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NFHS-5: India's preference for sons over daughters remains

Many in India believe that a male child would carry forward the family name and look after the parents in their old age

A new Indian government survey shows that there have been improvements in the country's sex ratio, but an overwhelming majority still desire a male child, writes the BBC's Shadab Nazmi in Delhi.

Nearly 80% of those surveyed said they wanted at least one son in their lifetime, according to the latest figures from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), the most comprehensive household survey of Indian society by the government.

This preference for sons over daughters - described as "son preference" - is rooted in the traditional belief that a male child would carry forward the family name and look after the parents in their old age, while daughters would leave them for their matrimonial homes and cost them dowries.

Campaigners say this has resulted in a sex ratio that is heavily skewed in favour of men and has long been India's shame.

Over 100 years, the census has shown that there have been more men in India than women. According to the last census in 2011, there were 940 women for every 1,000 men and the child sex ratio [which counts children from birth to six years] was at 918 girls for 1,000 boys. This has led critics to name India "a country of missing women".

The NFHS-5 survey, done between 2019 and 2021, shows improvement in the sex ratio from previous years - for the first time, it says, there are more females than males in India.

But the data suggests that the historical preference for boys remains. Over 15% people - 16% men and 14% women - told the surveyors that they wanted more sons than daughters. It's an improvement from 2015-16 (NFHS-4) when 18.5% women and 19% men wanted more sons, but many couples continue to keep having daughters in the hope of having a boy.

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Indrani Devi, a 32-year-old mother of three girls who works as a domestic helped in the capital, Delhi, told the BBC that she wanted a "complete" family - two boys and one girl.

"But god had different plans and all my children turned out to be daughters," she said.

She is now reconciled to her fate and has decided to not have any more children. "My husband is a bus driver and we can't afford any more children," she added.

Like Indrani Devi, nearly 65% married women in the age group of 15-49 with at least two daughters and no sons, told the NFHS-5 they did not want more children. The number has gone up from NFHS-4 six years ago, when it was 63%.

There is another silver lining - the desire to have more daughters than sons has increased to 5.17% from 4.96% in 2015-16 (NFHS-4). The change, though marginal, shows that at least some Indian parents want more girls than boys.

Experts believe it can be directly linked to India's falling fertility rate - the average number of children a woman gives birth to.

Urbanisation, growing female literacy and increased access to contraception have brought the fertility rate to 2 - if the number falls below approximately 2.1, then the size of the population starts to drop.

For a country of 1.3 billion people, that may not seem like a bad thing, but experts say for a healthy population growth, India must address its skewed gender ratio.

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