Son preference in China
Son preference is often considered as a recent phenomenon whereas it is an old characteristic of the Chinese society. A long time before the 1979 one-child policy, sex ratio was already unbalanced between boys and girls, due to a high number of infanticides.
Normally, the natural higher proportion of boys at birth is compensated by their higher mortality rate. But in China, girls are more likely to be neglected during their childhood and receive less medical treatments than boys. As a result, the sex ratio, instead of decreasing, grows higher through agesAttané Isabelle, « En Chine, des millions de femmes “manquantes” », Outre-Terre, 2006/2 no 15, p. 471-479..
This unbalance ratio was further reinforced by the introduction of the one-child policy and (consequential) sex-selective abortion. Following the implementation of the one-child policy, sex-selective technology spread in China around 1985. At the same date, sex ratio at birth raised sharply, allowing researchers to think that these methods are used to decide to keep or not the foetus according to its gender.
Table of Contents
- 1 Data
- 2 Explanations
- 3 Dangers of son preference and missing women
- 4 What was done to reduce son preference
- 5 See also
- 6 References
In industrialized countries, the sex ratio at birth ranges from 103 to 106 boys for 100 girls. In China, the same ratio went from 106 in 1979 to 117 in 2001Therese Hesketh, Li Lu, Zhu Wei Xing, “The Effect of China’s One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years” in The New England Journal of Medicine, 2005..
The one-child policy is often shown as the main reason for son preference in China. This policy was introduced in China in 1979. Back then, it was shown as a temporary measure implemented in order to reduce the number of members in a family and to have a stronger economic growth, as a long-term objective. This policy was not uniform as some couples were allowed to have more than one child, under specific conditions. Between others, in some parts of rural China, having a second child is allowed when the first one is a girl.
Taken alone, the one-child policy cannot explain the son preference. In fact, it is necessary to look at social and economic factors to understand the “need” to have a son as it is experienced by many families in China.
The changing role of women through lifetime
Through their lifetime, women have different roles, depending on their age and their place in the family. These different roles are essential to understand son preferenceMonica Das Guota, Jiang Zenghua, Li Bohua, Xie Zhenming, Woojin Chung, Bae Hwa-Ok, “Why is son preference so persistent in East and South Asia? A cross-country study of China, India and the Republic of Korea”, a World Bank research paper..
- Girls: what is at stake for girls is marrying. As a result, it is not that important to provide them with education, because if they work, their earnings will belong to their husband’s families. The girl’s family has therefore no interest in insuring that the girl will be educated (education not being seen as necessary to do a good marriage).
- Women: they almost exclusively have a reproductive role. What is at stake is giving birth to at least one son and then, take care of the family and the household.
- Elder women: women finally have their more important role in the last years of their life. Once retired, the man becomes more unassuming, whereas the woman keeps taking care of the household and the education of her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. It is important to remember than having the support of her son is very important for the mother, so it is fundamental for her to build a strong relationship with him from the beginning of his life. Nevertheless, the damper of this empowerment is that the mother will be likely to marginalize the son’s wife, in order to insure her position. Therefore, we can observe her a vicious circle of the subordination of women.
China as a patriarchal society: patrilineality and patrilocality
The Chinese society is very influenced by Confucianism, where maintaining the lineage is fundamental. China is a patrilineal society, where the main productive assets are passed through the male line, whereas girls receive some movable goods through inheritance. Patrineality is that strong that if a man does not have any sons, he may adopt one or take another wife to reach his objective.
The Chinese society is also characterized by the principle of patrilocality, according to which the couple lives in the man’s village. In traditional China, when a woman marries a man, she moves to his clan. In this society, women are seen as a way to continue the lineage, but it is the man who constitutes the social order. As a result, it is preferable for families to have sons instead of daughter, as they will be sure that the lineage will be maintained and the property will stay in the family.
Also, another consequence of patrilocality is that families prefer having sons because they will be able to provide them with old age support. Considering that the new couple moves in with the man’s family, his parents will be sure to have support, whereas the woman’s parents will remain without support from their daughters, in the hypothesis where they only have daughters.
Within the Chinese society, ancestor worship is fundamental. People have certain beliefs relating to afterlife. Between other ideas, it is necessary to have sons to perpetuate the family’s tradition and worship their ancestors. Girls cannot do so, and as a result, not having any son is considered as a “handicap” for a family both during and after life.
Traditionally, the main argument for son preference in China has been the strength of men comparing to women, particularly to work in the field and bring an income to the family.
Dangers of son preference and missing women
One of the main (and most visible) consequence of son preference is that some men are unable to marry and have a family. We can also observe an increase in trafficking of women and in the number of sex workers.
What was done to reduce son preference
Several laws were voted during the last two decades in order to prevent son preference and sex-selective methods.
- 1991-1992: two laws forbidding drowning and abandonment of young girls, neglect and discriminations of sterile women or women only having daughters.
- 1994: law forbidding the determination of the foetus’ gender.
- 2002: law forbidding sonograms determining the fœtus’ gender or abortion based on gender.
- 2001: campaign to promote girls “More consideration for girls”
Nevertheless, a World Bank report underlines that the most effective way to change things is to “alter the fundamentals of family system”. Favoring gender equality is also crucial, and progress has been made for the past years. Between others, the market reform allowed girls to earn wages and therefore provide their family with financial support before they are married.