'Patriarchy still shapes actual fertility decision-making'

M Niaz Asadullah

M Niaz Asadullah, professor of economics at the University of Malaya, Malaysia, has been involved in research on poverty, inequality, education, labour market, skills formation and gender issues with a focus on South/East Asia for more than a decade. He recently led research on the decline in preference for male children among women in Bangladesh. He talked to Hasanul Banna of Prothom Alo about the study and other issues including the impact of COVID-19 on education and the state of research quality in Bangladesh.

Q :

Your research shows a decline in preference for male children by women of childbearing age in Bangladesh. Done the ages, parents have had a partiality for sons in South Asian countries. Why is this preference waning?

Historically women in South Asia have experienced many forms of gender inequality. An extreme form of this the phenomena of missing women and a deficit of women in the population relative to men because of son-favouring fertility behaviour. This shows in unbalanced sex ratio in the population. This ratio is becoming balanced in Bangladesh. However, a South Asia-wide shift hasn't happened yet, particularly in India and Pakistan.

What is also remarkable about Bangladesh is the speed of reduction in fertility – the average number of births per couple declined in a very short time before we became rich in terms of per capita income. Historically, this happened in countries at a later stage in economic development. A unique pattern of social development in Bangladesh over the past three decades, combined with improved economic opportunities for all to create a momentum whereby women do not see themselves as a liability, rather a valuable asset. That's why we are seeing this preference for male children waning in Bangladesh but not so much so in India.

Q :

What are factors contributing to the gender balance in child sex composition?

What we have found that there is a gender balance in fertility preference in Bangladesh. Parents want two children of the opposite gender instead of two sons. And it's a confluence of two forces – economic and social. On the social front, women's visibility has improved as NGO workers alongside enhanced access to education. Since the 1990s, governments regardless of their political affiliation sustained support for a scholarship programme for girls’ secondary education. All parties had a complete political consensus that women needed better literacy to become better mother and productive worker.

On the economic front, opportunities had to be created to also allow women to use their education. Fortunately, the boom in our readymade garment (RMG) sector created millions of jobs primarily for women. Employment in our expanding NGO sector gave women social recognition while economic recognition came from RMG work. These two shifts in women’s status have combined to change the attitude towards girls in fertility. In our analysis, we find that women who show gender balance in fertility preference are more likely to be those with secondary education and in locations with better access to RMG work.

Q :

What will be the economic outcome of this decline in preference for male children by women of childbearing age in Bangladesh? How can the country make the most of it?

Bangladesh is approaching a turning point where we are now seeing a fundamental shift in attitude towards daughters. According to our research, this attitudinal shift is so far limited to women. This is still significant because within the household mothers maintain food allocations and decide spending on children and fathers earn. The economic outcome will be inclusive human development in the gender generation. This trend can be further leveraged if we can, through appropriate institutional measures, ensure that it is not just women who now have equal preference for boys and girls, but also men in Bangladeshi society. Once that happens, society-wide women will come of age and they will be collectively better prepared for the economy. They will be also better prepared to offer leadership in politics and financial sector. We have a deficit of female leaders and CEOs. Bangladesh will have a much larger and productive workforce comprising many millions of more women in the labour market. Even if there is no economic benefit, the fact is that we are thinking equally about daughters and sons, is a milestone achievement because it’s one of the conditions for an inclusive society.

Q :

Despite a decline, why are fertility decisions still influenced according to son preference? What are the factors here?

Yes, our research shows a discord between the desires among women for balanced child composition within marriage versus their actual practice or fertility behaviour. The answer lies in two factors. One is that the mother desires one daughter and one son but she's not able to translate her desire into action. Within marriage, this is achieved through participation in the decision-making process. In this case, the decision relates to contraception usage. But women don't have full control over contraception choice. So, that shows in the difference between the number of babies (and composition of children) and the mother’s personal desire.

The second issue is that even when they have control over contraception, they may not have control over the actual decision regarding whether to conceive or not. There comes the role of men. In patriarchal Bangladeshi society when it comes to decisions relating to marriage and birth of a child, a lot of people participate. Patriarchy in many instances still shapes the actual fertility decision-making. So, women may desire something but their actual choice still is not in their hand.

Q :

Your research found that desire for gender balance in the sex composition of children is stronger among women who are co-residents with their mothers-in-law? What are the factors that contribute to this?

This is a puzzle for us. One reason for which we expected the shift in desire to be happening in Bangladesh was the decline of joint family- a social institution. Even today, if we go back to Bangladeshi villages, you will find large cluster of households called “bari”. They share a common kitchen. That means they depend on others for resources including cooked meals and their decisions are not independent. So, this is the kind of setting that undermines women's say in fertility, allowing immediate kin to have a say. I think the way to interpret this counterintuitive result would be that once the woman gives birth to a son, she feels that her mother-in-law is happy. So, she's more confident in speaking truthfully about her desire. It's a very progressive story in South Asian context but this needs more research.

