In 1990, Amartya Sen coined the term ‘missing women’ to denote the shortage of women contributing to the skewed sex ratios in Asia and Africa, where men outnumber women, in stark contrast to North America and Europe, where women outnumber men. Estimates of missing women were originally meant to represent some measure of the degree of gender discrimination. This discrimination was attributed to three main causes causes: sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, and the comparative neglect of female health and nutrition during childhood, which led to their deaths early in life.
In 2010, Anderson and Ray, used the Sen-Coale counterfactual, which compares birth and death ratios of men and women in developing countries to similar populations in developed countries, in order to examine the ratio of these missing women across both age and diseases levels. They found a wide variation in the pattern of these missing women between India and China.
“A large percentage of the missing women in China are located before birth and in infancy. We estimate that around 37–45% of the missing women in China are due to prenatal factors alone. But the numbers for India are more evenly distributed across the different age groups.”
In a more recent work in 2012, they further explore the unlikely distribution of missing women across India, and find that
“… a total of more than two million women in India are missing in a given year….First, the majority of missing women, in India die in adulthood. Our estimates demonstrate that roughly 12% of missing women are found at birth, 25% die in childhood, 18% at the reproductive ages, and 45% die at older ages.”
They also find a great deal of variation in the distribution of missing women by age group across the states: Punjab is the only state where the majority of missing women are found at birth, while Haryana and Rajasthan are the only two states where a majority of these missing women are either never born or die in childhood.
The above results show us that commonly considered explanations such as sex-selective abortion or female infanticide cannot explain the age distribution of these missing women. This is certainly true in India and may hold for other countries with similar distributions of missing women as well. It is not as if the woes of adult women are completely ignored (see Chen and Dreze (1992) and Kochar (1999) ), but contrary to conventional wisdom, it turns out that excess female mortality in adulthood is as serious of a problem as missing girls who are never born or die prematurely in childhood.
So what are some possible mechanisms for the existence of so many ‘missing women’ in adulthood? More importantly, is the number high due to differentiated access to healthcare leading to higher maternal mortality and other diseases or due to overt social basis of gender discrimination leading to dowry death and bride-burning? Bloch and Rao (2002) document how women who pay less dowry are more likely to be victims of marital violence. More research is needed to tease apart these mechanisms and understand the reasons behind the surprisingly large number of ‘missing women’ in adulthood. From a policy perspective, at time when new legislation against sexual violence is being debated in India, it is also important to have a broader conversation about the kinds of discrimination being faced by adult women in order to find the most effective ways to address it.
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