The bias against having girls may be declining in Bangladesh as parents are showing an increasing indifference to the sex of their first child, experts say.
“Women’s dependence on men for protection and provision at different stages of their lives gave them a strong stake in producing sons – both to ensure their own place within their husband’s kinship group and as a form of security for their old age,” said Simeen Mahmud, coordinator of the Centre for Gender and Social Transformation (CGST) at Brac University’s Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), who has conducted research on this issue.
“But with growing number of girls going to schools and increased employment opportunities for women, these stakes have been lowered.”
The Brac Development Institute (BDI) found that a much larger portion of parents reported being indifferent to the sex of the child compared to neighbouring countries, while families already having a son were expressing an outright preference for a daughter. The findings were laid out in a study published in 2012, one of the latest reports on parents’ traditional preference for male children.
The study ‘Diverging Stories of Son Preference in South Asia: A comparison of India and Bangladesh’ was carried out in eight villages of eight districts. The BDI found that parents were less likely to discriminate between sons and daughters than in the past with respect to survival and investments in human capital.
According to a comparison of surveys of one village in Faridpur, in 1979 around 44% of women aged under 34 and 59% of women aged over 34 wanted sons, but this fell to 20% and 22% among the same age groups in 2009.
Similar studies also found 62% to 75% people preferred to have a boy during the 1970s and the 1980s. But the Brac study found around 47% people were indifferent to the sex of the child.
According to this study, Bangladesh is in a better position than neighbouring India, which is struggling with its sex ratio because of the widespread use of sex-selective abortion. Many Indian parents use ultrasound technology to find the sex of the child and abort it if it happens to be a girl.
“I am too happy with my first child- a girl - and I hope my daughter will be like me,” said Shamanta Rahman, a banker, who recently gave birth to the child.
“Both girls and boys are doing equally well. If the next child is a boy, then it would be nice for the family.
“In our society families now want a combination between girl and boy children. Mostly families ideally want a boy and a girl. Those who are happy with only daughters, they want to educate them. The discrimination is seen in low-income families mostly,” said Shamanta.
The population sex ratio in the country now stands at 93 males to 100 females while the sex ratio at birth came down from 108:100 in 1975 to 104:100 in 2009.
Simeen Mahmud of Brac University said families used to prefer sons as boys were considered to be more beneficial, but the situation has changed as girls are becoming highly educated and women’s empowerment is on rise.
Educationist and social activist Rasheda K Choudhury thinks the increased economic participation of women has enabled the change in social attitudes.
“Women’s participation in rural economies, labour force, foreign economy, and all aspects of the society is on the rise. Because of this, now they are being sent to get primary education, secondary education and even higher education,” she said.
Dr Syed Md Saikh Imtiaz, chairman at the department of women and gender studies at Dhaka University, said the rate of girls’ enrolment in education has increased and that various schemes undertaken by the government is gradually changing society.
However, although women are becoming financially independent, Dr Syed said they still face a disproportionate threat of violence.
“Incidents of rape are on the rise. The government needs to strengthen the legal system to protect girls from violence. The government’s steps can reduce discrimination against women,” he said.