Q :

UN organisations warned that COVID-19 will increase child marriage around the world. Will these underage girls have any say in their preference for children? What are your thoughts?

There are two issues here. One is the rise in child marriage and another is the possible spike in fertility, meaning unplanned pregnancies or unplanned births. This implies that adolescent daughters not only risk getting married too early, they can also become a mother too early. Two issues are involved; one is the experience of early marriage and the other is early motherhood. The most damaging is the experience of early motherhood. Because their body is not fully ready to bear a child. It risks maternal death related to complications at early childbirth.

These risks are magnified in South Asian context, given the process through which girls get married. Research confirms that more than 70 per cent of cases of marriages are arranged. It is family initiated. In marriages are arranged, in a large number of cases, girls aren't even asked for an opinion. It's imposed on her. Therefore, child marriage can be seen as a case of violation of freedom and anti-development. Child marriage is an institution for the transmission of traditional preference. In Bangladesh, young brides are sought after because they will do as they will be told. So, these underage girls will not have a preference for when to have a child and how many children to have. Given these social traditions, COVID-19 poses a serious threat to underage girls in South Asia.

Q :

COVID-19 has affected education globally. Schools remain closed almost everywhere. Since these COVID-19 generations lack schooling for a year, will they be able to contribute similarly to others after situations return normal? What will be the economic impact?

Last year, in collaboration with BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), I conducted a nationwide study on the impact of COVID-19 on learning activities in the rural Bangladesh and urban slums. We found evidence of a devastating impact on children's educational future, a complete collapse of the learning landscape. The majority of children at home were not spending time on education, even among those with access to the government’s distance learning programs. World Bank estimates that COVID-19 will cost the world trillions of dollars in terms of lost labour market earnings. This is going to be even worse in countries where education quality is poor. When you belong to a country where the state has a high capacity to protect its citizens, where education quality is good, the impact can be short term. In the long term, they can catch up. But where institutions are of poor quality, schools are inadequately funded, and teachers are not qualified, there will be a systemic deficit in learning outcomes and skills. This combined with the World Bank’s estimates on the lost earnings figure would imply a depletion of human capital or asset of Bangladeshi youths. Education is the most important pre-market asset. If this is lost unequally and unexpectedly, then it can create new inequalities in the labor market including working poverty.

Q :

Recently, there have been a lot of talk on the quality of research carried out by the universities, especially the public ones, in Bangladesh. As an academic, what are your recommendations to increase the quality of research at universities in Bangladesh?

This is, of course, a fundamental question. As we talk, Dhaka University is celebrating its 100th year. Unfortunately what has happened over time is regression to mediocrity and a shift away from research and too much engagement in unproductive and wasteful nonacademic activities among university teachers. In South-East Asian countries like Malaysia, there is a political consensus on political activities on campus and political engagements by professors. The challenge for Dhaka University is partly its legacy. Historically it has been used for non-academic reasons and anti-state movements. So, even today, instead of research, political ambitions motivate many students and professors to choose public university employment; only a minority is research-driven. But the voice of the non-research minded majority dictates, and the rest remains marginalized.

To increase quality research, I would recommend internationalising our public universities - opening up admission and academic appointments so that foreign academics and global talents will come and compete for promotion, for jobs. The presence of international students will compel university authorities to respond to global demands for quality education. Another area for intervention is the culture of publishing in indexed scholarly journal vetted by international agencies and moving away from those published by local bodies. Most local journals have no recognition outside the country.

In Bangladesh, research culture has suffered badly because of academic cronyism. One can quickly publish and secure promotion if connected to an editor of these dubious journals. Such academic nepotism has been stamped out in Southeast Asia and ASEAN countries decades ago. That is an important explanation for how countries like Malaysia have left Bangladesh behind in international ranking of public universities in such a short time. The punch line is that our public university professors must prioritise scholarship over politics, and focus on knowledge production instead of socially wasteful, but privately profitable activities. In all leading universities around the world, it is the rule of merit and rule of law that govern universities.

Q :

As an Oxford-PhD holder and an economics professor, do you have any advice for the Bangladeshi students who aspire to go abroad for higher studies?

Despite coming from a country where the public education system is nearly broken, Bangladeshi students are highly sought after by top universities around the world. It shows our resilience, self-belief and immense potential. If we had a quality education system, we would be dominating our South Asian neighbours globally and regionally. But the sad reality is that we are struggling locally -- our largest industrial sector exporting readymade garments today is a leading destination for job seekers from neighboring India. But change is possible. With the power of the Internet, today it has becomes much easier to reach out to non-resident Bangladeshi academics abroad and seek advice and draw inspiration. With the rise of the social media, our youths are globally engaged. These are promising developments. If they remain focused on their mission, there are better opportunities ahead.

For those academically minded, I would emphasise that anyone aspiring to do a PhD should do it outside Bangladesh. My message to young Bangladeshis would be that dream big, aim high, look up and look beyond Bangladesh. Develop your talents and achieve your full potential so that you can help build a better Bangladesh with smart policy solutions and brighter ideas.