Missing women in India

Yogesh Upadhyaya
7 min readJan 19, 2020

There are fewer females in India as compared to the rest of the world. A brief discussion of the causes.

I started this series on population in India with some basics. One of the charts in that piece was on the number of females per thousand males. The chart shows that this number was lower in India than that for the entire world even in 1950. Moreover, it has also fallen continuously in the last seventy years. When I looked at the chart, many questions popped in my mind and I have answered those questions in the post.

Data from UN Query tool on the web and my calculations.

Why was the ratio low for India even in 1950s when technology for sex determination of foetuses not widely available and hence sex selective abortion not possible? Why did it fall further in subsequent decades? Why did the availability of new technology not lead to a sharper fall in this number? Why was the number low for the world as a whole and why did it fall further in the last 70 years?

Before we start answering these questions, let us go over some basics.

Basics of population sex ratio

The Population Sex Ratio (PSR) [1], or the ratio of females to males in the entire population, can be low due to two reasons

Post birth excess deaths: More females die in society because they are discriminated against. In more formal literature this is called postnatal excess deaths.

Pre Birth Sex Selection: The number of girl child births are less than ‘normal’ because parent find out the sex of their unborn child and decide to abort it if it female. This is also known as sex selective abortion. In more formal literature this is called prenatal sex selection. The ratio of girl child births to boy child births is called Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB).

The pre-birth sex selection can also come about indirectly if couples use contraceptives in case they already have male children but do not use them if they have no male child. I will cover this in more detail in a subsequent post.

How would we know if the PSR or SRB in a country is lower than normal? Researchers typically use comparisons. The PSR or SRB of a country like India is compared to that in other countries where the discrimination against women is lesser.

If there is no sex selective abortion, more male children are born than female children. Historically, this has been so across the world. The ‘natural’ sex ratio at birth is between 942 and 953 female births for every 1,000 male births. Any ratio lower than that and it is likely that there is sex selective abortion in that society. Technologies for determination of sex of the foetus — such as ultrasound — started becoming widely available in mid 1980s. Since then, the SRB in India has fallen below 910.

Females live longer. That is, they live longer in societies where they get the same access to nutrition and health care as men. A comparison of ratio of Life Expectancy at birth for females and males, would tell us something about discrimination against women in a society. This ratio is called Sex Ratio Life Expectancy (SRLE).

It is generally accepted that in a society with very little or no discrimination, SRLE would be 1.06. The SRLE in India was low in the years after independence. In 1970, it was 0.98. However, by 2010, the SRLE had climbed up to 1.05. The low ratio in the early years was mainly due to high mortality in children below 5 and a very high gap between the mortality of the girl and the boy child. Thankfully, both the under 5 mortality and the gap have fallen in the country significantly.

One of the early prominent papers on PSR was from the noted economist Dr. Amartya Sen, in which he claimed that there were at least 100 Million fewer women in the world because of discrimination. In this paper, Dr. Sen compared the population ratios of countries like China and India with the West. This comparison was criticised as the population in the West is older and hence likelier to have more women than a population which is younger (To recap, younger populations have more males as more males are born naturally and older populations have more females because women live longer). Dr. Sen accepted this criticism and in another paper (1992), he compared the population of China and India with that of sub Sahran Africa. He again concluded that the number of missing women was more than 100 Million.

Over the years, many different estimates have been made. All of them agree that the number of women in the world would have been higher if there was less discrimination. However, their estimates vary from 60–70 Million to much more than 100 Million.

In 2015, John Bongaarts and Christophe Z. Guilmoto wrote a paper on this subject. Their main observations are

· Countries like China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam are responsible for most of the missing women in the World. That is, they have a PSR lower than, not only the West, but also sub Saharan Africa.

· China and India, due to their large population sizes, are the most significant contributors to the missing women.

· The imapct of SRBs became significant from the mid 1980s. Before that it was post birth excess female deaths that were responsible for low PSR.

What are the factors that determine SRB?

Many societies have a preference for the male child. This preference could be because sons take the forward the last name of their parents (patrilineage), have greater earning potential, are expected to protect and provide for the parents (especially in old age), do not incur dowry costs and / or are needed for funeral rites [2].

This male preference may translate to excess female deaths post birth but does not automatically lead to a lower SRB. There are two additional conditions

· Prosperity — this allows technologies, such as those for sex determination of a foetus, to be widely available.

· Low fertility — this is surprising at first glance but makes sense when you think about it. When a couple decides to have fewer kids and also has a strong preference for sons, it is more likely that they would opt for an abortion on the basis of the sex of the foetus. This is the reason, that the SRB is worst in China. The ‘one child policy’ of the country has meant that there are less than 833 female births for every 1,000 male births in that country.

Incidentally, these factors also explain the wide variance in SRB across different states in India. Bongaart mentions that the SRB in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is relatively high in spite of their sharing cultural norms with Haryana and this is probably because of the relative poverty and higher fertility of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Haryana has one of the lowest SRBs in India. I would be covering the interstate differences in SRB in a subsequent post.

With this background, it is time to answer the questions I raised at the beginning of this piece.

The questions answered

Why was the number low for India even in 1950s when technology for sex determination of foetuses not widely available and sex selective abortion not possible?

More females died prematurely in India than they would have in absence of discrimination. A significant number of these deaths were for ages 5 and below. Also, the Indian population was probably younger than the world in 1950s and as we have discussed, a younger population would have fewer women. These two reasons contributed to the PSR of India being lower than that of the world.

Why did it fall further in subsequent decades?

I haven’t been able to answer this question definitely, but my guess is that in subsequent decades, although the mortality for children under 5 improved, it did so much faster for the male child.

Why did the availability of new technology not lead to a sharper fall in this number?

At least in the case of India, the high post birth deaths were nearly substituted by sex selective abortions. Do note that a significant number of excess post birth female deaths were in very young girls (<5). This number has improved even as the SRB has gone down.

Why was the number low for the world as a whole and why did it fall in the last 70 years?

Post birth discrimination was common in large parts of the world in 1950. Moreover, these were the more populous parts of the world. China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia are some of the countries that contributed to the low ratio. In the last 70 years, the population share of these countries rose and their PSR fell. This is the reason for low PSR for the world in 1950 and also the fall since then.

Short Answer: China and India.

[1] Both Population Sex Ratio (PSR) and Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) can be expressed as ratio of females to males or the other way around. Furthermore, some authors express the ratio in thousands and some in hundreds. I have defined the ratios as number of females per thousand males and have made conversions wherever applicable.

[2] This seems like a good place for my usual social media disclaimer — My writing is usually positive (i.e. a description of what is) and not normative (i.e. what should be).

Next blog in this series >> Is Haryana becoming Kerala?

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Yogesh Upadhyaya

Entrepreneur. Economist. Investor. Actor. Technophile. Policy wonk. Comedian. I love to explore places where these worlds intersect.