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Sons as insurance. The impact of changing patterns of social security on the masculinization of births

Thèse de socio-démographie préparée par TAFURO Sara sous la direction de Christophe GUILMOTO et de Sébastien Lechevalier

Axe 1 - Santé, vulnérabilités et relations de Genre au Sud

Résumé du projet de thèse

In recent years, the phenomenon of prenatal gender-biased sex selection has gathered growing attention, both for its rising scale and as a severe violation of human rights (WHO 2011). In countries where kinship systems are male-biased, pressure to give birth to a son may be compelling, and families have implemented strategies to meet such expectation for centuries. The advent of ultrasound examinations allowed to discover the sex of the fetus and to avoid the birth of unwanted daughters through pregnancy termination. Sex selective abortions have become common in several countries, starting in Asia in the 1980s (in China, India, South Korea, Nepal and Viet Nam) and spreading to the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and Eastern Europe (Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro) in the following decades. In these countries, the phenomenon is leading to a “distorted demographic masculinization” and to a deficit of several million female births every year (UNFPA, 2012).
Countries affected by a masculinization of births vary in their cultural, historical and socio-economic background. Three common factors have been deemed so far as essential to the development of the phenomenon : availability of reliable instruments to avoid the birth of a daughter, low fertility and a pervasive culture of son preference (Guilmoto, 2009). However, existing theories leave the role of socio-economic development and gender dynamics unexplained. It is noted in particular that selective abortions may persists in countries where reproductive rights, living standards and women empowerment have substantially improved over the last decades.
Research hypotheses
This Ph.D. research aims at testing the main hypothesis that in male-biased family arrangements sons are perceived as insurances against income vulnerability. As a consequence, the demand for sons would be influenced by the provision of alternative, non-familial protection schemes. In particular, the following two hypotheses will be explored :
-  In the short run, the inefficiency of non-familial social security schemes increases the demand for sons and the prevalence of sex selective abortions (once the other preconditions for prenatal sex selection are met).
-  In the long run, changing patterns of social security contribute to the transformation of family arrangements and gender roles within it. The development of social protection schemes outside the familial domain, if effective, may eventually result in the disappearance of son preference.
Main concepts
According to ILO, “social security is the protection that a society provides to individuals and households to ensure access to health care and to guarantee income security, particularly in cases of old age, unemployment, sickness, invalidity, work injury, maternity or loss of a breadwinner”. In general terms, such protection is offered either by the state, the market, by civil society organizations or the household. These four pillars on which social security is built act complementarily : when one is ineffective, the others normally develop an adequate response so as to safeguard individuals from income vulnerability.
Reliance on family-based support for economic and social security may lead to prenatal discrimination against daughters in the presence of a persistent son preference. Such factor, inherent in a diverse set of cultures, actualizes in practices of various kinds, among which patrilocal marriage and the expectation for sons to provide financial and old-age assistance to their parents. This research focuses on this particular dimension of son preference : its intimate link with intergenerational dependencies and economic reasoning.


gender-biased sex selection, son preference, gender discrimination, socio-economic vulnerability, social security.

Zone géographique

Asie, Europe.


• Début et fin du projet : Octobre 2016, Septembre 2019.