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Son Preference and Daughter Aversion in Two Villages of Jammu

Ravinder Kaur ( teaches at and Charumita Vasudev ( is a graduate student at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

A contemporary exploration of two spatially contiguous villages of Jammu reveals persisting intra-household gender discrimination. While in both the villages, sons continue to be preferred over daughters, it is the local political economy and culture that dictates whether a preference for sons would mean the elimination of daughters before birth, their relative deprivation post birth, marrying them off early as a mobility strategy, or simply differential allocation of resources within the household.

Since 2001, when evidence of sharp declines in sex ratios was captured by the census, multiple efforts have been made by state and central governments to stem the tide of sex-selective abortion of female foetuses. Ten years later, the census of 2011 noted that Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) recorded the sharpest decline of 8.4% in the child sex ratio (CSR) across all states of India. Recent Sample Registration System (SRS) data shows that, in most states, the sex ratio at birth (SRB) has declined between the base year (2012–14) and reference year (2013–15), except for Bihar, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, where improvements in the SRB were noted, and J&K where it stagnated (NITI Aayog 2018). While we wait for the 2021 Census to confirm trends and trajectories of juvenile sex ratios across the country, this field report from two villages in Jammu district of J&K points to a continuing trend of daughter aversion.1

J&K has been ranked as one of the highest achievers in overall incremental performance on various health indicators, ranging from fertility rates and immunisation coverage, to public health facilities and better healthcare service delivery (NITI Aayog 2018). Yet, the SRB has stagnated over the past few years at 899 females per thousand males, which is much lower than the biological norm of 950. This resonates well with the Economic Survey (2017–2018), which observed that development had failed to act as an antidote to gender inequalities and that preference for sons seems to be inoculated from development (MoF 2018). This article makes use of data from two villages in Jammu to understand the factors at work in sustaining son preference despite many changes in people’s lives.

Recent studies on the causes of skewed sex ratios have observed that rapid fertility decline, continuing son preference, and the availability of sex determination technologies are three main factors
responsible for the recent declines in csrs in India and elsewhere (Guilmoto 2009; Kaur et al 2016). Apart from sex- selective abortion, neglect of girl children continues to be a cause of higher female mortality and skewed sex ratios (Guilmoto et al 2018). Newer studies focus on the role of class and family mobility strategies in shaping the size and sex composition of families, resulting in skewed SRB (Kaur et al 2016). This article explores the interplay of these factors in explaining the sex ratio pattern in the two villages studied. Our analysis also underlines how caste, class, and gender norms are constantly negotiated by families in their quest for mobility through shaping the size and sex composition of the family.

Village Profiles and Methodology

Jammu district is geographically contiguous with Punjab and, hence, it shares in the son-preference culture of the region. It is, therefore, not surprising that it is characterised by low sex ratios that have worsened in response to the fertility decline and the availability of sex determination technologies. To understand the micro processes of daughter aversion, this study compares and contrasts two villages: Upper Fatwal, which recorded one of the lowest CSRs in the 2011 Census in Jammu district, and Lower Fatwal, which has a favourable CSR.2 While the locals consider these two villages as one, with two parts—lower and upper—the Census of India records it as two separate villages. We also consider them as two separate villages for the purposes of this study.

Conforming to trends observed in many parts of the country, Upper Fatwal, which is largely upper caste, is richer, has a much higher literacy rate (72%), and has a lower CSR of 636 females per thousand males. Lower Fatwal, which is dominated by Scheduled Caste (SC) families and is poorer with a lower literacy rate (57%), has a much better CSR at 987. The profile of families is roughly lower-middle class in both the villages with some males being occupied in construction and factory work, while others are lower-level shop employees or own small shops of their own. A number of young boys from the village have also joined the armed forces.

Despite the difference in sex ratios, son preference is the norm in both villages. A common explanation for the better sex ratios in Lower Fatwal might be that lower castes tend to have better sex ratios (Chakraborty and Kim 2010; Kaur et al 2016), or that lower castes have less access to information and resources to shape their families through sex selection despite having the same preference for sons. While this might be broadly true, in many regions, sex ratios among the lower castes are beginning to show convergence with those of the higher castes. Hence, this article explores the more complex dynamics through which these outcomes are taking shape.

