Author: Ranjani K. Murthy, February 12 2015 - There are several gender-specific targets suggested by different UN agencies as part of post-2015 Development Agenda which are beyond those included in the MDGs.  However, they do not include the target of equitable sex ratio at birth. This paper argues that it is important to include this target from an intrinsic and instrumental lens (for achieving and other gender equality and development targets). It also points to possible indicators that could be used for measuring equitable sex-ratio at birth  



There are several gender-specific ‘asks’ by different UN agencies beyond the targets that are already included in the MDGs as post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. The new demands by UN Women, UNICEF and UNFPA include prevention of violence against women and girls, women’s sexual reproductive health and rights, women’s rights to property , and decision making in all realms of society These are indeed important to include if women’s rights are to be further and gender equality is be achieved.  

Table 1: Post-2015 Development Indicators

Pertaining to Gender Equality, Women’s Rights and Women’s Empowerment

However, the important target of equitable sex-ratio at birth seems to have slipped through the weft of demands.  This paper defines equitable sex-ratio at birth and argues that addressing other proposed targets on gender equality and women’s empowerment may not automatically lead to equitable  sex ratio at birth and hence a stand-alone target on achieving equitable sex ratio at birth with appropriate indicators (elaborated later) are required.  Further it posits that equitable sex-ratio at birth is of intrinsic value, as well as instrumental to achievement and measurement of other targets on gender equality and women’s empowerment and development in general.

What is equitable sex ratio?  

The principle of equity is closely related to justice and fairness.    Biologically there are more males born than females, and hence an equitable sex ratio at birth is estimated to be 104-106 male births to 100 females birth (UNFPA, 2012).  

The Sex Ratio at Birth is skewed in eleven countries (Figure 1), and with the number of countries increasing over the years.   The phenomenon of inequitable sex ratio cuts across religion and can be found in Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim dominated countries.  Together these countries constitute over 40% of the world population in 2013, and may constitute a larger population in the coming years.  Republic of Korea has seen an improvement in sex-ratio at birth due to the government launching the ‘Love your Daughter’ media campaign along with legal and policy measures; including strict implementation of legislation against prenatal sex-selection (Birchall and Rao, 2012). 

Figure 1: Countries with skewed Sex Ratio at Birth


Source: UNFPA, 2012 drawing upon National Statistical Offices and Eurostat for all countries other than Kosovo: Guilmoto, C.Z and G, Duthe, 2013 drawing on vital records.[If the figure does not appear in your browser, please click here and then click to enlarge the figure.


Do not proposed existing targets address the causes of skewed sex ratio at birth?

Sex ratio at birth is related to deep rooted norms on son-preference which both men and women in some societies hold. The relationship between the proposed post 2015 targets like women’s education, reproductive rights, female labour force participation, and women’s participation in decision making and sex ratio at birth or child sex ratio (sex ratio of 0-6 years) is not uni-linear. The state of Kerala in India, with the highest female literacy rate in the country of 92%[1] as of 2011 has seen a decline in child sex-ratio between 1991 (976 females per 1000 males) and 2011 (959 females per 1000 males) (Rajagopal, 2014). As per the National Family Health Survey (2005-6) 22.5% of women and 20% of men in the age group 15-49 years want more sons than daughters (International Institute of Population Sciences and Macro International, 2007). Thus strengthening reproductive rights without changing deep rooted attitudes of women and men may not help combat skewed sex-ratio at birth. In China, the female labour-force-participation rate stood at a significant 67.7% as of 2011 as per the Human Development Report 2013 but nevertheless sex ratio at birth is heavily skewed[2]. In India women constitute 36.9% of those elected to the local government as of 2011, largely due to the 33% reservation for women in rural and urban local bodies (Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2011). However, more women at the local government has not translated into reduction in son preference, as some of them are proxies for their husbands, gender dynamics within local governments as well as patriarchal attitudes of the women themselves. There is hence a strong case for inclusion of a target of Equitable Sex Ratio at birth under the Goal “Gender Equality, Women’s Rights and Women’s Empowerment”

Intrinsic and instrumental reason for inclusion of sex-ratio at birth as a target

Equitable sex-ratio at birth is an intrinsic value by itself and skewed sex ratio at birth is a violation of principles of fairness and justice. The Beijing Platform for Action, 1995 mentions that prenatal sex-selection is a form of violence against women. The International Conference on Population Development’s Programme of Action, 1994 sees prenatal sex-selection as a form of discrimination against girl children. Both the documents call upon national governments to prevent prenatal sex-selection. Thus skewed sex-ratio at birth can be seen as a form of violation of women’s and girls’ human rights.   

