The number of girls being born compared to the number of boys, i.e. the sex ratio at birth, has been falling in recent years in India, suggesting that the overall gender imbalance in the country is likely to worsen in the years ahead. India ranks 188th out of 191 countries in terms of gender-imbalance at birth, which could in large be part attributed to sex-selective abortion owing to continued preference for sons.

The continued preference for sons is likely being reinforced by the influence of mothers-in-law in Indian families, according to a recent Economic and Political Weekly paper authored by Marie-Claire Robitaille and Ishita Chatterjee, economists at the University of Nottingham and University of Western Australia, respectively.

They note that mothers-in-laws often have stronger preference for a male grand-child which could affect the pregnancy-related decisions of the daughter-in-law. Their research shows that when women are asked about how many sons and daughters they would have ideally preferred, their stated preference (or lack of it) for sons is correlated with the preferences of the mother-in-law.

What do stated preferences for sons and daughters tell us?

At first glance, the 2005-06 National Family & Health Survey (NFHS), which is the data source for the EPW paper cited above, suggests that the stated preferences for sons among Indian women are pleasantly very low. 79% of daughters-in-law in the study said that they had no preference for either more sons or more daughters, while 65% of co-residing mothers-in-law claimed they had no preference.

Another survey conducted in 2011-12, the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) also showed similar results; most women said they had no preference for sons over daughters. Also, in an encouraging sign, the proportion of women stating that they had no preference was higher in the younger generation.

However, the above numbers could be misleading as people often tend to provide socially desirable answers in such surveys. The continued preference for sons is revealed by data from the same survey, which shows that the decision to plan for more kids was largely dependent on whether or not the women had sons. Women, who had two or more daughters but no son, were almost four times more likely to plan an additional pregnancy compared to women who had two or more sons but no daughter.

The above results exclude cases where the woman can no longer conceive either due to age or being infertile or due to sterilization of the husband.

Thus, the “stated preference" for sons among women, both mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, almost certainly understates the actual preference for sons in India. However, it would be folly to assume that the preference of the women in the household alone drives the pregnancy-related and possibly abortion-related decisions in the family. On being asked, most women said that it is the husband who has the “most say" over the number of children that she would bear.

Of course, even most husbands are revealed to have preference for sons. Consider the following statistic. In the case where a family had at least a girl child but no son, and if the family planned to have more children, then in 49% of such cases the husband said that he would prefer to have more children “until a son is produced", while 31% answered that they would have only one more child and 12% said that the number of children is “up to God".

Thus, the preference for sons among both—mothers-in-law and husbands—could have impact on the reproductive decisions of the woman.

This preference for sons manifests in other dangerous consequences too, besides a worsening sex-ratio at birth. Research shows that son-preference in India adversely affects the health of children, especially the children born after the first child, according to Seema Jayachandran & Rohini Pande, economists at Northwestern University and Harvard University, respectively. The theory is simple; preference for the male child, especially the eldest male child, determines how much parents invest in other kids. The situation becomes dire if the initial successive births are all daughters; this leads the parents to plan for further pregnancies, often jeopardizing care for the existing daughters. The researchers claim that this preference for “eldest son" in India has resulted in far worse relative stunting in Indian children even when compared to Sub-Saharan Africa.