Son preference and girls’ education in India and Bangladesh

By M Niaz Asadullah, Professor of Development Economics at the University of Malaya, Malaysia, Nazia Mansoor, lecturer, University of Paris, Dauphine (London), Teresa Randazzo, lecturer University of Venice Cà Foscari and Zaki Wahhaj, Reader in Economics, University of Kent, UK.

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Gender inequality is a global issue. Worldwide, women are excluded from multiple social and economic opportunities. The latest GEM Gender Report focused on two specific gender imbalances in education: the gender gaps in schooling and learning. Globally, 31 million girls of primary school age are out of the education system and half of them may never enrol in school. Over 53 million young women in low and lower middle income countries are unable to read a single sentence.  This blog explores our analysis looking at the far-reaching implications of these imbalances in the case of India and Bangladesh, showing the association between women’s education and how many children they would like and of what gender.

Image: GEM Report/IKON Productions

Differing progress rates in closing gender gaps in education in India and Bangladesh

While there has been tremendous progress in South Asia in closing the gender gap in education, significant challenges remain. In India, where the parliament passed the landmark Right to Education Act in 2009, making education free and compulsory for children between the ages 6 and 14, gender parity in secondary school enrolment was achieved by 2013. at the expense of boys. Contrary to India’s recent achievement in secondary education, girls throughout Bangladesh have outnumbered boys in classrooms since the mid-1990s. 

Could these historic education disparities explain the large difference in excess female infant deaths between India and Bangladesh? 

In India, sex discrimination has led to millions of girls ‘missing’ from the population, primarily due to higher mortality among female infants and sex-selective abortion. India has the highest rate of excess female deaths in the world at 13.5 per 1,000 under-five female births. In stark contrast, this figure is less than 3 in neighbouring Bangladesh.

However, population sex ratios in some parts of South Asia are becoming more balanced and this is indicative of a changing pattern of sex preference. Our analysis shows that this is partly because of public investment in female schooling.

Analysing the latest round of DHS data confirms the positive association between women’s education and desired fertility. In both India and Bangladesh, the ideal number of children desired by women is systematically smaller among women with post-primary education. However, in Bangladesh, this desire is for children of either sex, while in India, women with post-primary education show greater desire for sons.

What explains this? Our analysis suggests that the answers can be found in the advances Bangladesh has made in both secondary education for girls as well as women’s labor force participation rate.

In a research paper just published in the journal World Development, we drew upon data from WiLCAS 2014, a purposefully designed survey on thousands of Bangladeshi women of child bearing age and then analyzed desired and actual fertility choices. We show that although fertility decisions are still influenced according to son preference, there is a decline in desires for sons among women in Bangladesh.

Three decades ago, economic opportunities for educated women in Bangladesh were very limited. Female education was not enough to shift preferences towards having female children as women’s economic status remained low. But women’s lives have changed in two aspects since 1990. 

First, whilst across South Asia historical son preference and low socioeconomic status of women combined to undermine household incentives to invest in girls’ education, creating a large gender gap in school enrolment, Bangladesh took a different route.  There, the gap in enrolment between girls and boys was reversed across all socio-economic groups long before the observed shift in fertility preference. In contrast, during the same period (i.e. 1990s), systemic gender education gaps persisted in India, even at the household level.

Bangladesh has also benefited from changes in the labour market. We found that the desire for gender balance in children was stronger among women who had completed secondary school; as well as among those who lived in areas with more opportunities for female paid work, particularly in the booming ready made garment sector, which employs millions of young Bangladeshi women.

Changing the balance in India

India’s recent success in removing gender gap in school enrolment implies that it too may be on course to a transition in sex preference in fertility, similar to what we have noted for Bangladesh. However, parents still treat girls unequally in terms of allocation of educational resources. If anything, the evidence suggests that gender bias in household educational spending has increased among schooled children.

Given the international evidence on the importance of education for economic and human development, the cost of gender disparity in education is very high. The lesson from Bangladesh is to sustain the policy support for girls’ education over the coming decades and ensure new economic opportunities for the millions of secondary school female graduates who will enter the workforce in the coming decades. Whether the resultant progress in female schooling in India will roll over to impact sex imbalance in the population remains to be seen.

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