Battling a Preference for Boys

HONOLULU (Nov. 20) -- In China, the peasants have a saying: "The birth of a boy is welcomed with shouts of joy and firecrackers, but when a girl is born, the neighbors say nothing."

In India, until recently, billboard messages promised: "Invest 500 (rupees) now and save 50,000 later," encouraging prospective parents to abort female fetuses in order to avoid future dowry expenses.

The preference for sons reflected in these quotes has deep social and cultural roots in some East and South Asian societies, most notably South Korea, China and the northern and western states of India. Powerful economic factors also support son preference. For instance, in many Asian societies, married sons are expected to live with aging parents and provide financial support.

By contrast, when a woman marries, she joins her husband's household and does not normally contribute to the support of her own parents.

Over the years, son preference has resulted in unusually high death rates for female infants and girls. With the advent of modern technology, the identification and abortion of female fetuses has also contributed to an unusual preponderance of boys in some Asian populations.

One result has been a concern among some observers that a shortage of women will make it difficult for men to find wives. This has raised speculation that societies with large numbers of single young men will suffer higher crime rates and more internal unrest and instability than societies where most men "settle down" and begin raising families.

But times are changing.

Experience in South Korea suggests that sex-selective abortion disappears with social and economic modernization. Indeed, it appears that falling fertility and the reluctance of career-minded women to marry will have a larger impact than selective abortion on the availability of women in the marriage market.

Government policy can speed up this process. The governments of China, India and South Korea have all made prenatal screening for sex identification illegal, and the penalties against doctors who perform this procedure have steadily increased.

In addition, campaigns have been launched in China and India to improve attitudes toward girl children. This includes small allowances to some parents who have girls.

Nonetheless, a strong preference for sons, combined with modern technology, continues to pose a serious social, economic and ethical dilemma for policymakers in the region.

India and China are leaders in the effort to discourage sex-selective abortion and other aspects of son preference.  In fact, it may be possible that China and India will achieve more balanced birth rates and better survival statistics for girls long before they achieve the high levels of social and economic modernization that has led to a drop in sex-selective abortions in South Korea.

Still, for the time being, South Korea, China and the northern and western states of India will see a preponderance of males in the young adult age group.

This article was based on an analysis in AsiaPacific Issues, "How Does Son Preference Affect Populations in Asia?" published by the East West Center in Honolulu.  Sidney B. Wesley is a Communications Specialist at the East West Center. She can be reached at Minja Kim Choe is a Senior Fellow in Population and Health Studies at the East West Center.  She can be reached at

Photos are available upon request.

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