Get this: Even though India’s per capita GDP is higher than at least a 100 other countries, it has the fifth highest stunting rate in the world and children born in India are, on average, shorter than those born in Sub-Saharan Africa, even though the latter are far poorer. In fact, the stunting is most evident with Indian girls, especially those who are younger. And the reason is shocking: it’s not malnutrition but the preference for a son over a daughter as a first child.
“A desire to have at least one son and for the eldest son to be healthy – generates a starkly unequal allocation of resources within families in India. This, in turn, underlies the observed birth order and gender patterns in child height,” says a working paper published by the American non-profit, National Bureau of Economic Research which analyzes data for over 174,000 Indian and Sub-Saharan African children.
Seema Jayachandran, Associate Professor in the Department of Economics of Northwestern University, and Rohini Pande, Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School found that solely among firstborns, Indian children are actually taller. It’s only when you get to subsequent children that you find that Indian children are shorter, and that gap gets bigger as you go down the birth order. This implies that the parents invest less in their kids over time.
The basic finding of the study is this: In India the first child —if he is a son—doesn’t suffer from stunting. But, if the first—and so the eldest—child of the family is a girl, she suffers from a height deficit. And, then, if the second child is a boy, and hence the eldest son of the family, he will not be stunted. This ‘South Asian enigma ‘ which begins only with the second-born child, and becomes more pronounced for each subsequent baby is due to ‘unequal allocation of resources to the first child.
The reasons behind preference for a male child are several— sociological as well as economical.
One, a patrilocal and patrilineal kinship: Aging parents live with their son, typically the eldest, and bequeath property to him, while the dowries paid to marry off daughters can be expensive. This often leads to sex-selective abortion
Second, Hindu religious texts emphasize post death rituals which can only be conducted by a male heir.
Third, men bring in more money into the family since women are given few opportunities to work
Here, we could also argue that genes maybe causing stunted growth. But as the study points out, heights vary according to the order of the birth. Basically, the first child is the tallest; the second is shorter but taller than the third, and so on. If genes were responsible for the children being short, then all children within a family would be impacted.
What’s worse is that heights decline with birth order only among Hindus and not Muslims. Moreover, Kerala, which is a largely matrilineal society, does not have any such decline in height with the birth order either.
A global nutrition report released in November 2014 by the International Food Policy Research Institute found India had been able to reduce the incidence of stunted children — a product of malnutrition — from 47.9 percent to 38.8 percent of its children under five in the past eight years. But Indian children still languish near the bottom of worldwide height distribution for age and sex, despite the fact Indian mothers are more likely to survive childbirth than many of their African counterparts, and their children will probably live longer, be better educated and wealthier.
So how can this situation improve?
Educating parents about investing equally in children and a inculcating a stronger desire to have girls. This can be achieved by changing gender attitudes in secondary schools and by ensuring more women join the labour force. At least in the urban middle class, many of the incentives to have a boy child are beginning to evaporate as daughters take on the responsibility of taking care of aging parents.