Fertility Decline, Skewed Ratios

Various economic and demographic theories have been put forward to explain fertility decline, key to which is the costs of children and the returns from children. Becker (2009) talks about the quantity–quality trade-off, while Caldwell (1982) refers to intergenerational flows of wealth to explain fertility decline. Fertility decline has been occurring rapidly across India. According to the SRS report of 2016, the total fertility rate (TFR) for India as a whole was 2.3, while for urban areas it was even lower at 1.8. J&K is one of the 12 states where the TFR has reduced to less than two children per woman (NITI Aayog 2018). These villages in Jammu are no exception. The idea of a smaller family being a “modern” family has gained much currency in the area. People view higher fertility as a sign of being backward, uneducated, unaware, and poor, from all of which the aspirational middle class wishes to dissociate itself (Kaur et al 2016).

Thus, the average number of children per woman has reduced from four to three in Lower Fatwal and two in Upper Fatwal, in just one generation. In Upper Fatwal, “one son and one daughter” is the most common family type, followed closely by “families with two sons.” However, if “families with more than two sons” are added to the “families with only sons” category, it becomes the dominant family type. In Lower Fatwal, however, since the fertility is higher, a number of different combinations can be observed, such as two sons and one daughter, three daughters, four sons, etc. Note that fertility decline is more rapid in the upper-caste-dominated village, which has a higher literacy rate, and slower in the SC-dominated village with a lower literacy rate. This is despite the low age at marriage in both villages, which is contrary to the high average age at marriage for women in the state, at close to 25 years. About 87% of the daughters are married below or at the age of 18. Daughters-in-law were also married into the village at approximately the same age.

As a smaller family size becomes the norm, fertility declines more rapidly than son preference, resulting in what Das Gupta and Bhat (1997) call the “intensification effect” or the increased elimination of female children at lower parity births.

Adding to demographic and economic explanations, Kaur et al (2016) argue that families consciously shape their size and sex composition to achieve higher social mobility by having son-biased families. In such households, sons are likely to grow up to be more valuable to natal families than daughters, who are eventually expected to move out of the household. In the two villages studied, there is evidence that families are consciously and actively shaping their size and sex composition. However, the means by which they are doing so are different. It is evident that the awareness of the technology of ultrasound has reached each and every pregnant woman. All of the ever pregnant women admitted to having undergone at least one ultrasound test during the course of their pregnancies. Sex determination technology has not only become easily accessible, but also very affordable over the past few years. The majority of these women either knew of the places where sex detection procedures were being done or knew someone who had a sex-selective abortion done.

Thus, while the average age gap between children, without considering the gender of the firstborn child, is two years in both the villages, it rises to three years if the firstborn is a daughter in Lower Fatwal, and to about four years in Upper Fatwal. Though this might not be considered a definitive evidence, women themselves see the huge gap between the births of successive children as an indicator of repeated abortions, in the quest of a male child. The ASHA workers in the villages also confirm this. They note that women remain evasive about pregnancies till the third or fourth month, and instances of registered pregnancies going missing during their follow-up visits are also common.

Higher female mortality is also a cause of the fewer number of girl children in the villages. Out of a total of 14 child deaths recorded in both the villages (six in Upper Fatwal, eight in Lower Fatwal), 11 were girls. Out of these, six deaths happened in families where they were second-born daughters. These children, aged between two months and four years, are reported to have died of avoidable causes like fever, diarrhoea, and chickenpox. This is despite the fact that a sub-centre, where a trained multipurpose worker is always available, is located at walking distance from the villages and a sub-district hospital is only about 2 kilometres away. Female deaths are rationalised and routinised with statements like “she was a guest,” “she was a visiting goddess,” “devis don’t stay,” etc.

However, these two villages differ in their approach towards abortion in general and sex-selective abortion in particular. Women in Upper Fatwal have nonchalantly admitted to availing themselves of sex determination services and aborting a female foetus, especially if they already had a daughter. This is despite the ban on sex determination. According to Suman, who resides in Upper Fatwal,

it is only those women in the village who had second-born daughters who had taken medicines from the babas, daughters were born by mistake … cannot throw them away; ultrasound is more foolproof.

