HomeIndiaExplained: Indians’ preference for sons, and why Meghalaya women prefer more daughters

Explained: Indians’ preference for sons, and why Meghalaya women prefer more daughters

The newly released National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) reconfirms that a large number of Indians have a preference for sons. The only exception is women in Meghalaya, among whom the preference for more daughters than sons is more prevalent than the preference for more sons than daughters. NFHS-5 covers the period 2019-21.

Broad takeaways

*The number of married people (age 15-49) who want more sons than daughters is several times the number who want more daughters than sons;

* A married person who has at least one son is less likely to want more children than another married person whose existing children do not include a son; and

* In spite of these preferences, most Indians still believe an ideal family should include at least one daughter.

The ideal family

The number of married men who want more sons than daughters (16%) is four times the number who want more daughters than sons (4%). Among women, the former preference is 5 times more prevalent than the latter, at 15% and 3% respectively.

The number of married men who want more sons than daughters (16%) is four times the number who want more daughters than sons (4%). (Source: NFHS)

That said, most of the respondents want at least one son and at least one daughter. About four-fifths of both men and women (81%) want at least one son while a similar proportion of women (79%) wants at least one daughter, compared to three-fourths of men (76%).

Men and women would both want to have an average of 2.1 children — 1.0 sons, 0.9 daughters, and 0.2 children of either sex. This, NFHS-5 notes, is almost the same as the current total fertility rate. In NFHS-4 (2015-16), the ideal family size was slightly larger, at 2.2.

Trends by state

Among the states and Union Territories, men in Mizoram (37%), Lakshadweep (34%) and Manipur (33%), and women in Bihar (31%) show the strongest preference for more sons than daughters. Compared to the corresponding preference for more daughters than sons, the difference is sharpest among Bihar’s women — the 31% who want more sons are 16 times the 2% who want more daughters.

Across all states and both genders, Meghalaya women are the only section in which a higher proportion prefers more daughters than sons than the proportion that want more sons than daughter. In a state where the predominant tribes follow a matrilineal system of inheritance, 21% of women want more daughters, compared to 15% who want more daughters.

Those who already had a son are less likely to want another child than those who already have children but no sons. (Source: NFHS)

Meghalaya also has the highest proportion of men in any state (11%) who want more daughters than sons. But as in other states, a higher proportion in Meghalaya too (18%) wants more sons than daughters.

The explanation for Meghalaya women’s preference for daughters may be obvious — “We are a matrilineal society,” said Shillong-based social activist Angela Rangad — but why should the state’s men prefer more sons than daughters?

“Because, in their view of things, the things that matter, leading the darbars, it’s all about men — and they are also very patriarchal. In fact, there is a whole section of men who think that we are being held back because we are matrilineal,” she said.

Patricia Mukhim, Editor of The Shillong Times, raised questions about the sample size of the survey, the number of districts covered, and the educational level of the respondents. “In rural Meghalaya most women don’t want to reveal anything about their families. Khasis believe in privacy and don’t usually volunteer answers unless prodded or prompted,” she said.

She noted that NFHS-5 refers to Meghalaya as a “matriarchal society”. “Meghalaya is a matrilineal society where a deeper study on gender equality and equity will reveal a gender bias in traditional institutions, where women are not allowed to hold office. Only lineage is from the mother’s clan line. And women are perpetuators of the clan. Which also means that when a woman is abandoned by the husband/partner then the responsibility of looking after the children are solely hers. So defining Meghalaya society as matriarchal could mean that the survey itself is faulty,” she said.

Among those whose two children included at least one son, 9 in 10 said they did not want a third. (Source: NFHS)

Third child or not

The survey also asked married people with children if they wanted more children. Those who already had a son are less likely to want another child than those who already have children but no sons.

For example, among those whose two children included at least one son, 9 in 10 said they did not want a third. In contrast, among those with two children but no sons, only two-thirds said they did not want any more children.

This is much the trend across married men and women who have one, three, or four or more children (Tables 2 & 3).

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