Defining the concept of “missing women”
The term was first coined in the late 1980s by Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen. The economist observed that the demographic deficit of women affecting mainly Asia and North Africa went against biological trends: indeed, when they receive the same care, infant boys are normally more vulnerable to mortality than girls, often resulting in women outnumbering men in the adult population. Therefore, Sen argued, the primary cause for unequal sex ratios is discriminatory treatment rooted the cultural preference for boys (Sen, 1990).
Measuring missing women
The 2014 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) defines missing women as the “shortfall in the number of women in sex ratios for ages 0-4, 5-9, 10-14, 15-64, 65+ relative to the expected number if there were no sex-selective abortions, no female infanticide or similar levels of health care and nutrition” (OECD Development Centre, 2014).
Back in 1990, Sen estimated there were as many as 100 million missing women. A quarter century later, the 2014 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) findings are close to Sen’s: over 90 million women are missing around the world. 80% of these missing women are from India and the People’s Republic of China (OECD Development Centre, 2014). Other estimates by UNFPA (2012) based on 2010 demographic surveys found that the number of missing women was even higher at 117 million.
In India, the 2011 Census found a worrying trend in child sex ratios with only 914 females for 1,000 males, a drop from 927 in 2001. The number of selective abortions of girls rose from 3.1 to 6 million in the 2000s. Missing women are a matter of concern in the broader South Asian region (SIGI website).
In a survey conducted in rural China, 36% of married women acknowledged undergoing sex-selective abortions. As of 2007, China had approximately 42.6 million missing women (SIGI website). While remaining extremely high, numbers of missing women seem to have fallen in China and more generally in the East Asia and Pacific region since 2012 (OECD Development Centre, 2014).
Accounting for missing women
Research suggests that unequal sex ratios are driven by the interplay of several factors:
- Economic factors: The primary motivation for son bias can be financial. Many societies indeed consider boys as a lifelong economic resource, while girls are seen as a liability (OECD, 2012). In China, sons are indeed expected to provide for their parents upon their retirement, whereas girls, once married, will contribute to their in-laws families instead. Social institutions such as dowry also fuel sex selection – an advert for an abortion clinic in India called parents to “Pay 50 rupees now to save 50,00 rupees later” (Jones and al, 2010).
- Socio-cultural factors: Sons can be associated with higher social prestige. For instance, for Vietnamese fathers, having a boy is associated with masculinity and with being blessed, according to a survey (Jones and al. 2010). Women themselves can be under tremendous social pressure to give birth to a son, facing threats of violence, rejection or death if they fail to do so (WHO, 2011).
- Family planning policies: Increasing access to sex selective abortion, combined with restrictive family planning such as such as China’s one child policy until 2015, are other factors that drive the missing women phenomenon (Klasen and Wink, 2003; OECD 2012).
Impact of missing women on societies
Where high numbers of women are missing, there is a potential for a demographic crisis as men are unable to find female partners. This can result in social unrest, sexual violence and increased trafficking of girls and young women (OECD, 2012; UNFPA, 2012).
What can be done?
In a joint statement, various UN agencies have called upon governments and civil society to strengthen their efforts to halt sex selection. Priority areas for action include:
- Legislation and policy: while some countries have passed laws to restrict the use of technology for sex selection purposes, those seem to have had little effect without broader measures to address underlying gender inequalities. Policies are particularly needed in areas such as inheritance laws, dowries, and social protection.
- Supportive measures for girls and women: measures such as direct subsidies at the time of a girl’s birth, scholarship programmes, gender-based school quotas or financial incentives, or pension programmes for families with girls only, may efficiently support broader policy efforts.
- Use of technology: guidelines on the ethical use of the relevant technologies in obstetric and foetal medicine should be developed and promoted through health professional associations.
- Advocacy, communication and community mobilization: awareness-raising campaigns are crucially important to change people’s mind-sets and attitudes towards girls. Such advocacy efforts may be channelled through the mass media, including TV and Radio, to stimulate discussion and debate (WHO, 2011).
Jones, N., Harper, C. et Watson, S. (2010), Stemming girls’ chronic poverty: Catalysing development change by building just social institutions, Chronic Poverty Research Center, Manchester, .
Klasen, S. and Wink, C. (2003), Women: Revisiting the Debate, Feminist Economics, Houston,
OECD Development Centre (2014), Social Institutions and Gender Index. 2014 Synthesis Report, OECD Publishing, Paris,
OCDE (2012), Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now, OCDE Publishing, Paris,
Sen, A.K. (1990), December “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”, The New York Review of Books, December 20, 1990 Issue http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1990/12/20/more-than-100-million-women-are-missing/
Social Institutions and Gender Index Website (n.d), OECD Development Centre, accessed on 4 January, 2016, http://www.genderindex.org/
UNFPA (2012), Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current Trends, Consequences and Policy Implications, UNFPA Asia and the Pacific Regional Office, Bangkok, http://www.unfpa.org/publications/sex-imbalances-birth
WHO (2011), Preventing gender-biased sex selection: an interagency statement by OHCHR, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and WHO, World Health Organization, Geneva,
Sen A.K. (2009), Gender biased sex selection. Key issues for action, http://www.dawnnet. org/research-analyses.php?theme=2&id=29
UNFPA Website (n.d.), Gender Biased Sex Selection, accessed 4 January 2016, http://www.unfpa.org/gender-biased-sex-selection