After #MeToo, India Needs to Think Seriously About Its ‘Missing Women’

The role NGOs played in promoting gender equality in Bangladesh has lessons for India.

While the #MeToo movement has raised awareness about the harassment women face every day, it relates only to women who were allowed to be born – not aborted before birth or allowed to die soon after. We cannot lose sight of the ‘missing women’, whom Amartya Sen first drew our attention to in 1990.

The evidence on ‘missing women’

Sen’s argument is quite simple: Girls tend to have a higher survival rate than boys, since they are hardier and more resistant to disease. Given the same care, the women to men ratio should be higher than 1, as one observes in Europe, the US and Japan.

In those countries, Sen argues, “despite the persistence of various types of bias against women … women suffer little discrimination in basic nutrition and health care”. This is not the case elsewhere, especially in North Africa and the most populated regions in Asia.

Sen’s estimate of ‘missing women’ is based on the deviation of the benchmark girl-boy ratio (1.05) in Europe from the corresponding ratio (0.94) in India and China at the time. In the 30 or so years since Sen’s piece appeared, the situation has worsened.

According to estimates provided by John Bongaarts, in 2010 the sex ratio at birth (SRB), defined as boy-girl ratio, was 1.19 in China and 1.08 in India. These were not only ahead of parity, but ahead of the figure of 1.05 that is considered reasonable.

Any figure above that is considered ‘elevated’, and the higher the elevation, the stronger the evidence of sex-selective abortion and son preference. China and India account for nearly 90 % of the world’s ‘missing women’. For every missing girl in India, there are five missing girls in China.

The dismal picture portrayed by the SRB is an understatement of the true extent of son preference in such countries. Based on questions in the Demographic Health Surveys, the ‘desired sex ratio at birth’ (DSRB) in India is consistently higher than the actual SRB. The difference is largely attributed to lack of easy access to sex-selective abortion, mainly in the rural areas.

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Ironically, with the passage of time and spread of education, the situation has worsened. The SRB has moved higher and closer to the DSRB, due to easier access to ultrasound screening and abortion facilities.

India does not present a uniform picture, however. There is a sharp north-south divide: Kerala and Tamil Nadu record some of the lowest DSRBs, while the regions with highly elevated DSRBs include the affluent states of Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana.  

The paradox of economic progress

Contributing to this paradox is the fact that, along with social progress and rising living standards, there has been a sharp decline in fertility rates, mainly due to increased education and employment opportunities for women.

One would expect that this would lead to a re-evaluation of the role of women and their ability to contribute to their family. But the reverse has happened in both China and India – the decline in fertility has been accompanied by a sharp increase in the SRB.

Also read: Sex Ratio at Birth Dips in 17 Out of 21 States, Gujarat Records Fall of 53 Points

The one-child policy in China has contributed to the decline in fertility, intensified son preference and accelerated the increase in the SRB. Seema Jayachandran has argued that “families that strongly want at least one son are less likely to obtain him by chance at low fertility which could increase their use of sex selective abortion”.

Education is also contributing indirectly to the worsening of sex ratio – the greater the increase in female education, the larger the decline in the fertility rate, and so, the larger the increase in the boy-girl sex ratio (both desired and actual).

In Sen’s words, more and more women go ‘missing’ as India experiences social and economic progress.

The experience of Bangladesh

In work with my co-authors Salma Ahmed and Aparajita Dasgupta, we have compared the experiences of India and Bangladesh on a range of demographic indicators including fertility rates and SRBs. In the latest statistics, the boy-girl SRB of 1.05 in Bangladesh in 2015 is around the estimate of SRB for much of Africa and Latin America, and comfortably below that in India (which is around 1.12).

Our key findings were two-fold: Bangladesh performed better on infant mortality rate, with a lower boy-girl sex ratio at birth than India. And while both countries record an impressive decline in fertility rates, this was accompanied by a worsening of the sex ratio in India, but not in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh example shows that one can delink fertility rates from SRB.

How did Bangladesh manage this, when India and China couldn’t? One may be tempted to attribute its superior performance to Islamic culture. There is, however, no evidence that in countries with strong son preference, there is a difference in attitudes between the Muslims and non-Muslims.

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The real answer lies in the role played by the NGOs in Bangladesh in partnership with government in promoting gender equality. This has led to societal change towards valuing daughters as highly as sons. A key role was played by the largest NGO anywhere, BRAC, and the largest microfinance institution in Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank.

Bangladesh’s superior performance is reinforced by a comparison of its total fertility rate (TFR) and infant mortality rate (IMR) with India over the past 25 years, 1990-2015. During the last decade (2005-2015), Bangladesh moved ahead of India on both indicators. Yet its SRB has remained largely unchanged, and well below that of India. The overall message is that a policy based on public-private partnership can achieve social and economic progress, without worsening the sex ratio or intensifying son preference.

The Bangladesh experience shows that the Indian government needs to involve NGOs in the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ programme. There is a resistance to purely public initiatives, and this can be tackled by involving players who are working on the ground.

Ranjan Ray is professor of economics at Monash University.