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Ending ‘son preference’ to promote gender equality

The tradition of inheritance from father to son in many societies coupled with a reliance on boys to provide economic support, to ensure security in old age and to perform death rites are part of a set of social norms that place greater value on sons than daughters.

A Chinese baby plays with a water fountain in Beijing, China © EPA“There is huge pressure on women to produce sons…which not only directly affects women’s sexual and reproductive lives with implications for their health and survival, but also puts women in a position where they must perpetuate the lower status of girls through son preference," according to a joint statement by the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The biologically normal sex ratio at birth ranges from 106 males to 100 females. However, ratios as high as 130 boys for 100 girls have been observed in South, East and Central Asia. Such an imbalance increases the possibility of violence against women. For instance, the lack of women available for marriage in some areas may lead to the trafficking of women for forced marriages from other regions or the sharing of brides among brothers.

A general trend towards declining family size, occasionally fostered by stringent policies restricting the number of children people are allowed to have, is reinforcing a deeply rooted preference for male offspring.

"Women have to bear the consequences of giving birth to an unwanted girl child. These consequences can include violence, abandonment, divorce or even death,” experts from UN agencies noted. Faced with such intense pressure, women seek to discover the sex of a foetus through ultrasound. The discovery of a female foetus can then lead to its abortion.

In some countries, pre-natal sex determination and disclosure are illegal while others have laws banning abortion for sex selection. But such restrictions are circumvented by the use of clandestine procedures, which may put women’s health in jeopardy.

“States have an obligation to ensure that these injustices are addressed without exposing women to the risk of death or serious injury by denying them access to needed services such as safe abortion to the full extent of the law, and other healthcare services,” the experts warned.

Governments in affected countries have undertaken a number of measures in an attempt to halt increasing sex-ratio imbalances. Some have passed laws to restrict the use oftechnology for sex-selection purposes and in some cases for sex-selective abortion. These laws have largely had little effect in isolation from broader measures to address underlying social and gender inequalities.

The interagency statement suggests that technologies for the early determination of sex are not the root cause of the problem. Where the underlying context of son preference does not exist, the availability of techniques to determine sex does not necessarily lead to their use for sex selection.

In some settings, legal and policy measures aimed at redressing deep-seated gender inequalities have been passed such as inheritance laws, direct subsidies at the time of a girl’s birth, scholarship programmes, gender-based school quotas or financial incentives, or pension programmes for families with girls only.

“States should develop and promote…policies in areas such as inheritance laws, dowries and financial and other social protection in old age...that reflect a commitment to human rights and gender equality,” the interagency statement suggests. “States should support advocacy and awareness-raising activities that stimulate discussion and debate…around the concept of the equal value of boys and girls.”

15 July 2011