Apart from equitable sex-ratio at birth being of intrinsic value, it can hamper achievement of other development goals and gender equality related goals. Further, it can lead to wrong interpretations on whether goals/targets are being achieved.


Gender-equality related goals

Several researchers have observed that in inequitable sex-ratio at birth leads to ‘bride’ shortage and in turn there is a tendency to ‘buy’ brides from another caste and region. While some researchers from the state of Haryana and Punjab have observed that there is no abuse in these relations, several have observed that caste hierarchies persist and the women are not treated on par with Caste Hindu sister-in-laws and at times treated as helps.  Some of the brides are as young as 13 years. Children born out of such marriages are not always treated equally as their Caste cousins (see Sharma, 2011, Kumari, 2013). Another study in Haryana revealed that if the husband or martial family is not happy with the woman he has purchased she is resold (Raza, 2014). If the husband dies the purchased woman is at times asked to leave by marital family. Though such eviction happens with any married woman in North West India, a “purchased” bride is at an added disadvantage. Cases of kidnapping of women and girls are reported to have increased with inequitable sex ratio, though attribution is an issue (Raza, 2014). Love marriages across castes meet with resistance from Khap panchayats[3]. In parts of India with skewed sex-ratio at birth and where polyandry existed in the past, there are reports of it resurfacing. (Sardana, n.d.) In China, as well there is anecdotal evidence linking violence against women and girls going up with inequitable sex-ratio at birth, but greater evidence is required on causality (Hesketh, Lu and Xing, 2011)

Apart from inequitable sex-ratio at birth increasing violence against women, it may also lead to less gender parity in education and public-decision making due to the sheer fact of lesser women being present.

Hampering Achievement of other development goals:

Women play a more important role than men in agriculture and strengthening food security. If sex-ratio at birth is highly skewed it could lead to a skewed sex-ratio of adult population. This in turn affects agriculture, especially in countries like India wherein women form a greater proportion of the agriculture work force than men (Sardanan, n.d.)

In China, there are reports of young men spending less and saving for their marriage. The more their savings, the greater is their chance of finding a bride (Wei and Zhang, 2011). Reduced spending in turn hampers the growth of the economy.

Those from the lower economic strata in China do not manage to save enough to find a bride and the frustration. There is a crisis in masculinities which in turn could lead to increase in crime and violence in society (Golley and Tyers, 2012, Hesketh, Lu and Xing, 2011). Another observation is the link between marriage and productivity and health. Married men in China are reported to being more productive than single men (Golley and Tyers, 2012). Eleven percent less of unmarried men reported that they were in good health when compared to men who were married (Golley and Tyers, 2012). Hesketh, Lu and Xingh, 2011 note higher rates of mental health problems amongst unmarried men. The studies, however, assume that those outside marriage are not in relationship.



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Golley, J and R, Tyers, 2012, China’s Gender Imbalance And Its Economic Performance, Working Papers in Economics No. 2012-10, UWA Business School, Perth, Last Accessed 27th March, 2014

Guilmoto, C.Z and G, Duthe, 2013, Masculinization of births in Eastern Europe Population and Societies, Number 506 • December 2013, Last Accessed 27th March, 2014

Hesketh, T, L Lu and Z.W, Xing, 2011, The consequences of son preference and sex-selective abortion in China and other Asian countries, September 6, 2011, vol. 183, no. 12, Last Accessed 27th March, 2014

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Rajagopalan, S, 2014, Link between scanners and falling child sex ratio in Kerala? The Hindu, KOCHI, January 6, 2014

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Sardana, MMK, n.d., Declining Sex Ratios, Will it Impact Economic Growth, ISID Discussion Notes, Last Accessed 27th March, 2014

Sharma, 2011, Brides purchased, then exploited in Haryana, Punjab, Last Accessed 27th March, 2014

UNFPA, 2012, Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current Trends, Consequences and Policy Implications, UNFPA Asia and Pacific Regional Office, Bangkok

UNFPA, n.d, Empowering People To Ensure a Sustainable Future for All, Last Accessed 27th March, 2014

UNICEF, 2013, UNICEF key asks on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, Last Accessed 27th March, 2014

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Wei S.J and X Zhang, 2011, The Competitive Saving Motive: Evidence from Rising Sex Ratios and Savings Rates in China,  NBER Working Paper Number 15093, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, USA (2009, revised in 2011)

[1] Provision Data from 2011 Census

[2] See Figure 1

[3] Traditional councils for few villages, often act as Kangaroo courts. They comprise mainly of upper-castes, and exclusively of men.

Image credit: Washington Post