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Devangshu Datta: Perverse incentives in gender bias

Policy makers can push harder for female education and try to get more women into the workforce. A woman who brings in 'permanent dowry' is valuable

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Recently we was paid $330,000 for promoting an (anti) teen pregnancy charity, Candie’s Foundation. The 20-year-old daughter of Sarah was a teen mother, as anybody who followed the last US presidential campaign will recall.

It’s difficult to see Bristol as a role model and using her as an ambassador for this cause may, in fact, offer a perverse incentive for other not-so-bright teens. After all, there’s this young under-educated girl. She gets knocked up and therefore, makes big bucks.

It is difficult, though, to define a perverse incentive when it comes to tweaking social norms. The skewed gender ratios in the 2011 Census suggest there are some extremely perverse incentives at play across all of India. Yet, the legislative record indicates successive governments have diligently and consistently worked to change this.

In the zero-to-six year age cohort, boys outnumber girls by 1,000:914 across all India and this ratio has dropped in most states. It’s down all-India from 1,000: 927 since 2001. The ratio is especially bad in North India — J&K, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh all have dreadful ratios. But Punjab and Haryana show some improvement. In Punjab, the ratio is 846 (up from 796 in 2001) and in Haryana, it’s 830 (up from 819).

What is a “normal” gender ratio? At birth, about 1,050 to 1,070 boys every 1,000 girls. One explanation for the natural skew (it’s much higher with cats and dogs) is that young males have higher mortality rates, due to greater exposure to accidents.

Since medical science and healthcare have improved, there may be a tendency for males to gradually outnumber women. However, in most countries, (not India), women have longer life-expectancy and that balances ratios off.

For global populations, “normal” gender ratio is tough to assess. Decent population statistics exist only for the last 150-odd years, a period featuring many massive wars. Wars disproportionately kill off males. Eastern Europe and Japan had huge excesses of women over men for decades after World War II.

However, when talking about the zero-to-six population, we know two things. One, fewer Indian girls are born. And two, young girls die in larger numbers — though infant and early child mortality has dropped overall.

The perverse socio-economic incentive cited is the dowry system. Indians don’t want girl children. Female literacy may, however, be increasing for precisely this reason. Parents encourage daughters to earn their own dowries. There’s been legislation against dowry as well as major social campaigns. Nothing has worked. Dowry remains a persistent evil and dowry death remains a major cause of adult female mortality.

Another problem is misuse of medical technology. There have been anti-sex determination laws in force since 1994. These obviously haven’t worked and they won’t — due to higher literacy and better access to information.

Sonography, foetoscopy, chorionic villus biopsy and especially amniocentesis are pre-natal tests used to assess the health of mother and unborn child. These also automatically determine gender. The doctor “may” be unwilling to state the gender but “Wiki-Googling” is enough to enable a highly educated guess, given a medical report. The baby’s “equipment” is also often visible. What is more, do-it-yourself sex-determination kits are available online.

What can policy makers do? Nothing much on the legislative front, I’d guess. They can, however, push harder for and try to get more women into the workforce. A woman who brings in “permanent dowry” is a more valuable commodity and has more choices.

There is also hope hidden in the census statistics. Why did ratios turn around in Punjab and Haryana? Maybe at the 1,000:800 level, the laws of supply and demand kick in. There are so few girls available; they can pick and choose their husbands and hence the dowry demands ease off.

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