Indian families are becoming less likely to use abortions to ensure the birth of sons rather than daughters – leading to a narrowing sex ratio at birth, according to the latest Pew Research Center study analysing the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data from 2019-2021.
The narrowing of ratio of boys to girls at birth – which has been widening since 1970s from the use of prenatal diagnostic technology to facilitate sex-selective abortions – coincides with broader social changes such as rising education and wealth, the study inferred.
Among the major religions in the country, the widest change in sex selection is among the groups that previously had the greatest gender imbalances – particularly among the Sikh community.
Son Preference Reduces as Ultrasound Use Increases
In the latest NFHS, conducted between 2019 and 2021, 15 percent of Indian women aged 15 to 49 reported wanting to have "more sons than daughters," while just 3 percent said they wanted otherwise.
While the 'preference for sons' is the main theoretical cause of India’s skewed sex ratio, the use of "prenatal sex screenings, and a subsequent decision to abort female fetuses," more directly result in an elimination of girls from the population.
Prenatal gender tests were available in India from the 1970s, however, were rare and expensive. From the 1980s, this became more widespread and affordable.
This was directly proportional to the widening sex ratio at birth – the number of boys born to every girl. From about 105 boys per 100 girls before 1970, it went to 108 boys per 100 girls in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, it reached 110 boys to every 100 girls born, and has remained so since.
According to the 2011 census, sex ratio reached 111 boys per 100 girls – but this has changed in the last decade. It first narrowed to 109 in the 2015-16 NFHS and to 108 boys in the latest wave of the NFHS, conducted from 2019-21.
The Pew study, quoting the NFHS 2019-21, said that an ultrasound test was performed on nearly eight in 10 Indian pregnancies – almost 78 percent – in the five years leading up to the survey.
In comparison, only one-quarter of pregnancies had an ultrasound before the 2005-06 survey.
"Meanwhile, Indian women seem to have become more likely to use ultrasound tests exclusively for medical purposes rather than to facilitate sex selection. Of course, researchers cannot know for sure what a woman’s intention is when she obtains an ultrasound, but an analysis of pregnancy outcomes reveals that the shares of male versus female births among 'ultrasound pregnancies' (those that involve prenatal testing) is moving toward balance, from 49 percent male versus 42 percent female in 2005-06 to 49 percent versus 44 percent in 2019-21," Pew Research Center study.
Decoding it further, the study stated, sex ratio at birth following ultrasound use during pregnancy is now 109 boys for every 100 girls. In the 2005-06 NFHS, it was 118.
India's Major Religions & Sex Ratio at Birth
The good news is over the past two decades, all of India’s major religious groups experienced a waning preference for sons, the Pew study inferred, adding that the change among Sikhs is "most pronounced."
In the most recent NFHS, just 9 percent of Sikh women said they wanted more sons than daughters, compared with three-in-ten in the 1998-99 survey, the Pew study reported.
Traditionally, Christian women have expressed relatively "weak preference" for sons. In the 2019-21 NFHS, 12 percent said they would prefer to have more sons than daughters, compared with 20 percent in 1998-99.
Muslims and Hindus, who have traditionally shown India’s highest levels of son preference – as measured in surveys – have seen a "moderate decline," the Pew study said.
Muslim women, however, now form the largest of those saying they would prefer more sons than daughters (19 percent in 2019-21 vs. 34 percent in 1998- 99), followed by Hindus (15 percent vs 34 percent).
"When it comes to the question of preferring daughters over sons, the change over the past two decades has been modest. Among Christians in India, 7 percent now say they would prefer to have more daughters than sons, compared with smaller shares of Muslims (4 percent), Hindus (3 percent) and Sikhs (2 percent)," the study pointed.
Sex Imbalance Also Tied to Fertility
Apart from education and wealth, a major factor that plays a role is fertility – as parents who plan to have fewer children may prefer to have a boy.
"In India, fertility has declined across all groups in recent decades, though Sikhs have consistently been the religious group with the lowest rates, and Muslims the highest. The fertility rate among Sikhs has fallen from an average of 2.3 children per woman in 1998-99 to 1.6 in 2019-21; among Muslims, it has dropped from 3.6 children to 2.4 over the same period,"
The NFHS data reveals yet another indicator of widespread son preference – married women with no living sons are much more likely than those with no living daughters to say they want to have more children (59 percent vs 41 percent), the Pew study said.
"Such gender bias in fertility desire is most striking among Sikhs. In the 2019-21 survey, six-in-ten married Sikh women with no living sons said they want to have more children, double the share of Sikhs with no living daughters who voiced the same desire," the study said.