Out of Balance

As a result of cultural preferences for sons, men significantly  outnumber women in India.

This imbalance has existed for decades and persists even in the face of steps to address it. India has laws designed to prevent parents from using ultrasound screenings or other technologies to decide whether to abort a girl. Such laws, however, are widely flouted.

But while the phenomenon of “missing women” is widely recognized, little has been known about its “consequences for family life and health-related and other behaviors,” said Scott South, professor in the University at Albany’s Department of Sociology and researcher with UAlbany’s Center for Social and Demographic Analysis. With research funding provided by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, South and colleagues are now shedding light on those consequences.

Using data from censuses and national surveys, South, in conjunction with UAlbany sociology professor Katherine Trent and SUNY New Paltz sociologist Sunita Bose, is examining the impact of an oversupply of males on such issues as mate selection processes, criminal victimization, men’s sexual risk behavior and violence against women.

For a woman, one consequence is a “higher likelihood that she will have little or no say in the selection of her husband and an increased probability she will meet her husband for the first time on her wedding day,” said South. “Men, by contrast, marry later or don’t marry at all, and are more likely to engage in commercial sex.”

Arranged marriages are traditional in India, although the practice has eroded somewhat in recent times due to modernization, westernization and urbanization.

In the face of a surplus of young adult men, however, families are more likely to easily find suitable husbands for their daughters while they are still young, leaving these daughters with little say over whom they will marry, said South. “Our results portend generally detrimental effects for women’s marital power, autonomy and well-being,” he added.

On the issue of criminal victimization, South and his colleagues have found that a numerical abundance of males in an area “increases the likelihood that Indian households are victimized by theft, breaking and entering, and assault, and increases the probability that young women are harassed in public places.”

“All in all,” said South, “our findings are giving us a better picture of what a society looks like when there is an oversupply of males. A rather simple facet of social structure — the relative numbers of men and women in a population — affects multiple dimensions of family life and population health.”