Dearest Daughters: Changing Norms Around Son Preference in India

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Since the 1980s, India has been known for its skewed sex ratio at birth, that is, an excess of male births over female births, that is beyond the biological norm of 105 male per 100 female births. Elevated sex ratios imply that more families are ensuring they have a son, often at the cost of a daughter. Although recent figures of the sex ratio at birth are showing signs of decline, further exploration of the norms and practices associated with son preference will help us understand India’s progress toward gender equality. In three analytic chapters, this dissertation examines the trends, patterns, and factors associated with a specific norm or practice supporting son preference and discusses the implications these have on the value of daughters in India. It analyzes nationally representative data from 1992 to 2019 from the India Demographic and Health Survey and the Longitudinal Aging Study in India. The first analytic chapter finds that there has been a significant decline in son preference and a rise in gender-equitable preferences among all sub-populations. Demographic decomposition shows that the shifts in the expansion of women's education are associated with only a third of the decline in son preference; the other two-thirds can be attributed to changing social norms. The preference for sons over daughters is associated with rigid patrilineal practices that discourage daughters from maintaining close and frequent contact with their natal family. The second analytic chapter explores the trends and regional patterns of the extent to which husbands have the decision-making authority on their wives’ visits to their natal families. The chapter finds that although there has been a rise in women’s participation in this decision in most regions, the normative belief that husbands alone have this authority has been slower to decline in certain regions. Further, specific dimensions of the gender system, such as the acceptance of husband’s use of violence against wives and the preference for sons, are associated with the belief that husbands have decision-making authority in visiting the wife’s natal family. The preference for sons over daughters is also associated with expectations of elderly care. In most patrilineal communities in India, sons and daughters-in-law are expected to offer financial and residential support to elderly parents. However, once financial comforts are taken care of, the gender composition of children may matter less for elderly parents. The third analytic chapter shows that after controlling for key variables, compared to elderly parents with only daughters, parents with only sons do not report significantly higher life satisfaction. However, parents with a mix of gender of children report significantly higher life satisfaction. Irrespective of level of economic well-being, the factors positively associated with life satisfaction are subjective socioeconomic status, self-rated health, and degree of spirituality. Depression and the experience of discrimination perceived due to age are negatively associated with life satisfaction. The study brings the discursive focus on daughters. It suggests that gender-inequitable norms and practices need to be questioned by both women and men and that the narrative of healthy aging needs to disassociate the belief that sons are necessary for elderly well-being, to raise the value of daughters in India.

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154 pages


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Daughter value; Elderly well-being; Gender norms; India; Son preference


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Union Local


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Williams, Linda

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Eloundou-Enyegue, Parfait
Basu, Alaka

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Global Development

Degree Name

Ph. D., Global Development

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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