Son Preference

last updated June 2010

“Son preference” is a custom rooted in gender inequality that is prevalent in many countries and found across religions and classes. It is, however, most apparent in countries of South Asia, where poverty is prevalent, and where families might view the “continuity of the male line” as a matter of particular importance.

Causes and Prevalence
Sons are often considered future heads of the family, who will be able to assist and provide for their parents in their old age. In such communities, sons are viewed as assets and girls as liabilities. This attitude is exacerbated by an entrenched dowry system that often serves as a source of income. A 2006 study of 850 families conducted by Promoting Human Rights Education in Bangladesh, a nonprofit organization that focuses on violence against women and girls, showed that 93% of Bangladeshi families preferred a son, viewing them as a “blessing” to home and country, while 93% viewed girls as a “problem.”

Types of Son Preference
Son preference takes many forms. In some cultures, the socialization processes for boys and girls are deliberately designed to infuse a sense of superiority among boys and inferiority among girls. Where resources are limited, girls are often forced to leave school without completing primary or secondary education, as preference is given to the male child. In some contexts, this problem is compounded by religious educational systems that restrict girls’ access to advanced levels of education. 
In its most extreme form, son preference is seen in female infanticide and the prevalence of sex-selective abortions. Although female infanticide is illegal, it still occurs with frequency in India and other cultures in which there is a high costs associated with female children and value placed upon male children. It has been replaced in some communities by sex-selective abortion of female fetuses, which has been made possible by modern medical technology. UN ESCAP (n.d.) has also reported evidence of a higher rate of malnutrition in girls resulting from them being weaned off breast milk early so that mothers can try to get pregnant again and perhaps have a male child. 
Amor, A. (2009). Study on freedom of religion or belief and the status of women in the light of religion and traditions. Addendum submitted to the Special Rapporteur in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 2001/42.
Genatra, B. & Johnston, H. (2002). Reducing abortion related mortality in South Asia: A review of constraints and a roadmap for change. Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, 57(3), 159-164.
Ras-Work, B. (2006). The impact of harmful traditional practices on the girl child. Paper prepared for the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women in collaboration with UNICEF, Florence, Italy, 25-28 September, 2006.
Stormorken, Lalaine Sadiwa, Vincent, Katrine, Vervik, Ann-Kristin, & Santisteban, Ruth. No More Excuses! Ending all Harmful Traditional Practices against Girls and Young Women, Plan Norway and Plan Finland, 2007.