Published on May 8th, 20132
Does Son Preference Affect Rape and Illegal Trafficking of Women in India?
By Xenia Anna Gläser, Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS), University of Göttingen & Krishna Chaitanya Vadlamannati, NTNU
One of the most alarming trends in India, which is often referred to as one of the success stories of globalization on economic front, is that of strong preference for son and neglect of daughters which persists vociferously. In fact this trend is prevalent across all the states in India, with some varying degree, despite the socio-economic advances made in education, literacy, and income attainment. What are the causes and triggers of son preference in India? What are the adverse consequences of strong preference for son on gender-based crimes such as rapes and illegal trafficking of young girls in India?
According to the United Nations gender discrimination report (2008) an estimated seven hundred thousand girls a year are ‘missing’ in India as a result of strong preference for son. In fact, the new government of India census (2011) reveals that the child sex ratio (calculated as number of females available per 1000 males) in the age group of 0-6 years is at its lowest since India’s independence in 1947. The child sex ratio in India has shown a sharp decline from 983 girls to 1000 boys in 1951 to 914 in 2011 (census 1951, 2011). Figure 1 captures the child sex ratio (0-6 years) across the 29 states in India for the year 1981 and 2011.
As seen, none of the states have registered a positive rate of growth in child sex ratio between 1981 and 2011. What is more interesting is the significant variation which exists across the states in India. While some states tend to perform worse, other states register a very low negative growth rate during the same period.
Another interesting finding from figure 2 is that all the worse performing states in India are from northern part of the country, while southern states generally tend to fare better at least in comparision to rest of India. During this period, Uttaranchal and Jammu and Kashmir are the worst performers while Kerala and Mizoram (where literacy is higher among females) had registered a lower negative growth rate.
The skewed child sex ratios in favour of boys across India had been a matter of concern for many decades now. The results of 2011 government census on child sex ratio has set off a further debate among academicians, policy makers and civil society on this very issue.
Changes in the sex ratio of children (0-6 years) can be identified as better indicators of status of girl child in the Indian environment which is often known to be more hostile to females in their early ages. Studies in the past focused more on understanding the causes of this disturbing trend and less on its perverse consequences. In the subsequent sections we focus on understanding both the causes as well as the negative effects of son preference, particularly how it is associated with an increase in illegal trafficking of young girls and rapes against young women in India.
Causes and triggers
What are the causes of son preference in India? Having a strong preference for son in India cannot be attributed to one single factor. Many argue that the main reason for strong preference for son in India has to do with the economic utility of having sons in the family (Mutharayappa et al. 1997). It is expected that sons take care of parents in old age and illness (particularly in the absence of old age pension and health insurance systems), have higher earning potential due to greater prospects of being employed in the labour market, and take care of family business. Second, in partriarchical societies like India the status of women compared to men is lower due to reasons such as women do not participate in economic activities, among others.
Third, cultural aspects also play an important role. For instance, some of the key religious rituals can be performed only by a son for parents in the event of death (Mutharayappa et al. 1997). Fourth, the perceived benefits of having girls are low due to the high costs incurred in taking care of a girl and the need for a dowry during the marriage. If the role of a woman is no more than to bear children to continue the lineage, and the rights of a woman are transferred to the husband’s family at the time of marriage (Das Gupta and Shuzhuo 1999), then the perceived benefits of having a girl child in such societies are lower.
Impact of preference for son on rapes and illegal trafficking of young girls
A strong preference for son in the society can have severe adverse consequences on social and moral fabric of that society in the long run. Here we focus on the impact of son preference on rapes and illegal trafficking of young girls within India. Note that trafficking of girls occurs for a number of reasons including, demand for prostitution, child labour, child brides and adoption. Availability of fewer women in the society increases the demand for brides. Blanchet (2005) argues that this has actually resulted in bride trafficking from neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh or states within India. Several such cases have also come to light in the recent years within India which have been documented across media.
