Sex Ratio Bias in India

Sometimes boys are worth more, sometimes girls are worth more. In an evolutionary sense. Or, more correctly, the value of a certain sex … as an offspring … can be measured in fitness terms. Fisher noted this and hypothesized this was the explanation for the 50-50 sex ratio we usually see. As one sex becomes more rare, it becomes more valuable, and thus parents (mothers, perhaps, usually) bias towards that sex. Then the disparity goes away and thus the differential value goes away.

Of course, the truth is that we don’t actually see the 50-50 sex ratio all the time … many species of organisms have a highly biased sex ratio. Many have a highly biased ratio in adults, much more biased than in offspring. This sort of thing varies quite a bit. But what about humans, and what about the report that Indian girl-boy ratios at ‘all-time low’ …

The anthropological theory on this is pretty well established, and is based on Trivers’ model of differential investment (known in this case as the “Trivers/Willard hypothesis.”) It is a long story which I will not go into here (but see this)

Essentially, there are conditions under which parents should bias their investment towards a particular sex, and this is what happens in middle and upper castes in India, where people practice the caste system and the related hypergynous marriage.

In this system, a female must always marry up, and a dowry must be paid. This means that a girl requires investment in a dowry which will go away at marriage. A boy, on the other hand, will garner a dowry. And, if you are in the top caste, there is no “up” to marry to!

The solution to this is of course to get rid of the girl babies. Abortion is one way, starving them off is another. The details vary by the result is always the same: A very biased sex ratio.

“In a country with a long history of discrimination against women, the preference for sons over daughters has led to the number of girls under the age of six hitting an all-time low,” said ActionAid in a report.

Ratios of boys to girls aged 0-6 in sites in four out of five states it studied in north and northwest India were now lower than at the time of the last nationwide census in 2001 — and the gap was widening, the report said.

Both rural and urban areas showed similar declines and the phenomenon cut across class and wealth lines, added the report, which is titled “Disappearing Daughters”.

The report called on the Indian government for tougher enforcement of laws banning pre-natal sex detection and sex-selective abortion, describing their efforts to implement the legisation so far as “woefully inadequate”.

Attitudes towards girls as financial burdens for families because of dowry pressures also need to be challenged, while the quality of and access to public health care and state-run schools had to improved, it added.

“It is clear that without sustained action on many fronts, millions more women will go missing in India,” it said, citing figures from medical journal The Lancet that more than 500,000 female foetuses are being aborted per year.

Members of ActionAid and Canada’s International Development Research Centre interviewed families in more than 6,000 households and compared statistics with national census data.

The researchers said that normally, there should be about 950 girls born for every 1,000 boys, but found that already low ratios of girls to boys from 2001 in the sites surveyed were now even lower, except for Rajasthan.

source

Comments

  1. #1 phisrow
    June 24, 2008

    I find this issue a little tricky because I am in favor of abortion rights, so I really can’t go down the “Sorry, abortion only for reasons I deem worthy” road.
    That said, though, I find the phenomenon pretty creepy. Not only does it suggest some pretty grim things about life for those females who aren’t aborted, it is setting the society up for some very unpleasant phenomena.
    Having a large surplus of frustrated young males with essentially no chance of “getting married and settling down” is just very unlikely to go well. That is exactly the demographic that is likely to take up antisocial hobbies like violence, crime, and politics(often politics consisting of a mixture of the first two). Even if nothing visibly dramatic occurs, you’ll be looking at an uptick in prostitution, human trafficking, STDs, and related issues.

    I’m not at all sure that it will come to pass; but I can only hope that, perhaps, a significant shortage of women will improve the culture’s regard for them.

  2. #2 phisrow
    June 24, 2008

    I find this issue a little tricky because I am in favor of abortion rights, so I really can’t go down the “Sorry, abortion only for reasons I deem worthy” road.
    That said, though, I find the phenomenon pretty creepy. Not only does it suggest some pretty grim things about life for those females who aren’t aborted, it is setting the society up for some very unpleasant phenomena.
    Having a large surplus of frustrated young males with essentially no chance of “getting married and settling down” is just very unlikely to go well. That is exactly the demographic that is likely to take up antisocial hobbies like violence, crime, and politics(often politics consisting of a mixture of the first two). Even if nothing visibly dramatic occurs, you’ll be looking at an uptick in prostitution, human trafficking, STDs, and related issues.

    I’m not at all sure that it will come to pass; but I can only hope that, perhaps, a significant shortage of women will improve the culture’s regard for them.

  3. #3 Joel
    June 25, 2008

    I thought I heard this story on the radio and if I remember correctly, boys outnumber the girls by more than 2 to 1. What are these people thinking?

    The way I see it, abortion in this context is nothing more than femicide and not an acceptable reason for abortion.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    June 25, 2008

    This is complex. If we sat down in a coffee shop for three hours I would have you, Joel and phisrow, much more on the side of the parents. The only thing they can do is to bias towards boys, in the same way that the only thing parents could do in America and Britian in 1942 was to send their boys off to war. Sort of.

    Abortions are a far sight better than the two obvious alternatives: Infanticide at or near birth, and slow starvation.

    These “extra” men will marry. They will not be extras.

