Liberate by growth

Indian Express, 5 April 2011

For every thousand boys in India, there are only 933 girls in the age group of children upto 6 years old. Blaming the failure of the health regulatory system in preventing female foeticide is a superficial response. The bias against the girl child is a much deeper disease. The child sex ratio is only a symptom of that disease. As long as the deeper problems remain with us, the preference for the male child, and his better care during childhood is likely to stay. These deeper problems are cultural, sociological and economic. Though increased literacy and GDP growth are not sufficient conditions to overcome them, they are necessary conditions. Increasing paid employment of women outside the home, or family farm, is a pre-condition for caring better for our daughters.

India is amongst the worst in the world in discriminating against girls. We do not want girls. If we don't kill them before they are born, then we neglect them after they are. A study on child mortality shows that while in the rest of the world, in the age group of one to five years, male and female children are equally likely to die from disease, in India (and in Pakistan and Bangladesh) girls are 30 to 50 percent more likely to die. The cause is sheer neglect. For example, it has been found that thirty three percent of girls with high fever or respiratory infection are more likely to remain untreated compared to boys.

Why is the girl child discriminated against? A number of studies have traced the preference for sons to either higher expected returns from the labour of male children or anticipated old-age support systems. The systematic neglect of daughters has been linked to the cost of marriage and dowry. Well being of girls is seen to improve where women have greater earning opportunities. This outcome is seen to be a rational investment (in terms of time and money) decision of parents as boys are expected contribute more to the household.

Amartya Sen has argued that two contrasting explanations have been offered to account for neglect of women. While there is truth in both, he argues, none of them is adequate. The first emphasises cultural differences between the East and the West. Sex ratios in Japan bunk this explanation. Unlike most of Asia, sex ratios in Japan are similar to those in the US and in Europe. The rise of women to powerful political positions, and the relatively better electoral success of women in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in contrast to the West, also does not support this view.

The economic development view emphasises a straight-forward simple relationship between GDP and the sex ratio. The main argument is that all countries with a bias against females are poor. If poverty was to explain the sex ratio then Sub-Saharan Africa should not have seen an excess of women as it does. Within India, Punjab and Haryana, the richer states, should have done better than Kerala, while the ratio is in favour of women. Similarly in China the sex ratio became worse after the economic reform and speeding up of economic growth. Looking at the results of India Census 2011, the same argument can be made. India has witnessed high per capita income in the last decade, yet its child sex ratio has worsened.

If simple GDP growth is not the story, what matters for explaning the discrimination against the female child? Sen argues that economic, social and cultural factors interact in a complex way to explain regional differences in the sex ratio. Empirical evidence suggests that working outside home for a wage has the biggest impact. First, outside employment for wages does not merely provide women with an income to make a living, and rely on themselves, it changes their social status giving them the role of a bread winner. This brings social respect, ouside experience, and less vulnerability. If this allows women to support their parents in their old age, it improves the way girls are treated at home. This change in social status does not come when women engage in housework or even work on family farms or family run enterprises. Even though the work is productive, but when it is not possible to separately recognise the contribution of a woman, her contribution does not have the same effect.

This helps explain the Chinese puzzle. Changes in Chinese agriculture that accompanied the reform made it difficult to delinate women's contribution to the family's farm. This increased the pro-male bias and helps explain worsening sex ratios despite higher GDP growth.

Worsening sex ratios can thus be addressed not by merely banning female foeticide but by far reaching measures which change the status of girls in the eyes of their parents. If discrimination against the female child is a rational response by investing parents, then the task is to reduce the bias in favour of the male child.

Government polices can help in changing the perception of parents by helping change in the opportunities for gainful employment of women. Better educated girls are more likely to get jobs. However, the problem in India is not limited to female education. Making the education system work is a challenge. The advances in enrolment are only a step in the right direction. The next task is to make sure children learn.

More jobs get created with GDP grows. A better a regulatory environment that encourages investment and brings about employment opportunities will bring jobs for men and women. Law and order and contract enforcement improve working conditions. For this India needs better governance.

When parents have no health insurance or old age pension, their dependence on their sons is greater. If the state helps develop and regulate old age security systems and health schemes, it can reduce the male bias. Even after these changes South Asia may take years to undergo the cultural and social changes that are necessary for a improving the status of women.

While it is important to improve the status of women in many small ways by giving them better legal rights and opportunities, the child sex ratio statistics should serve as a reminder of the unfinished agenda of economic reforms and better governance, without which daughters will continue to be neglected.

Back up to Ila Patnaik's media page
Back up to Ila Patnaik's home page