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Son preference and sex selection: Diffusion processes and re-evaluation of policies in India.

School of Geography and Environmental Science

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Dr S Dubuc Applications accepted all year round Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Amartya Sen’s seminal article ‘More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing’ in 1990, brought the topic of sex-selection against females to global attention and inspired academic work in the field1. Economic and cultural intertwined factors in many patriarchal Asian societies underpin a deep-rooted preference for sons and have resulted in neglect, abandonment and infanticide of girls. Since the 1980’s, the availability of prenatal sex diagnostics (mainly ultrasound) has enabled pre-natal sex selection through abortion of the diagnosed female foetus, potentially compounding male biased population imbalances in countries where son-preference prevails2. Pre-natal sex selection and its resulting population gender imbalance is of considerable concern in countries like China and India and many policies aim to restrict the practice, including bans on pre-prenatal sex diagnostics and girl child ‘protection’ schemes3. The potential success of such policies to reduce sex selection against females is unclear and is the subject of this PhD project. The project will involve both quantitative (demographic) and qualitative work.

Prenatal sex-selection is generally and quantitatively evidenced by a bias in the sex-ratio at birth (SRB) in a population4. Geographic variations of the ‘natural’ SRB exist, ranging globally from 103 to 106, and significant deviation from natural SRB indicates pre-natal sex selection. In India, pre-natal sex selection is most prevalent in Northern States, where the SRB has reached 128 in Punjab. The most recent census (2010) indicated that the national SRB has further risen since 2000, although changes by state were very heterogeneous and broadly suggesting a diffusion of pre-natal sex selection practices rather than a further rise in states with most notorious gender imbalances5. There are three recognised drivers for SRB bias: Son preference (motivation), access to prenatal sex-selection techniques (means), and fertility reduction (urgency). Hitherto, fertility (average number of children per family) was thought to impact on SRB bias because with fewer desired children, the probability to remain sonless increases exponentially, so that more parents feel pressured to sex select, a well-documented phenomenon termed the ‘fertility squeeze effect’6. Uncertainties of how fertility quantitatively impacts on the SRB bias have hampered efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of relevant policies, which generally target the former two drivers. We have recently solved this conundrum through mathematical modelling and identified a straightforward indicator to directly assess pre-natal sex selection prevalence and changes over time7. Using pre-natal sex selection prevalence instead of SRB bias as indicator for the extent pre-natal sex selection now allows to faithfully re-evaluate practices and attitudes and recent changes towards sex selection in India, which will inform policy. Building on this advance in the field, the successful PhD applicant will have the unique opportunity to make important academic contributions to the field, which will have an impact on Indian society and beyond.

Dr Sylvie Dubuc, who has recently joined Reading University from Oxford, will supervise the PhD project. Sylvie Dubuc has an extensive experience and track record of research in the field of gender preferences and sex-selection. You will join a small, friendly and dynamic team working on various aspects of son preference and sex selection against females and benefit from regular group meetings, feedback and supportive supervision from Dr Dubuc and Dr Kuang. Your PhD aligns and will benefit from a large ESRC grant on sex selection (ESRCGrant Ref: ES/N01877X/1). The outlined project will provide you with a solid grounding on the subject while leaving scope to develop and pursue your own research ideas, which is encouraged during the course of your PhD. This will be facilitated through interactions with our multidisciplinary and international professional network.

Funding Notes

Strong candidates will be supported to apply for competitive PhD funding. Depending on eligibility criteria, these could include funding listed here:


1. Sen A (1990) More than 100 million women are missing. In: Murthy P, Smith CL, editors. The New York Review of Books. Canada: Edition 2010, Jones and Bartlett.
2. Dubuc S. (2018, in press). ‘Son preference and fertility: an overview’ Chapter in Family Demography in Asia: A Comparative Analysis of Fertility Preferences’ eds by S. Basten, J. Casterline, and Minja Choe. Edward Elgar publisher.
3. WHO. Preventing gender-biased sex-selection: an interagency statement OHCHR, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and WHO., 2011:26 p.
4. Dubuc S, Coleman D. An Increase in the Sex Ratio of Births to India‐born Mothers in England and Wales: Evidence for Sex‐Selective Abortion. Population and Development Review 2007;33:383-400.
5. Jha P, Kesler M, Kumar R, et al. Trends in selective abortions of girls in India: analysis of nationally representative birth histories from 1990 to 2005 and census data from 1991 to 2011. The Lancet 2011;377:1921-28.
6. Guilmoto C. The sex ratio transition in Asia. Population and Development Review 2009;35:519-49.
7. Dubuc and Sivia (2018, in press) Is sex ratio at birth an appropriate measure of prenatal sex-selection? Findings of a theoretical model and its application to India. BMJ Global Health.

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