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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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.