    What SHOULD happen is that the lower castes that produce the women should produce more girls then boys. THEY are the ones doing this wrong, because they don’t bias investment towards girls. They produce girls, marry them up, and then have surplus boys.

    And the boys have a use. There is in at least one region where this occurs an expression that translates roughly into “sons are guns”

    I do agree that this social arrangement is problematic. What is important to realize is that all social arrangements are problematic.

    But I am not an unabashed cultural relativist. Some are more problematic than others. But right now as an American I have a hard time getting up the balls to throw too many stones. Not just now.

    But yes, your points are well taken and the whole thing is kinda creepy if you are not used to it.

  5. #5 Bob
    June 25, 2008

    Yet nobody (in India?) sees that the problem is actually in the class system and specifically in the medieval practice of dowry. The cultural relativist my rise up and call me some sort of pre-post-modern throwback for applying the modern Western view of dowry and arranged marriage and a strict class system as quaint vestiges of the feudal system, right up there with papal indulgences, indentured servitude, and the humour theory of disease.

    If one’s class (and thereby economic) system allows advancement primarily due to marriage rather than achievement, you’ll end up with this sort of dumb. The real solution is to lower the class barriers, but of course the people benefiting from the status quo have zero incentive to do so and those with the incentive have no power without bloodshed, and probably even then.

    Maybe the solution lies in expanding the H1-B program. If you can’t find a wife locally, take an Oracle certification test, move to the US, and find a wife there. The folks back home may eventually catch a clue, but you’ll have a wife and a job and way less likelihood of being whacked by a Sikh or Tamil terrorist or a Pakistani nuke, though nothing here probably compares to the nan back home…

    Great. Now I’m dying for some lamb saagwala. Dammit.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    June 25, 2008

    The real solution is to lower the class barriers, but of course the people benefiting from the status quo have zero incentive to do so

    The Indian upper castes will stare working on that the day after the American “middle class” (the political euphemism for “the wealthy” ceases to be the primary fetish of the powerful here.

    I’m not disagreeing with your fundamental point. But just remember that, for instance, suffering of women and children because of power relationships and greed (which fuel the caste system AND the american system) is not the primary interest of society. It could be that India is worse. But first you have to see if it really is worse or if it is just different. And, if we are comparing countries, India does not practice the caste system everywhere, just like the US does not have Bayou or Appalachian and Urban Inner City and Reservation poverty everywhere.

    Well, OK, we do, but whatever …

    What I really wanted to say is this: The participants in this system in India, those who keep it going, are generally as politically aware and educated as the Americans who keep our system going, I think. Modern Indian society is not my specialty. I know more about the traditional life ways there. And it is a big and complex place.

    I’m waiting, apparently senselessly, for someone from India to step in here.

  7. #7 Nikhil
    June 25, 2008

    What’s this marrying “up” in caste that you speak of? Most people marry “in” caste.
    I think that the only problem is a society stuck in the middle ages due to lack of social education and reforms. This problem is especially bad in northern India. And don’t think that schooling changes that very much. In fact the more educated the groom, more dowry the bride’s parents end up paying. The only hope here is that when the ratio dips sufficiently, out of desperation these people will have to stop taking dowry (simply due to the demand and supply disparity) and that will help bring the ratio back up again.
    This has nothing to do with abortion rights. If you think about it, these abortions have been forced upon them by the society which has no respect for women, although all Indians seem to glorify the place of women in their culture (I am an Indian too, but suffer from no such delusions).
    If these ratios are better in certain states, it is due to either a matriarch system (kerala) or due to better social reforms at least in certain castes and classes.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    June 25, 2008

    Nikhil, I’m sure the degree of hypergyny varies from area to area and time to time, but it does not take a very large percentage of hypergynous marriages to very significantly affect the ‘value’ of each gender.

  9. #9 Ian
    June 25, 2008

    Wouldn’t that actually be a gender ratio bias? ;)

    I’m having fun trying to imagine what a sex ratio bias might actually be. I can see a sex ration bias, but a sex ratio? I think I need to partner up with someone(s) to investigate….

  10. #10 S
    June 27, 2008

    Yes, you may be right that ‘marrying up’ was part of what fueled the dowry problem, but Nikhil is right that now, people marry within their caste as much as possible, and it has been that way for a while. The caste system has become an easy punching bag for the culture’s problems, when it is just one factor out of many. The way you present the problem (or rather, its analysis) in the post is misleading and way too simplistic.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    June 27, 2008

    Nikhil and S: What you say may well be true. Virtually all of my reading on the subject is not about current India. That does not meat that the system of the last centuries is not relevant and even causative.

    However, I should add that the earlier interpretations (by Dickeman, etc.) are based on extensive carefully collected data. I’m not willing to shift my perspective based on opinions (with all due respect) of this issue any more than I’m willing to decide that, say, Ethonal from corn is inefficient because Pat Buchanan screamed this ‘fact’ at Brian Unger on the TV yesterday afternoon…

    Sorry if I’m being obtuse … What I’m saying is that I’ve got a pile of academic papers, books, theses, and talks at conferences on one hand and some guy named “s” in a comment on the other …. I need more. The idea that things are different in some respect now does not surprise me at all and seems likely but I need more.

    So what is the key paper (or two) updating us on the current situation in India regarding caste from a behavioral biological point of view (or even just a really good description)?

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