Monday, October 19, 2009

No Toilet? No Bride!

In India, prospective brides have a new seat of power:

An ideal groom in this dusty farming village is a vegetarian, does not drink, has good prospects for a stable job and promises his bride-to-be an amenity in high demand: a toilet.

In rural India, many young women are refusing to marry unless the suitor furnishes their future home with a bathroom, freeing them from the inconvenience and embarrassment of using community toilets or squatting in fields.

About 665 million people in India -- about half the population -- lack access to latrines. But since a "No Toilet, No Bride" campaign started about two years ago, 1.4 million toilets have been built here in the northern state of Haryana, some with government funds, according to the state's health department.

Women's rights activists call the program a revolution as it spreads across India's vast and largely impoverished rural areas.

And what is it that has given these women this much bargaining power?

A societal preference for boys here has become an unlikely source of power for Indian women. The abortion of female fetuses in favor of sons — an illegal but widespread practice — means there are more eligible bachelors than potential brides, allowing women and their parents to be more selective when arranging a match.

Son preference is exhibited in several parts of Asia and is even showing up among certain Asian groups in the United States. (See this graph.)

In general, more boys than girls are born in the United States, by a ratio of 1.05 to 1. But among American families of Chinese, Korean and Indian descent, the likelihood of having a boy increased to 1.17 to 1 if the first child was a girl, according to the Columbia economists. If the first two children were girls, the ratio for a third child was 1.51 to 1 — or about 50 percent greater — in favor of boys.

Studies have not detected a similar preference for males among Japanese-Americans.

It looks like the sex-ratio at birth among Chinese-Americans is similar to to that of China overall -- approximately 1.25 boys born for every girl. This is already creating a huge demographic time-bomb in China. With Asian-American women being the most likely people group to have an interracial marriage, these trends in the US may become increasingly problematic for Asian-American men as well.

With selective abortions of female fetuses among certain populations in the US, easy access to abortion appears to have a disproportionate impact on the gender it was claimed to protect.

(HT Stephen Dubner)


thinking said...

Pretty sad stuff about the selective abortion of females...

However, regardless of abortion practices, attitudes, laws, root of this problem is the valuation of males over females in the societies mentioned.

If males are held to have superior status to women, then of course parents will want to have male children.

Promote equality among the genders and you will see this practice decrease.

If you analyze the situation world wide, human life could be so elevated just through the achievement of true gender equality.

We've come so far, but we have so much further to go.

thinking said...

I would only add that "easy access to abortion" is not the cause of this practice nor apparently even a major contributing factor.

Consider the very article: in India it's noted that the abortion of females in favor of males is illegal, but widespread.

In fact the lowest abortion rates in the world are in Western Europe, where abortion is very accessible. Abortion rates are higher in Africa, where abortion is illegal in many circumstances in most countries.

Abortion is a terrible thing, but it's a far more complex issue than just legal access.

Again, empower women and they won't be in a situation to abort a female baby because males are more highly valued.

In fact, empower women and there will be far less unwanted pregnancies, which are at the root of almost all abortions.

Brian Hollar said...


Thanks for the comments. I think the two of the biggest reasons sons are valued over daughters in many contexts are:

1) Family names are passed on through sons in most societies. This is not likely to change anytime soon. And changing it may bring a whole host of unintended consequences -- such as diminished male involvement in raising offspring and/or increasing infidelity by one or both genders. (Naming children after fathers may be a societal mechanism to help reduce the risk of men getting cuckolded and help ensure he is raising his own children.)

2) Boys have greater earning potential. In underdeveloped countries (such as India and rural China), most ways of earning income involve manual labor where men have an advantage over women. This is arguably best addressed through economic development. As economies become more advanced, more of the work becomes less physical -- giving women greater economic parity with men. Additionally, the less developed a country is, the more parents tend to rely on children as their retirement plan. This also tends to diminish in its effect as economies advance and other mechanisms for preparing for retirement become available.

I believe economic development will provide the biggest gains for gender equality.

Of course, this does leave unanswered the puzzle of why there seems to be such a strong preference for sons among Indian, Korean, and Chinese Americans.

Regarding your second comment, a few points:

1) Populations in the US: My comment about easy access to abortion was specifically addressing the American context and populations in the US which favor boys over girls. (Chinese, Indians, and Koreans in the the US.)

2) De Facto vs. De Jure: Just because something is illegal does not mean it is not easy to access. If there is no societal change or enforcement mechanism, making something illegal often has little or no effect on people's behavior. (A critical point often lost on policymakers and voters.) This is the difference between de facto and de jure in law.

3) Widespread Access: With enough selective abortions going on in a country to affect the sex-ratio at birth, it is self-evident that there is widespread, easy access to abortion despite the fact it is illegal.

4) Abortion Statistics: Can you cite where you have seen that Western Europe has lower rates of abortion than the US or other parts of the world? That doesn't match data I am familiar with. I'd be curious to take a look at it. According to Wolfram Alpha, there are more abortions per year in Europe (1.58 million) than in the US (1.36 million), but there is also a larger adult female population in Europe (195.5 million) than in the US (102.2 million). This means there are more abortions per adult female in the US than in Europe. What's not as clear is how this factors into women of child-bearing age or how the abortion rate varies among American sub-cultures. (European countries tend to have far more heterogeneous populations.) Where did you see data that indicates Europe has the lowest abortion rates in the world -- particularly with how it compares to Africa?

Brian Hollar said...

Oops! In #4, I meant to say European countries tend to have far more HOMOGENEOUS populations.