot harm another is a basic right. If it happens based on gender, it is the worst form of violation. If a woman does not agree with a man’s view, it does not mean that he has a right to harm that woman. So, having equal rights to live without being subjected to violence is a must in every society. This has been discussed over the years but still there is no practical approach.

There are women, who become widows accidentally and are totally helpless at the beginning, but I think that they are able to ‘build themselves’ without being influenced by external forces. A single mother is a problem in reality, but still it is possible to address the issue in a modern way. Another problem is some women get pregnant without being legally married.

Then they are motivated to abort the child. It is a very serious problem that should be solved. Talking and criticizing are easy and interesting for some people. But we do have to sympathise with them and find out the root of the problem. Some become victims unknowingly and are totally helpless. The final outcome is they seek cheap and illegal abortions or suicide. This is a key issue to be addressed.

As she mentioned the sex industry is rapidly growing in Sri Lanka and women have become the main victim. Using women as sex workers has become a serious issue and is hard to get rid of. Finding fault in women is not the solution. The authorities have to look into the matter in a serious manner and find the worker’s backgrounds and reasons for selecting such work. It is evident that most of them have selected this because it is the final option that they have.

All these problems are interrelated and they cannot be viewed as separate issues. Mainly the socio-economic backgrounds, educational level, and other cultural beliefs cause these problems. All the issues are connected with each other as in a web. “Women in the war zone underwent thousands of serious problems during the war period. They did not have a way to fulfill even their basic needs. Those are very serious issues. Fortunately the war is over and this is the ideal time to address the problem in a practical manner,” Rajakarunanayake mentioned.

According to Rajakarunanayake, to overcome the gender based issues, there must be a practical approach. In our recent history, women’s issues were written by women, read by women and discussed among women, but with no considerable outcome. So it is vital to change the way and to find out a modern method.

I personally believe that the best thing is to educate men and to ask them to get involved in the process. Holding counselling programmes in boys’ schools is another effective way. And the main thing is to create gender equality within the family. Parents have the responsibility to make children understand that there is no assigned work for males and females, but both are equal and can do everything. It is something quite essential.

Women who have hidden skills such as singing, painting, writing, dress making should be given a helping hand to improve them which might result in earning money and bring self satisfaction as well. Legal support for women must be strengthened and women must have the freedom to complain of any harassment that occurs even within the family. According to her, there are plenty of things to do to minimise gender based issues in Sri Lanka. Holding seminars, writing and discussing will not help. It is essential to reach the grass root level and adopt modern, practical ways which will make an immense difference.


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