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Jessica Malter


Despite a strong family planning program and a growing desire for smaller families, women in India often have more children than they would like because of a longstanding preference for sons over daughters. A new study exploring this issue finds that continued childbearing driven by son preference accounts for 7% of all births in the country. According to "The Desire for Sons and Excess Fertility: A Household-Level Analysis of Parity Progression in India," by Sanjukta Chaudhuri of the University of Wisconsin, women were more likely to stop having children if their last child had been a son rather than a daughter. The author also found a strong relationship between family size and the proportion of female children in a family.

Son preference has come into conflict with the desire for smaller families in many parts of South, East and Central Asia, where a much higher value is placed on men than on women. This analysis, which used data from India's 2005–2006 National Family Health Survey on women aged 35–49 who had at least one child, found that the desire for sons is a key driver of women having another child. Indian women without any sons are more likely to continue having children than those without any daughters. For example, women whose first child was a daughter were more likely to have another child than those whose first child was a son, and women whose first two children were daughters were more likely to have another child than those whose first two children were sons. As a result, Indian girls are likely to grow up in larger families than boys do; in such families, fewer resources are available to each child, and girls are likely to receive a smaller share of those resources than their brothers, leading to gender disparities in health, education and other outcomes.

Given that India is expected to become the world's most populous country by 2025, it is critical that government policies help families achieve their childbearing goals. To date, while programs aimed at increasing women's education have been linked to declines in unwanted births, the preference for sons still leads couples to have larger families than they would like. The author highlights South Korea as an example of a country where urbanization and rapid economic development reversed an imbalance in the sex ratio through their impact on underlying social norms. Chaudhuri argues that it is imperative for government programs to reduce the preference for sons by challenging perceptions that sons are more valuable than daughters and continuing to improve women's status in society.

The study, "The Desire for Sons and Excess Fertility: A Household-Level Analysis of Parity Progression in India" by Sanjukta Chaudhuri, is currently available online and appears in the December 2012 issue of International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

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