When Mauli Mane was born three years ago, his grandmother gave him a pair of heavy silver anklets. His five elder sisters had never experienced such generosity. While the family celebrated his birth, one of his sisters, Namrata, 8, was being treated for malnutrition .

The Manes live in Khanderajuri village in southern Maharashtra’s Sangli district. Sangli is a prosperous district of the banks of the river Krishna where most residents are agricultural labourers or farmers growing grapes and sugarcane. But the Manes are not among the well-off families. The eight members of the family occupy a small home with an uneven floor. Their only furniture is a single cot. There are no windows and the only source of light is a bulb hanging low in the centre of the room. In this dim room, Mane’s silver anklets shone bright.

Sugar cane, grapes and turmeric are grown widely in Sangli.

“People would call me names before he was born,” said Sunita Mane, Mauli’s mother, a woman of a slight build. “Now that I have a son, I am a proud mother.”

Sunita Mane and her husband Balaso did not use any form of contraception. Frequent pregnancies have taken a toll on Sunita’s health – every time she bends down, she experiences pain in her back. But she cannot afford to skip work as a daily wage labourer since the family’s small farm does not yield enough produce to provide for eight people. As the family grew, their finances became further constrained. A direct fallout was on the health and nutritional status of their daughters.

Namrata, the youngest daughter of the family, was severely malnourished – at the age of six, she weighed just 12 kilograms. “It is difficult to feed all the children,” said Balsao Mane. The family, on most days, eats rice or chapatis with a watery dal. Vegetables are cooked only on special occasions since they are expensive.

The local anganwadi worker Manisha Shinde persuaded the Mane’s to send Namrata, now eight, to the village child development centre for a month. Here she was given nutritional supplements. She now weighs about 17 kilos.

The Mane family

Gender bias and nutrition

In India, the pursuit of sons has often had detrimental effects on women and girls in the family. To begin with, this hurts the health of the mother. “Son-preference further impoverishes poor families and harms the health of mothers especially if women have no choice but to go on bearing children until a son is born,” said Poonam Muttreja, executive director at the Population Foundation India

Secondly, the bias towards boys possibly hurts the health of daughters in the family. A number of social science researchers have established that son preference in India leads to sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. However, there is still no direct evidence of a clear cause for lower survival rates of female children in India. There are indications that girl children are not given the same nutritional attention. For example, one analysis of National Family Health Survey data shows that girl babies were weaned off breastfeeding about half a month earlier than boys. Girls were also less likely to have been fed breast milk or fresh milk in a 24-hour period compared to boys.

Despite a few indications of gender bias in nutrition, it remains a leading hypothesis that the preference for sons, which starts at before conception, continues into childhood and families give more food to boys than they do to girls.

There is some evidence of this bias in a small study conducted in urban slums of Miraj city in Sangli by researchers from the department of community medicine of the government medical college there. The study showed of the 142 child subjects, 92 were malnourished. Girls were worse off than boys, with 81% of malnourished girls classified under the severe form of undernutrition and 18% of malnourished boys falling in the same category.

Based on their analysis, the authors of the study say that “that the first child, whether a son or a daughter, is always cared for and discrimination starts when there is already a son in the family or when the expectation of having a son is not met”.

Kriti Patel, the lead author, said: “If the third child in the family was a boy, he was not at the same risk of malnutrition as the girl of the same birth order. If a family has limited resources, they will invest in an asset, which they consider is a son and not daughter, who [they consider] is a liability.”

While the government records incidence of child malnutrition, it does not disaggregate the data based on gender. However, Maharashtra government officials have observed greater malnutrition among girls. Furthermore, they see an association with cultural practices.

The Kamble family.

The Kambles, who live near the Manes in Khanderajuri, are not one of Sangli’s well-off families.

Vaishali and Bharat Kamble are daily wage workers. “There are days when we don’t get any work and food,” said Bharat Kamble.

They have five daughters and the couple wants a son. “”I want to have a son,” said Vaishali Kamble. “Only after I have a son, I will undergo a tubectomy.

Insisted Bharat Kamble, “Daughters will get married, but when we get old only a son will look after us.”