Photo: Jason Taylor, International Development Research Centre
I first directly encountered the dark side of the son preference that has long characterised South Asian societies when I was carrying out field work in 1979 in the village of Amarpur in Bangladesh. ‘Daughters are a curse’ a mother hissed to me, enraged at the return of a daughter who she believed had been successfully married off and who would therefore no longer be a burden on her parents. Another told me that baby daughters in that village often died when they fell ill, because no one in the family, including their mothers, thought it worthwhile to seek medical help.
South Asia is one of the main regions in the world contributing to what has been dubbed the phenomenon of ‘missing women’. Women are ‘missing’ because they die in much larger numbers than men at almost every age so that the population of Bangladesh, along with India and Pakistan, has been characterised by far fewer females than males than is the case in the rest of the world – with the exception of East Asia, the other major region of ‘missing women’.
As an only child, I had not had any direct experience of son preference but I was always struck by the fact that when my grandmother was asked how many children she had, she would always answer: ‘I have six precious diamonds’ by which she meant her six sons. She never mentioned that she also had three daughters. It was only in the course of doing research on the causes of the extremely high fertility rates that characterised Bangladesh in the 1970s that I came to understand the causes and tragic consequences of son preference.
The vast majority of the women that took part in a survey I carried out expressed a strong desire for sons. The reasons for this were not difficult to understand. They lay in cultural traditions which restricted women’s ability to move freely outside the shelter of the home and which gave men privileged access to property and jobs. Women were thus life-long dependents on male members of their families, first their fathers, then their husbands and finally their sons - provided of course they were fortunate enough to have sons. Daughters were regarded as an economic liability by their parents, to be married off as soon as possible, so that the costs of feeding them could be shifted to husbands. The rise of dowry, the practice of transferring wealth from the bride’s family to that of the groom, served to further exacerbate the liability status of daughters. So at least part of the reason why parents in the region had so many children was the desire to ensure that at least some of their children were sons. Women had even more reason to pray for sons since their status in the family and society and their security in old age was more closely bound up than that of men with their ability to bear healthy sons and ensure their survival and long life. One obvious way to counter the costs of having so many children was to let female children die – usually through malign neglect although infanticide was not unknown.
Fertility rates have declined across South Asia since my early fieldwork. In India tragically, it has been accompanied by intensified discrimination against daughters. Sex selective abortion is used in many parts of the country to ensure that while parents might opt to have fewer children, these children will be predominantly male. Indeed colleagues in India, funded by the International Development Research Centre reported that in the villages in which the study was carried out, hardly anyone expressed a preference for, or had, only daughters. Puzzlingly the same thing does not seem to be happening in Bangladesh. On the contrary, the national statistics seemed to be suggesting that the ‘missing women’ phenomenon is on the decline. The likelihood of survival for girl babies is becoming increasingly similar to boys and there is no evidence that parents are resorting to sex-selective technologies. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, published by the World Economic Forum, there were just 89 girls born to every 100 boys in India compared to 96 girls in Bangladesh.
Girls won four out of five gold medals in mathematics in Dhaka University, 2012.Photo: by author
I returned to Amarpur with a number of colleagues in 2008, nearly 30 years after my first field work, to find out why this was the case. Using the same approach to measure women’s preferences with regard to sons and daughters, we found a discernible shift away from son preference towards indifference to the sex of the child. It seemed that most of the women studied wanted fewer children and that they no longer cared too much if they had a boy or a girl.
Detailed interviews with women in the village carried out in 2010 helped to flesh out some of the changes that lay behind this shift in attitudes. One of these changes became very apparent almost from the outset. We dubbed it ‘the rise of the daughter-in-law’ phenomenon. According to many of the older women we interviewed, young girls these days had no respect for their elders. They cared only for themselves. Closer questioning revealed that by ‘young girls’, they meant their daughters-in-law.
What these women were expressing as a general statement was based on their own bitter experiences with daughters-in-law who had not behaved in the ways that the older generation of women expected them to behave. Relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law were notoriously fraught in the South Asian context as they competed for the affection and loyalty of the same man who is their primary source of support but mothers in law generally held the upper hand. It was only when the young wife began to bear sons that her position might improve.
A woman tends her stall in rural Bangladesh. Photo: by author
This seems to have changed. Women are more educated than before and they have become engaged in income earning activities on a scale that would have been unthinkable when I first did my field work. The rapid proliferation of non-governmental organisations offering microfinance to women has not only provided women with the possibility of engaging in various kinds of enterprise, often within the home, but is also a source of jobs for women. The rise of an export-oriented garment industry which largely hires female labour has been another important factor. Young women enter marriage on far less dependent terms than they used to in the past and are less willing to put up with abuse from either their husbands or their in-laws.
There was another major force at work behind the rise of the daughter in law and that was television. In a society in which women had been expected to remain within the home, TV in particular provides them with a window to a different world, or rather into many different worlds. They can watch the news, talk shows, soaps and the ubiquitous Bollywood offerings. They see and hear about the rest of the world from the confines of their homes – although of course the restrictions on their movements are not as strict as they used to be. One important result of TV is that many more women have become aware of their rights: they know what to do if they are abused or divorced. But they have also been influenced by ideas about sex, love and romance. Wives have become aware that they have a power over their husbands which can offset the hold of his mother. Families have become nuclear, with husbands and wives more focused on ensuring the future of their own children than seeking to engage with the husbands’ extended family group.
A woman holds her daughter. Photo: Jason Taylor, International Development Research Centre
But that this only half the story. It is the other half that explains the decline of son preference in Bangladesh. The rise of the daughter in law has been accompanied by the growing value given to daughters. If parents can no longer rely on their sons and daughters in law to look after them in their old age, it is to their daughters that they now look. Daughters are regarded not only as having more compassion and love for their parents than sons, but they have also benefited from the same economic empowerment processes as daughters in law. They too have become more educated and employed over the years. Indeed, their own mothers have contributed to this process. Mothers spoke of how they had suffered during their own marriages and their determination to take advantage of the education and employment opportunities on offer to make sure that their daughters would not have to go through the same experiences. As one of the women we interviewed told us,
'One reason why more girls are going to school these days is that before they used to be married off very young, they would have to bear a lot of hardship and abuse at their in-laws’ house. Now if she passes intermediate level of education, there is a chance she will get a job so she can feed herself. She will not have to depend on someone else’s son like we were dependent. She will be able to fend for herself. That is why I want to educate my daughter, so she can stand on her own two feet.'
So, paradoxically, the independence that older women decried in their daughters-in-law are valued in their daughters. And daughters in turn value the sacrifices their mothers have made. These are daughters that often have the economic capacity to support their ageing parents, the independence of spirit to persuade their husbands to let them and, should the marriage breakdown, they can return to their parents’ home without being regarding as the curse that will not go away. Perhaps, as an editor at Anokhi, a Canadian-based magazine for South Asians that has picked up this story in their current issue suggested, they may even be welcomed back as ‘precious diamonds’!
To listen to Naila Kabeer discussing her research click here