Department of Anthropology

About the project

Son preference in the UK

Project Scope

Son preference and the increasing availability of prenatal sex selection procedures since the 1980s have shaped reproductive practices and contributed to an estimated 100 million missing girls in Asia. Son preference motivated family-making decisions   have also been evidenced among Asian communities in the UK, the USA, and Canada, and is of considerable concern for the communities involved, women's groups, the health sector, policy makers and society at large. The overarching aim of this proposal is to evaluate gender preferences through reproductive decision-making among Asian communities in the UK and gain a contextual understanding of the dynamic factors at play that inform an ethically founded and gender just policy framework and interventions.

The proposed project responds to the explicit calls for research on policy development with regard to son preference and its potential translation into sex-selection in the UK, Europe and Asia, with high propensity for policy related impact (see for instance Serious Crime Act 2015, section 84 (UK); resolution 1829 of the Council of Europe; the interagency statement 'Preventing gender-biased sex selection' of the OHCHR, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and WHO). To coherently tackle the multifaceted aspects of the topic, the project brings together extensive expertise on reproduction, family dynamics, son preference and its manifestations that will enable qualitative and quantitative approaches that are all relevant for informed policy. 

The quantitative analysis will use available demographic data from various sources and innovative demographic methods to analyse gender-based childbearing practices (e.g. the stopping rule), sex ratio at birth (SRB), trends and intergenerational changes, providing novel and robust evidence of demographic manifestations of son preference, also clarifying potential evidence of prenatal sex-selection (PSS) in recent years in the UK. Qualitative analysis will be undertaken on inter-generational family dynamics within the Asian communities to investigate contextualised practices and changes in son preference and related patriarchal ideologies.

An in-depth understanding of the interdependencies between factors underpinning gender preferences provides a rare opportunity to contribute to the theories of gender inequality. This work will investigate not only the pervasiveness of the gendered social order and shifting patriarchal cultures within Asian communities but also the dynamic interrelation of differently gendered social systems. This would help describe and understand how the intersection of class, age and race/ethnicity qualify gender embeddedness within the changing social fabric of contemporary British society, inform the potential diversity of complex gendered experiences including how this is challenging (or not) the very idea of gender norms. The proposed work will also provide a rich case study to advance transnational theories.

Outcomes are likely to support informed policy interventions aimed at normative, cultural and behavioural changes. In addition, we will conduct an ethical analysis within a gender justice framework that will, combined with a policy framing analysis, further inform best practice of potential interventions and support communication of the above research findings. Throughout, a variety of stakeholders (academics, medical professionals, women's groups/NGOs, policy makers) will be engaged in this multi-disciplinary project, including the Department of Health (partner), to provide the best evidence-based knowledge on son preference, related childbearing practices  that is of direct relevance to the women concerned, their family, community-based women's organisations, the medical sector, and of importance to inform policies promoting gender equality in the UK and beyond.


Returnee Mum & Baby