The Economics of a Girl Child

After Amir Khan talked about it on his show Satyamev Jayate the issue of saving the girl child caught the public imagination. The government machinery swung into action and within no time numerous advertisements were issued by the governments in newspapers. An example of such advertisements is shown below.

Many facebook pages came up like this using particularly touching pictographic material.

What do we infer from such advertisements / initiatives apart from the fact that obviously the girl child is in danger? These advertisements / initiatives seek to ‘increase the awareness’. They want to make people aware of how important the girl child is. However, the point to be noted here is that they depict the importance of the girl child to the society in general and not to the particular parent. It is this dynamics of the importance of the girl child to the society vis a vis the parent which we will explore in greater detail here. Then the government initiatives largely end here i.e. with the advertisements. True there are many schemes seeking to incentivise the birth of a girl child and laws penalising foeticide, but these are simply haphazard in planning and lax in implementation. Is this sufficient or is there an inherent drawback in this strategy?

Let us examine this issue in greater detail.

The Society versus the Individual

The girl child in current context is clearly a valuable asset to the society. Its simple, we need more girls to restore the gender balance. The other reasons – I needn’t even go into them as they are so well known.

Anyways, the point however is that to a parent, a girl child is a cost. She has to be fed (and hopefully educated) through her childhood and when the time comes to reap the benefits of this investment, she has to be married off and sent away. Her benefits flow to some other family. And not to mention the steep costs of the marriage. Thus to an individual parent couple, a girl child is a loss making proposition.

In other words, the girl child has large positive externalities. (A positive externality is a situation when the benefits of a commodity overflow to the society and can’t be limited to the buyer only. So the buyer derives less benefits and hence pays less. So the production will always be less than the socially desirable level.) In such a condition, left to its own, the society will never produce enough girl children (because producing a girl child is a loss making proposition for the parents so why should they produce a girl child). This is a classic case of market failure and hence we need the government to step in.

Returning to the spreading awareness initiatives, we can now question the effectiveness of this strategy. Are girls being killed really because people don’t know how important they are to the society? No sir no, even if all of us are educated to the highest levels, we will still never produce girl children to the socially needed level. Because the economics of a girl child simply doesn’t make any sense.

Then will reducing the expenses of marriage and dowry address the problem? Well it will certainly increase the number of girls (because the costs of a girl child are now less) but it will never produce the socially needed number of girls.

Will increasing penalties for pre natal sex determination tests help? Certainly it has the potential to correct the imbalance. But that will require a very high level of surveillance. Its biggest weakness is that it is a coercive method and tries to solve the problem without correcting the underlying market economics which gives birth to the problem in the first place.

This brings us to the question that what will work… The economics of the girl child is wrong and clearly we must correct the economics if we are to make any headway. In case of a girl child, marriage and subsequent migration is inevitable. So either we try to change the culture where traditionally the parents can’t live on the daughter’s earnings and daughters start to live with their parents only instead of migrating like the sons or we try to enhance the ‘earning power’ of the girls before they get married.

Changing the former may be a very slow process.. So the government must intervene to enhance the pre-marriage earning power of the girls instead of merely try to ‘spread awareness’. A very good case here is that of Bangladesh where each school attending girl is allowed to carry a bag of rice home every month. And believe it or not, Bangladesh performs better than India on almost all gender related indices. So enough of talk or giving fifty rupees as incentive to BPL citizens on each girl born. We need to correct the economics here.


24 Replies to “The Economics of a Girl Child”

  1. Nice article, Gauaji. Many of us is almost forget abt the issues raised in Satyamev.. :P .. solution what u hv suggested in this article will definitely help to solve the problem.. but do you really think economics is the only problem? there are families in our country .. who will never allow their daughter for education/ job.. bcoz its a matter of prestige!! and giving money/ rice will again raise a question on their so called prestige… so spreading awareness is also equally important but in a systematic manner… not like to spend crores in this only..


    1. Thanks bhabhi. Spreading awareness… Who is not aware of the importance of a girl… Every smoker knows smoking is injurious to his health… Anyways, prestige is secondary to hunger. We need to get the economics right.. Either by ensuring that the benefits of a girl flow to the parents post marriage also or by increasing her income stream pre marriage. Here delaying marriage and reducing marriage’s cost or creating a sort of reverse dowry will certainly help.


  2. Nice article Gaurav. In my opinion the problem of girl child economics cannot just he tackled in any one given way. India is a diverse country with diversity in religions , customs, regions, standard of living and the greatest of all MINDSET. We therefore need to use different weapons to win the war.

    Your take on fixing the economics is right, but HOW is the tough part. The BIG FAT INDIAN WEDDING tradition has to change. Our generation has to push our parents to not spend excessively in the weddings, rather the whole thing should be paid by the bride and groom collectively. The changing of the mindset will take sometime but will hopefully happen.

    Northeastern india rules in that sense, i am sure the sex ratio will not be as skewed in that part of india. Correct me if i am wrong.


    1. Thats true bhai. Sex ratio is higher in north east though on a decline even there. Anyways, changing mindset is a long game. It may easily take 2-3 generations… By the indian child sex ratio will be 800 if not less. So we gotta do something until then.