A son was recently born to Suman, her firstborn daughter is six years old. The profile of Upper Fatwal, thus, shows greater efforts at shaping the desired family, one in which a son is ensured.

In Lower Fatwal, however, while the women were aware of the places where sex determination was available, there is still a certain amount of stigma attached to abortions. People associate abortions with going against “nature” or “will of God.” This is not to say that they do not prefer sons over daughters. Here, more women sought medicines from the local babas to ensure a male child. People, especially in Lower Fatwal, have immense faith in the efficacy of these babas, sometimes believed to give “100% guaranteed results.” Women who avail themselves of such treatment generally avoided sex determination procedures as a matter of faith. It is highly likely that behaviour in Lower Fatwal will slowly converge over time towards that in Upper Fatwal as fertility declines further and similar upward class mobility desires take hold.

Purity and Perceived Burdens

In both Lower and Upper Fatwal, the marriage of daughters remains a primary concern and parental duty, and daughters are married off at a very young age. The reasons cited range from protecting them from falling into “unwanted traps” or becoming kharab (spoilt), to protection from assault and securing family honour. The discussions about early marriage inadvertently turned towards the dangers on the road and towards incidents of harassment on the streets. Thus, protecting the honour of the family, which rests on the daughter’s chastity, acts as an additional psychological burden and dissuades people from preferring daughters.

Concerned with preserving girls’ chastity and caste exclusivity, the upper castes tend to exercise greater surveillance and control over their daughters. In Upper Fatwal, girls were rarely seen on the roads, except when coming back from or going to school (escorted by a father, brother, or a male relative in most cases). Daughters-in-law were mostly homebound, except when they visited their parental homes, accompanied by their husbands. The controls over their mobility became far too evident when Sarla, who has been married for eight years now, narrated how she was not very familiar with the village.

I don’t know which lane you are referring to … I have not been towards the west side much [their house is towards the east of the village, closer to the side connecting the village to the outer town] … I am not even sure where my son’s school is … no friends here so I never go out, I knew every tree in my village, I think it’s different after marriage … sometimes I go to our neighbor’s house with my mother-in-law … I haven’t seen the village much … what is the need? (Sarla, aged 26, Upper Fatwal)

In Lower Fatwal, women were relatively more familiar with the surroundings and they worked on the fields. On an average day, women could be seen on the roads carrying fodder on their heads or buying things from the local shops. However, increased instances of harassment on the roads appear to be changing this for Lower Fatwal as well.

Marriages in both the villages, however, are strictly within caste. The only case of an inter-caste, self-choice marriage depicts how caste, and son preference intersect in a complex manner to govern people’s everyday lives.

Rahul, a young Brahmin man, married Shefali, belonging to a different caste, against the wishes of his family. The couple was turned out of the village and was forced to reside near the city and do odd jobs to survive. However, Shefali then gave birth to a boy, which became significant in the context that Rahul’s two brothers had given birth to girls and there was no male progeny in sight. The parents then requested Rahul and Shefali to return to the parental home, which they did, despite the fact that Shefali faced segregation and caste discrimination in the household by being prevented from sharing the household kitchen or entering the family temple.

The case brings out how closely caste, gender relations, and son preference are intertwined with each other. While marriage within caste is a strong prerequisite for acceptance into the marital home, the birth of a son provided an entry point for seeking legitimacy and partial acceptance of a marriage that had breached local norms, as in the case of Shefali and Rahul.

Dowries to be given in girls’ marriages also act as an additional burden, reinforcing daughter aversion. People in both the villages noted that higher dowries are now demanded and given as compared to the previous generation. Also, what is given to the daughter at the time of her wedding is a question of great prestige and so people take huge loans in order to give expensive items like cars, scooters, and refrigerators as dowry. Considering that most of these people work as construction and factory workers, these loans take a heavy toll on their resources, often taking years to repay. Exploitation at the hands of the local moneylender and fights over such money borrowed from relatives are commonly heard of.

