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Becker, Anke 2018. On the Origins of Son Preference and Female Genital Cutting.

Son preference and female genital cutting – two of the most extreme forms of gender discrimination – exhibit large variation across the globe, often within narrowly defined geographical regions. This paper studies the historical origins of this variation by testing the anthropological theory that pre-industrial subsistence on pastoralism – herding animals – (i) induced a preference for sons over daughters because herding was by far the most male-dominated form of subsistence and (ii) generated larger payoffs to controlling female sexuality, e.g., through invasive forms of genital cutting, due to extended periods of male absenteeism. The analysis exploits within-country variation across 500,000 women in 43 countries who exhibit heterogeneity in the extent to which their ethnic group’s ancestors subsisted on pastoralism. The results document that women from historically pastoral societies (i) exhibit a higher preference for sons, as reflected both in desired and actual ratios of sons at birth; (ii) are more likely to have been infibulated, the most invasive form of female genital cutting; and (iii) report to have less control over their sexuality in general. These results suggest that contemporary variation in the extent to which sons are more valued than daughters and how self-determined women are in their sexuality can be traced back to a functional relationship between historical environmental conditions and societal norms which have persisted until today