  3. There is another way to correct the unbalanced economics. Make boy children as an equally unattractive proposition to parents. Encourage nuclear families so that even boys are not beneficial to parents. Once both are equally bad options economically speaking, the gender bias should go down.

    Hopefully then, parents will rear children because they want a family, NOT because they want a pension.


    1. True my friend and thanks for commenting. While the proposition certaunly can address the gender bias, even in nuclear families sons can send money to their parents. But such a thing is unacceptable in case of a gal who has to be given money even after marriage. Then cultural changes require a great deal of time.


  4. Never thought of girl child issue in this way i.e. social benefits take a back seat if individual costs are high. I hope women reading this article don’t get offended for being treated as a commodity :) But it explains a lot. The big questions remain: what are the ways to reduce this cost? Is reducing cost more effective than penalizing? Or what combination of these two should be used?


    1. Dr parate, first of all thanks for taking your time out and commenting here.

      On commodification, vaise to this is india… And yahan par har koi kisi na kisi baat ko lekar offend ho hi jata hai… Par i hope that offend hone se pehele they will realise ki yahan par so called commodification kisi bhi angle se sexist nai hai aur women ko neecha dikhane k liye to bilkul nahi. Yaid yahan par women ka commodification hua hai to implicitly but equally male child ka bhi commodification hua hai. So i hope mujhe koi joote nahi maarega.


  5. Very interesting point. My initial observation would be that we need to strike at this problem from all angles, from making the laws stronger against dowries and pre natal sex determination to the current context.

    However, my view has always been that to tackle an issue, we must always address its route cause, which in the current context is the value system in India. If we are able to create an awareness about how absurd certain of our values and beliefs are in this time and age, we may be able to make a lasting impression, though it would certainly take its own sweet time.


    1. Bro, thanks for taking time out and commenting.

      On making laws stronger, i have my own doubts. I dont think dowry and pre natal selection laws, howsoever strong, can ever be effective. This is because it is a core part of the culture…everybody is doing it including the lawmakers. So how many policemen would you need to police such a thing.

      Coercion without correcting the economics is futile. And cultural changes are hopelessly slow. If bangladesh can do it why cant us?


  6. Very nice article. Different angle to approach the situation. Liked it very much sir. Thank you for your views.

    Improving contribution of females directly into the economy or betterment in financial stability is the only way to grow importance of a girl in our society today. This mindset should be worked throughout the country, no matter if it is a urban or rural remote areas.

    Our patriarchal society has been keeping this mindset since when we don’t know exactly, i.e. males should work outside for earning livelihood while managing household is the sole responsibility of females. There were other instruments to keep the negative imbalances of females in society among which some are effective till today.

    This scenario is changing now but it need more pace. Spreading awareness is a primary but very effective instrument for long term which needs to involve girls or female themselves. More girl child education, self help group, employment, marriage, penalty for dowry system, social security related effective policies are much needed to welcome a better India. The most important thing which is needed above all is to keep aside our ‘male ego’. Don’t know whether there are any effective remedy to it but may be education is the best thing to lighten all darkness.


  7. From my point of view,the marriage of a girl just after finishing her college education has now turned into a culture. Every parents follow this path.Late marriage after completing all her degrees is beyond their imagination.I am telling about the tradition in rural areas not about town.Being a villege boy,I am not aware about the tradition in town areas. From my opinion, if our govt create some seats as so called’RESERVED’ for the girls of any caste in our society, that will be great initiative. Our government reserved some seats for some castes (SC,ST,OBC) from very past days.Seat reserved for those who doesn’t need it anymore. Even their financial condition are not so bad that they have to be treated as ‘RESERVED’ category. Mark THEM and give those seats to the girls of our societies or if not ,give it to those who really need it.If it possible,our society will surely understand the importance of having a girl child. At last from my opinion,after getting job,a certain percentage of a woman’s earning (let 40%) will go directly to her parents joint bank account even after her marriage. This is a must step and our government must take this responsibility very seriously………..


  8. But also it becomes burden on part of the parent to protect her from meting on them any social stigma, given the conservative and taunting nature of society. Particularly in rural areas a girl has to be kept like a slave to avoid any social remarks. Parents are ever preoccupied with the concern of their daughter if she is out of the home. Keeping in mind the current situation of crime against woman/ girls, it becomes imperative for them keep an eyes on her in order to invite any problem. By the way a very good thought Gaurav. Hope you will work for betterment of the society.


  9. Few days back I found on Twitter one tweet advocating against educating the girls and inducting them in formal job sector in order to avoid the transition of Indian society into like western ones. Indian society is unique and approach to the problem needs deep analysis from the different angles. We can not merely copy the idea and apply that here. It is not gonaa work and even will worsen the crises. Engineering in all aspects of society is needed which is a matter of distant accomplishment. Government negligence also need to be taken into account to approach toward the problem.


  10. Since the beginning of agriculture in Neo lithic period, the division of labour commenced and from there began the gender enequality. Woman was to look after the farm and tend her child while man was to go out for hunting. And this norm kept coming since that time. In rigvadic period woman were given no importance and we’re expected to confined to home.


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