Culture & Life · Public health

The ‘missing women’ of India

Amartya Sen introduced the term ‘missing women’, in the early 1990s, as a highly effective way of talking about the impact of gender discrimination in societies. This work is perhaps the finest example of Sen’s unique style of blending hard economics with ethics, social sensibilities, and humanitarianism, as well as advocating for social equality and justice as prerequisites for sustainable ‘development’.

The two main original works of Amartya Sen which discuss ‘missing women’ are his 1990 essay More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing for the New York Review of Books, and a 1992 commentary for the British Medical Journal, Missing women: Social inequality outweighs women’s survival advantage in Asia and north Africa.’

As is clear, his main argument is that men outnumber women in India because of a pervasive gender inequality and bias, and not just because of female feticide. While women everywhere live longer than men (as seen through life expectancy data), social inequalities and neglect of women have nullified that advantage and reversed the ratios in many Asian and African nations. To summarize in Sen’s own words: [from his 1992 essay]:

“In Europe and North America women tend to outnumber men. For example, in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States the ratio of women to men exceeds 1.05… in Asia and north Africa, the female:male ratio may be as low as 0.95 (Egypt), 0.94 (Bangladesh, China, and west Asia), 0.93 (India), or even 0.90 (Pakistan). ..Everywhere about 5% more boys than girls are born. But women are hardier than men and, given similar care, survive better at all ages. There are other causes for this preponderance of women… But even taking these into account, women would still outnumber men if given similar care. Social factors must therefore explain the low female:male ratios in Asian and north African countries. These countries would have millions more women if they showed the female: male ratios of Europe and the United States.”

There’s a lot more layers and complexity to the argument than what the short summary above shows. Sen used some complex statistical methods to calculate a reliable estimate of the number of such “missing women.” Suffice to say here that in 1990 he convinced the world that a hundred million additional number of females (of all ages) would have been alive if there had been equal treatment of the sexes. And the world took note.

Sen’s analysis argued that female feticide, while an important reason, did not explain the complete picture (for India he calculated around 37 million ‘missing women’). These are some of the other factors he talks about:

“In Europe, the US, and Japan, despite the persistence of various types of bias against women (men having distinct advantages in higher education, job specialization, and promotion to senior executive positions, for example), women suffer little discrimination in basic nutrition and health care. In [India, north Africa…] the failure to give women medical care similar to what men get and to provide them with comparable food and social services results in fewer women surviving than would be the case if they had equal care. In India, for example, except in the period immediately following birth, the death rate is higher for women than for men fairly consistently in all age groups until the late [forties]. This relates to higher rates of disease from which women suffer, and ultimately to the relative neglect of females, especially in health care and medical attention.”

He also contrasts Punjab and Haryana, two ‘rich’ states but with very low sex ratios (around 0.86), with Kerala which has a high sex ratio (1.03 when he wrote the piece), with the latter states’s stellar success in female education and women’s rights an important factor affecting women’s survival.

By focusing on the importance of social and gender equality, and by expressing these in the discipline of economics (which is usually about GDP numbers and production and efficiency), Sen taught us a new way of doing and thinking economics and ‘development’. The continuing success of Kerala in human development, healthcare, and education is also a testimony to the convictions of “humanitarian” economists (Jean Dreze and Angus Deaton being some other names in the list).


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