Allowing Girls to Hold Up Half the Sky: Combining Norm Shifting and Economic Incentives to Combat Daughter Discrimination in China

26 Pages Posted: 8 Jun 2006

See all articles by Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler

University of Illinois College of Law


The related problems of missing women and daughter discrimination plague contemporary China. Although statistics predict only a slightly greater male birth rate and a slightly lower female mortality rate in the first few years after birth, sons substantially outnumber daughters in modern Chinese families. This article assesses the mechanisms by which families effect daughter discrimination: sex selective abortions, female infanticide, child abandonment, underinvestment of family resources in girls, as well as secondary reinforcing practices like lineage societies and patrilocal living arrangements. Rather than developing legal proposals to counteract each of these individual practices, this paper suggests ways that law can help ameliorate the root causes of the widespread son preference.

China's rapid shift away from the once-prevalent custom of footbinding provides a helpful lesson for those seeking to use law to change social practices. Both footbinding and modern daughter discrimination rest on a belief trap, a set of incorrect but self-reinforcing perceptions, about the economic and social value of girls. In the context of footbinding, the combination of anti-binding associational societies and laws supporting the anti-binding position helped foster a norm cascade in opposition to footbinding, leading to the rapid elimination of that practice. This historical success suggests a template for approaching daughter discrimination in modern China. Specifically, this article proposes: (1) the creation of modern associational societies that eschew daughter discrimination; (2) the provision of financial incentives to family planning workers and doctors to promote female births; and (3) the development of targeted economic reforms to erode support for patrilocal and patrilineal traditions.

Keywords: China, social norms

JEL Classification: K33, K42

Suggested Citation

Wexler, Lesley M., Allowing Girls to Hold Up Half the Sky: Combining Norm Shifting and Economic Incentives to Combat Daughter Discrimination in China. Chicago Journal of International Law, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2006, FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 209, FSU College of Law, Law and Economics Paper No. 07/005, Available at SSRN:

Lesley M. Wexler (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

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