Gender and ‘Respectable Work’

Numerous scholars have highlighted the importance of paid work for women’s status (Agnihotri 1997; Bardhan 1974; Miller 1997; Kabeer 2008). In the household survey, 96% of the women admitted that women were not encouraged to work outside the house, and 99% of the women in both the villages were not engaged in paid employment, meaning they had no source of individual income. Of those who were working (six women in Lower Fatwal and 10 in Upper Fatwal), they were either teachers at the nearby school or did some tailoring work from home. Besides this, there were two ASHA workers, one multipurpose worker at the community health centre, and one anganwadi worker from both the villages. In Lower Fatwal,
women’s work of tending cattle and fields is considered an extension of household work. The sale of milk and farm produce (if it is sold) is controlled by the men of the house. In Upper Fatwal, women were restricted to household work only. Older women of the household felt it was unimaginable for women to work outside the house, while the younger women rued the lack of respectable work options outside the home that their families would allow. Home-based work such as pickle-making and tailoring, taken up by some women, does not, however, bring any empowering social gains as it is seen as an extension of domestic work.

Gendered norms were commonplace, with 79% of the women respondents agreeing to the statement that “Men should be breadwinners and not women.” Around 86% of the women agreed to the statement that “Women should work only if the family needs additional income,” out of which, 70% of the women agreed strongly to the statement. It is revealing though that there was no absolute resistance to working outside the house per se, as families allowed some daughters and daughters-in-law to study further. Some of the daughters-in-law were studying in Class 12 or the first/second year of college. This was partly allowed in the hope that they would be able to get government teaching jobs that are valued and highly sought after. These jobs required higher qualifications and, hence, the need to achieve a certain standard of education. Teaching at private schools was, however, not seen as a very respectable option, unless it was a family-owned school. Women’s potential to work is, thus, caught in what Srinivas (1997: 232) calls the “status-trap.” They were either withdrawn from work as families prospered or not allowed to work if the work was not status-appropriate. The fact that hardly any of the women in both the villages had an independent source of income made them dependent on the male members and devalued as contributors to the family.

Papanek (1990: 167) points out that women not engaged in paid work perform the irreplaceable work of household maintenance. In addition, they perform what she terms as “family status production work,” such as helping with children’s education (which is linked to family’s upward mobility goals) and performance of rituals, which is directly tied to the status of the family. However, since this work is not directly economically remunerative and its social usefulness remains concealed, it does not translate into women’s higher value.

In contrast, the value of men’s work gets appreciated early on. Thus, boys start working at an early age in the milk economy selling milk and milk products, and each household, thus, has at least two to three working men. As families were able to subsist on male outside work, female home-based contributions, although invaluable, remained concealed and undervalued. A continuity is seen in the contributions of sons to household income and prosperity, while the daughters’ work remains unacknowledged with the continuity of contribution being further broken by marriage.

The constant undervaluation of women’s and daughters’ contributions is one of the reasons for gender-biased resource allocation in the family, with sons getting a better share in whatever the household can afford. These range from nutrient-rich foods, private education, or even warm clothing. Such gendered allocation also results in differential health outcomes for the women in general, and girl children in particular.


Thus, son preference and daughter aversion continue to shape family composition in these Jammu villages. Despite the favourable sex ratio in Lower Fatwal at present, it might be only a matter of time before it goes the way of Upper Fatwal, where, as a result of both abortion and sex selective abortion being commonly practised, the child sex ratio is abysmally low. While in both the villages sons are preferred over daughters, the local political economy and culture dictate if a preference for sons would mean the elimination of daughters before birth, their relative deprivation post birth, their early marriage as a mobility strategy, or just differential allocation of resources within the household. Discrimination against the girl child is, thus, evident in both villages and little change is yet to be seen in attitudes
towards daughters.


1 The data for this article has been collected by Charumita Vasudev, research scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, as part of her PhD thesis on son preference in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. The thesis is being supervised by Ravinder Kaur, faculty member at IIT Delhi.

2 A household survey was conducted in the 300 households of both these villages. At least one woman in the reproductive age group was interviewed per household, while birth histories were collected for as many women as possible. Detailed interviews were conducted with a subset of households. Interviews were also conducted with other important stakeholders such as health administrators, NRHM officials, doctors at the nearest sub-centre and hospital, and ASHA workers of both the villages.


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Updated On : 5th Apr, 2019


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