For instance, Kapoor (2012) reports that the large disparity in the sex ratio in favour of males in Haryana led to the trafficking of brides from Bihar, Assam and West Bengal. It is also noteworthy that India is ranked second in the US list of the most concerned countries concerning human trafficking (Geetanjali 2011, p. 163). Roughly 50-60% of trafficked persons are from neighbouring countries (Roy 2010, p. 125). It is estimated that roughly 500,000 girls under the age of 18 are victims of trafficking in India every year (Geetanjali 2011, p. 19). Second, availability of less young girls could also lead to increase in demand for prostitution thereby pushing the prices up dramatically. This provides incentives for people involved in prostitution business leading to trafficking of young girls into flesh trade. Third, on the supply side, if investment in girl child is seen as a burden without any return for the parents, they could become easy prey for illegal trafficking by luring them with higher income job offers in big metropolis (Gläser 2012). Finally, shortage of girls can also give rise to the sale of girl child for the purposes of child labour or servant maids.
We provide a simple stylized fact on the correlation between son preference and illegal trafficking of girls in India. We use data on the sex ratio in the age group 0-6 years lagged by 10 years as a proxy for availability of young girls in the current period, and trafficking incidents involving young girls under 21 years, covering 29 states in India during the 1980–2011 periods. Figure 3 captures scatter plot which is based on regressing per capita illegal trafficking incidents of girls (under 21 years) on lagged sex ratio (0-6 years).
As seen, we find a negative relationship between improvement in lagged child sex ratio and illegal trafficking incidents involving young girls. In other words, preference for son (i.e., child sex ratio in favour of boys) is associated with an increase in illegal trafficking of young girls under 21 years due to availability of fewer young girls in the current period.
Next, we examine the relationship between son preference and rape incidents involving girls under 30 years. Note that availability of fewer women possesses the difficulties in finding a bride which means irregular intercourse resulting in increase in rapes. In partriarchical societies, preference for son implies less respect towards women leading to the fact that the inhibition level to rape women is quite low for some men.
Again, we regress per capita rape incidents of girls (under 30 years) on the sex ratio in the age group 0-6 years lagged by 10 years, which is captured in figure 4. As seen, though there is a negative relationship between the two, the regression line is not as steeper as it is in the case of illegal trafficking suggesting that there could be several other important factors apart from preference for son which influences rape incidents. Nevertheless, the scatter plot still shows some evidence supporting the claim that preference for son is associated with an increase in rape incidents of girls.
There is a dire need to formulate appropriate policies (such as promoting women education, empowering them economically, incentives or child benefits to raise girl child for families, awareness campaigns at school) coupled with strict enforcement laws in order to contain what appears to be an irreversible trend in son preference and its adverse consequences in India.
Blanchet T., (2005) Bangladeshi Girls Sold as Wives in North India, Indian Journal of Gender Studies 12(2-3): 305-334
Census of India, 1951, 1981, 2011.
Das Gupta, Monica and Li Shuzhuo (1999) Gender bias and Marriage squeeze in China, South Korea and India 1920-1990: Effects of War, Famine and Fertility Decline, Development and Change 30(3): 619-652.
Geetanjali (2011) Girl and Women Trafficking in India, Centrum Press: New Delhi.
Gläser, Xenia Anna (2012) Illegal Reality-Prostitution in the Megacity of Mumbai, Institute for Regional Studies of Asia and Africa, Humboldt University: Berlin.
Kapoor A (2012) Bride Traffiking in India: 21st Century Slavery, Human Rights on Campus Newsletter.
Mutharayappa, R., M.K. Choe, F. Arnold and T.K. Roy (1997) Is son preference slowing down India’s transition to low fertility? National Family Health Survey Bulletin (4):1-4.
Roy, R. (2010) Women and Child Trafficking in India: A Human Right Perspective, Akansha Publishing House: New Delhi.
Sen, Amartya (2003) Missing women – revisited, The British Medical Journal 328: 1297-1298.
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 The issue of skewed child sex ratios in India and China was first addressed by Amartya Sen (1992, 2003).
 Note that internationally sex ratio is computed as number of males available for every 100 females.
 It is noteworthy that India doesn’t compute sex ratio at birth. Therefore, child sex ratio in the age group of 0-6 years is the only available proxy for son preference.
 Although dowries have been declared illegal since 1961 in India, many families (rich and poor; urban and rural) still follow this practice as a part of the Hindu culture and tradition.