The Hidden Factors Underlying India’s Skewed Child Sex Ratio

The Hidden Factors Underlying India’s Skewed Child Sex Ratio

Based on the research of Tarun Jain

Why does India have only 918 girls to every 1000 boys in the 0-6 age group? Surprisingly, the answer lies not only in discrimination against girls, but also in land inheritance traditions, says Professor Tarun Jain. As a result of parental competition for boys, girls grow up in larger families, get a smaller share of family resources, and face greater health and mortality risks.

With a child sex ratio of 918 females per 1000 males in the 0-6 age group according to the 2011 Census, India has one of the largest gender differences in survival outcomes in the world. Moreover, differences between girls and boys persist throughout childhood and into adult life, including the workforce. Understanding and reducing these gender differences is one of the most pressing policy issues facing India today.

One surprising related fact is that the average Indian girl has nearly twice as many siblings as the average boy. This implies that population-wide, girls will receive fewer resources for health and education, even when parents otherwise treat their children the same and divide all resources equally among all children. Such differences have serious consequences: research has shown greater stunting, poorer health, and higher mortality among girls in larger families.

But why do girls grow up in larger families with more siblings compared to boys? The conventional explanations focus on religious, social, or cultural factors as a source of sex discrimination in favour of male children. However Tarun Jain, an Assistant Professor in the Economics area at the Indian School of Business, provides an additional explanation: the greater sibling numbers and smaller resource access for Indian girls may be traced to social institutions of patrilocality, the cultural practice where the married couple settles with or near the husband’s family, and ultimately, the joint family system.

The Stopping Rule and Sibling Effect

Even when parents bring up their sons and daughters equitably, why are survival and health outcomes worse for the average Indian girl? The starting point for Jain’s research is the observation that many families do not explicitly discriminate against girls, and yet they might want to have at least one son. Therefore, they continue to have children till at least one son is born. This practice is also known as the “stopping rule”.

Much of the scholarly research focuses on the overt manifestations of stopping rules in terms of the number of male or female births, or daughter and son birth order. A strong son preference pushes families into continuing to have children and thereby exceed their originally desired family size.

A related concept is the sibling effect: if families practice son-biased fertility behaviour, girls are born into families with more siblings. Other authors have considered how the sibling effect impacts the birth sequence for female and male children. Boys tend to be born later in the birth order. As a result, older daughters end up sharing resources as well as shouldering responsibility for younger siblings’ child-rearing, to the detriment of their own personal development.

Jain’s research probes the origin of these stopping rules. He examines the inheritance-driven motivation behind fertility choices and, by extension, behind resource allocation disparity between boys and girls.

Land Bequest and Son Preference

How do chances at ancestral land inheritance impact a couple’s fertility strategy? What are the consequences for girls’ survival? Land is a significant asset for rural families, as it is both a source of income and a positive factor for credit. Thus, the possession, control, and distribution of land become critical issues. Adult daughters rarely receive land bequests because they are considered members of the family into which they marry. Hence, land given to daughters is expected to eventually be lost to their birth family and leave the lineage.

These considerations lead to what Jain calls “strategic bequest behaviour,” with the family head making bequest choices that preserve inherited land within his family’s lineage. From the household head’s point of view, then, bequeathing land to a son who has a greater number of daughters increases the chances of land ultimately leaving the lineage.

Jain shows that more sons born to land claimants are associated with larger shares of land bequests. This leads to a direct impact on parents’ fertility behaviour. Having more sons increases inheritance shares.

Given these strategic bequest factors, the claimants try to have another child if they have fewer sons, or if the other claimants have more sons. This relationship is also borne out by the data.

This race for sons means that the family structure becomes unfavourable to girls, with the average female child having more siblings than the average male child. The study homes in on these differences and shows that the average girl born in a joint family with two or more claimants has nearly twice as many excess siblings. Even with parents who do not discriminate between children on the basis of gender, the average girl is found to receive fewer resources than the average boy and realize poorer health and survival outcomes. Jain calculates that his model accounts for approximately 7% of the excess female mortality among joint families in Haryana and Rajasthan.

Gender Parity through Inheritance Laws?

Past land inheritance laws in India propagated this gender imbalance. The 1956 Hindu Succession Act (HSA) essentially left daughters landless by specifying that land acquired by inheritance should be divided equally among surviving sons.

The HSA was amended by Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Karnataka in the 1980s and 1990s to include daughters as claimants with an equal share in joint family property. This amendment was implemented at the national level in 2005. Building on findings by previous studies, Jain suggests that daughters are 22% more likely to inherit property after the inheritance law amendment.

Did the updated inheritance law impact fertility choices, along with strategic bequest behaviour? Jain finds that there is a small impact on land bequest behaviour, but the impact on fertility choices is more muted in his study sample from Karnataka and Maharashtra. Thus, inheritance law reform is a small first step in mitigating the impact of strategic fertility and differential mortality among boys and girls.

New Pivots

What might be some new ways of considering resource allocation beyond land bequest? Says Jain, “From a broader perspective, we have to think about economic endowments. Is the nature of endowments going to change? Are physical resources like land and gold being replaced in the modern world with education tuition payments and clean environment?”

The study thus has wider ramifications beyond its rural and agrarian, inheritance law context. Consider the case of business succession planning. Are family owned businesses ensuring equitable shares for daughters?

The question also extends to the corporate boardroom where women need to be part of succession planning and bequest mechanisms. Female participation in business is, in fact, a win-win proposition. As Jain succinctly puts it, “Firms should think of closing the gender gap as a way to capturing money on the table.”

Righting the child sex ratio is not only about ending sex discrimination. More robust economic endowments for women will ultimately improve our daughters’ health and survival outcomes.

About the Researcher:
Tarun Jain is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Indian School of Business.

About the Research:
Jain, T. (2013). Where there is a will. Fertility behaviour and sex bias in large families. The Journal of Human Resources, 49(2), 394-423.

About the Writer:
Yogini Joglekar is an Editorial Consultant with the Centre for Learning and Management Practice at ISB.





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