In the late 1980s, Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Amartya Sen coined the term "missing women" to describe the large number of women in the world who are literally not alive due to family neglect and discrimination. In 2005, Emily Oster suggested that Hepatitis B could explain part of this phenomenon; a position which she refuted recently.
Wikigender's infographic on Missing Women
- The ‘Missing Women’ variable of the 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) indicates that discrimination against girls is most prevalent in South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific and Middle East and North Africa.
- There is evidence of missing women in some parts of Europe and Central Asia and Africa.
Missing Women as a Social Phenomenon
According to estimations of Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Amartya Sen, around 100 million women are "missing" worldwide (more recent estimates suggest that there are 50 million missing women in India alone). Sen argued that in countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh the cultural preference for boys - in particular in rural areas - potentially has led to a terrible mistreatment of young girls, if not female infanticide.
Biologically, girl babies are stronger. The world average for women to men is roughly 990 women for every 1,000 men. In some regions, such as Western Europe, there are as many as 1,063 women to every 1,000 men.
In South Asia, however, the numbers go against the biological norm. In Bangladesh, for every 1,000 men, there are only 945 women. In India, there are only 927 women. The upcoming 2001 census in India is expected to show a figure of only 900 women to every 1,000 men. In some regions of India, the sex ratio is even more distorted. In parts of the states of Bihar and Rajasthan, the female-male ratio is 600 to 1,000.
Additional Explanations and Controversy
Despite the empirical evidence supporting Sen's views, some researchers have proposed an alternative explanation for the "missing women" phenomenon.
In 2005, economist Emily Oster found that in those countries with more men than women, there is equally a high dispersion of Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B has been found as a main determinant for explaining the sex ratio of babies: if a mother is infected with the Hepatitis B virus, the likelihood of getting a baby boy increases. Oster did quite complex analysis with data covering a couple of South Asian countries and found this relationship to be robust. She claimed that of the 100 million missing women, 50 million can be explained by this fact.
Oster’s findings have subsequently been disputed by several researchers. Monica Das Gupta, an economist at the World Bank, pointed out that in Chinese families whose first children were daughters, later births tended to be sons, concluding that “cultural factors still provide the overwhelming explanation for the “missing” females”. In 2008, Ming-Jen Lin and Ming-Ching Luoh of Taiwan University found that “Hepatatis B can only account for 1.8% of the number of missing women” in China, concluding that their evidence was “consistent with the son preference hypothesis”.
In April 2008, Ms. Oster, the original proponent of the Hepatitis B explanation, published a working paper refuting the conclusion of her previous research. Working together with three Chinese researchers, she collected data on the offspring gender for 67,000 people in China, of which 15% were hepatitis B carriers. The resulting working paper entitled “Hepatitis B Does Not Explain Male-Biased Sex Ratios in China”, concludes that “hepatitis B carrier rates cannot explain male-biased sex ratios or the “missing women" in China.”
In conclusion, Sen’s original attribution of "missing women" to societal discrimination and neglect of women and girls remains the strongest explanation.
- Klasen, S. (2008): Missing women in South Asia and China: Biology or discrimination? Vox. 28. August 2008
- Four UNFPA-sponsored studies on sex ratio imbalance in Asia (China, India, Nepal, Viet Nam)
- Klasen S. Missing women reconsidered. World Dev 1994,22: 1061-71
- Klasen S, Wink C. Missing women: revisiting the debate. Feminist Econ 2003;9: 263-300
- Klasen S, Wink C. A turning-point in gender bias in mortality? An update on the number of missing women. Population and Development Review 2002;28: 285-312
- Oster E. Hepatitis B and the Case of the Missing Women
- Oster E., et al (2008) Hepatitis B Does Not Explain Male-Biased Sex Ratios in China
- Das Gupta M. , "Explaining Asia's 'Missing Women'", World Bank Working Paper
- Sen AK. Missing women. BMJ 1992;304: 586-7.
- Sen AK. More than 100 Million Women Missing
- Sen AK. Many faces of gender inequality. New Republic 2001;(17 September): 35-40.
- Sen AK. Many faces of gender inequality. Frontline 2001; 19 November;18:4-14. www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl1822/18220040.htm (accessed 15 Sep 2003).
- Dreze J, Sen AK. India: development and participation. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002: 257-62.
- The 50 Million Missing Campaign
- New World Bank Policy Research Working Paper on Missing women in Asia.
- Balancing the Gender Skew in India: A New Name, A New Beginning? (The WIP.net, 15 November 2011)