Structural Violence against Women, Female Feticide and Preference for Son

Author Name: Maham S. Gillani      07 Dec 2019     Society

Violence against women is a global pandemic, affecting one in three women in their lifetime. Social, cultural and religious values of most traditional societies in the developing world are structured in such a way that exploitation of this marginalized segment is promoted.

Violence against women is gendered, embodied as well as institutionalized. Johan Galtung referred to this phenomenon as ‘structural violence’. It denotes a type of violence wherein some social structure or institution may harm people by preventing them from fulfilling their basic needs. Galtung defined structural violence as “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs.” Often, structural violence is intertwined with or a cause of direct violence in the developing world.

Girls begin facing violence even before being born in the form of female feticide – a type of direct violence which is a consequence of structural violence. Female feticide involves finding the sex of the fetus and aborting it if it is a girl. A global study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identifies twelve countries with strong statistical evidence of sex ratio at birth (SRB) imbalance during 1970-2017. The study reveals that nearly 23.1 million females are missing globally because of sex-selective abortions. The majority of these missing female births occur in China and India. China currently has 11.9 million missing girls while India has nearly 10.6 million. One of the main reasons for sex-selective abortion in these countries is strong social preference for son, according to a United Nations study.

Preference for son stems from several factors: first, patrineality – kinship system in which family lineage is passed only through male descendants. Thus, having a son means family name could be continued and passed on to future generations but a daughter is unfortunately not accorded the same privilege. Ironically, the child that comes through a woman’s body does not take her name; instead, it is her husband’s heir, descendant or successor.

Second, old age support – sons are deemed guardians of their ageing parents and responsible for supporting them during illness. Aged parents usually live with their married children, overwhelmingly with their sons rather than daughters. For instance, in countries such as Taiwan, India and Pakistan, it is rare for parents to live with their married daughters.

Third, dowry – it is the payment in the form of money or property from the bride’s family to the groom’s. Cultural practices such as dowry pose a serious economic challenge to parents of daughters, especially in countries such as India and Pakistan where this practice is rampant. Such cultural practices in these societies result in girls being viewed as a burden on their families.

Fourth, labour force opportunities – due to the gender pay gap, males earn more than females and therefore can bring better economic dividends to the family. Gender pay gap depicts inequalities and discrimination in the labour market that majorly affects women. Women earn markedly less than men over their entire careers for complex, often interconnected reasons. These include differences in caring responsibilities, involvement of more women in low-skilled and low-paid work and blatant discrimination. The Fawcett Society reports that the current mean hourly gender pay gap is 13%. Sex differences in economic opportunities are also a consequence of undervaluing the work of women. In many parts of the world, unpaid or informal work accounts for a majority share of female employment. In this sense, informal employment is viewed as an extension of women’s domestic work instead of being valued in its own right.

Fifth, societal pressure – parents prefer sons not just for economic reasons but also to evade societal pressure that comes as a repercussion of having a daughter. Research reveals that women face persistent pressure, in addition to verbal and physical abuse, from in-laws and husbands to give birth to a son.

Last, religion – a son is also preferred due to the belief in some cultures that only a son can light the funeral pyre and carry out last rights of the deceased needed for salvation.

Due to all the aforementioned reasons, sons are viewed as an asset and daughters a liability. This denigrates the status of a woman in her family as well as society early on in life. She is not even deemed suitable to pass on her name to her child – a product of her body. Her own parents would rather live with their married son than with her, in order to conform to societal norms. Furthermore, cultural practices like dowry and pressure to give birth to a son after marriage compound parents’ inherent bias against daughters in some parts of the world.

To sum up, direct and structural violence against women are essentially two sides of the same coin. It can be argued that the former is certainly more manifest than the latter. Nevertheless, direct violence cannot be eliminated without doing away with the underlying obstinate social, cultural and religious norms, mores and structures that fuel and perpetuate structural violence.

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). This article was first published in regional times. She can be reached at

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