The "Missing Women" Epidemic

“Pay 500 rupees now, save 50,000 rupees later.”[1]

This slogan adorns the façade of an abortion clinic in India. The clinic openly advertises its services as an economically efficient means to deal with female fetuses. Get rid of them now, and spend 500 rupees; let them be born, and spend one hundred times that much on a dowry.

Nature dictates that for every 100 females which are born, between 104 and 106 males are born.[2] In many parts of the world, however, the sex ratio defies natural law. In India, there are 112 males born for every 100 females; in China, the ratio is 121:100; similar numbers afflict the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Northern Africa.[3] Even by the late 1980’s, the sex ratio problem had gotten so dire that Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen dubbed it the “missing women” epidemic.[4] He defined this epidemic as the difference between the amount of women currently on this earth and the number of women that would have been here had the sex ratio been “natural” worldwide. Given this definition, Professor Sen estimated that by 1990 over 100 million women on this planet were “missing.”[5]

Until the 1980’s, the predominant practice fueling the missing women phenomenon was female infanticide. Parents who did not wish to raise a female child would neglect their baby and let her die of starvation or thirst. Infanticide, of course, would not have altered how many female babies were born compared to male babies. But because of the babies’ very early deaths, they were never reported as being born at all.

Female infanticide is becoming a less common practice, but now sex-selective abortions have become the prominent means of exacerbating the “missing women” crisis. In the mid-1970s, companies like General Electric expanded their sale of amniocentesis technology—which reveals the sex of a baby in utero—to developing countries.[6] The technology was originally sold as a means to test for fetal abnormalities. By the 1980s, however, it was known in India and other Asian nations as the “sex test.”[7] Within a decade, amniocentesis was replaced by the cheaper and less invasive ultrasound. Many couples were terminating pregnancies upon discovering they would result in a girl. By some accounts, the number of abortions that were targeted against fetuses because they were known to carry female DNA exceeds 163 million in the past three decades.[8]

 

“Pay 500 rupees now, save 50,000 rupees later.”[9]

 

The callous manner in which this slogan is used stems from two intertwined factors: paternalism and the (perceived and real) economic value of women. Parents prefer males because they believe that male children will be best able to financially support them in their old age.  Couples who already have a female child, then, become significantly more likely to terminate any more potential female fetuses. In China—where, despite the one-child policy, many families have multiple children—the results are startling. A study in 1989 and 1990 found that in families with only one daughter, the male-to-female sex ratio of the next child was 149:100. When families had two daughters, the ratio rose to 225:100 for the next child.[10] Chinese parents were displaying remarkably high preference for men over women.

The main question, then, is why parents in parts of Asia believe in the impracticality of female offspring. One answer is that there is simply a large dichotomy between social culture in the East and West. Yet Professor Sen asserts that this is an extremely oversimplified view. He believes the main reason for parents preferring male children lies in the socioeconomic value of women. He postulates that in parts of the world where sex-selective-abortion runs rampant, societies view a woman’s contribution to “gainful employment” or to “family benefits” as remarkably low.[11] In countries where women are viewed as more useful to their families, they generally have longer life spans and constitute a more equitable portion of the population. In places where women are not viewed economically useful, the “missing women” problem is exacerbated.

It is more important than ever for nations to develop educational and economic systems designed to ensure that women can earn an outside income, that their work is recognized as productive, and that they own some economic resources and have some individual rights.[12] It is vital that these countries begin learning to give women more prominent social and economic roles. We must work help these nations recognize that women do not need to be deprived of their rights for their countries to flourish.

 


[1] Coleman, Isobel. The Global Glass Ceiling: Why Empowering Women is Good for Business.

[2] Last, Johnathan V. The War Against Girls. The Wall Street Journal. June 24, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303657404576361691165631366.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

[3] Ibid

[4] Sen, Amartya. More Than 100 Million Women are Missing. The New York Review of Books. Volume 37, Number 20. December 20, 1990. http://ucatlas.ucsc.edu/gender/Sen100M.html

[5] Ibid

[6] Coleman, Isobel. The Global Glass Ceiling: Why Empowering Women is Good for Business.

[7] Last, Johnathan V. The War Against Girls. The Wall Street Journal. June 24, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303657404576361691165631366.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

[8]  Ibid

[9] Coleman, Isobel. The Global Glass Ceiling: Why Empowering Women is Good for Business.

[10] Gupta, Monica Das. Explaining Asia’s “Missing Women”: A New Look at the Data. Population and Development Review. Volume 31, Number 3.  Pages 529-535.

[11] Sen, Amartya. More Than 100 Million Women are Missing. The New York Review of Books. Volume 37, Number 20. December 20, 1990. http://ucatlas.ucsc.edu/gender/Sen100M.html

[12] Ibid

One thought on “The "Missing Women" Epidemic

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