More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing

Notes from an Amartya Sen article for The New York Review of Books (1990). He explains the dire treatment of females globally (life expectancy, child mortality, literacy etc.) & explains how we must use a complex diagnosis of cultural, economic and social factors to comprehend global and regional variation. He uses the examples of: North Africa vs. Sub-Saharan Africa, Kerla vs. the Punjab & China over recent history to offer a critique of the standard development/East-West-difference related explanations. 

  • There is a mistaken belief that women make up the majority of the world’s population. Women outnumber men in highly developed nations but they do not in South & West Asia and China.
  • Boys outnumber girls at birth. Women however far better after conception and generally live healthier, longer lives on average.
  • In Europe and Japan, men are outnumbered even though women undoubtedly have a tougher time of it. We must take account of social and environmental reasons for the higher mortality of men (e.g. propensity for violence, to smoke).
  • Women appear to have a natural biological advantage; however this is not the case in most of Asia and North Africa. Here women do not receive the same level of healthcare as men.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa, ravaged by famine and poverty, has an excess of women. This is a perfect example of a situation in which the use of the term Third Worldis particularly unhelpful.
  • There is even a contrast in male-to-female ratios within regions. There are clear differences within regions in Indiafor example – the most wealthy state in India, the Punjab, has a shortage of women in contrast to Kerala, where women outnumber men.
  • To estimate the number involved in this gender imbalance, we can calculate the number of ‘missing women’ – that is the number of extra women that there would be in China/India etc. were it not for the unbalanced gender patterns.
  • This figure comes to 100 million globally – a number than tells us a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women.

 

Why is this so?

  • One suggestion is that European nations are less sexist than their Oriental counterparts.
  • Another suggestion is that it is development related, representing patterns of unequal nutrition and health-care provided for women as a feature of underdevelopment, a characteristic of poor economies awaiting economic development.
  • Neither theory is convincing. The East-West theory is flawed by Japan. It also fails to account for other characteristics of these societies e.g. South Asiais home to the world’s lowest proportion of females but has been triumphantly electing female politicians for decades. The analysis needs to be more complex.
  • It is also clear that female electoral success in South Asiais not open to everyone – recent leaders have all come from families enshrined into the powerful elites that have ruled these nations since independence.
  • However it is hopeless to assume gender imbalances are due to the sexist East.
  • How good is the economic explanation? It is clear than all the nations with large deficits of women are more or less poor.
  • This analysis is poor – we have explained how the poorest nations on the planet have a surplus of women.
  • Economic development is often accompanied by a worsening of women’s relative position. For example until recently women’s life expectancy worsened in comparison to men in India– it has only recently balanced out. This was largely due to the unequal sharing of the advantages of medical and social progress.
  • China’s post-1979 reforms also contributed to the worsening of the lives of women. As economic changes took place, the ratio of women fell and female life expectancy has worsened.
  • These and other cases show that economic development and the worsening of lives of females often go hand-in-hand.

 

  • Neither of these theories is adequate; we must analyse the complex ways in which social, economic and cultural factors can influence regional differences.
  • Women’s status and power within the family differ greatly from region to region and there is strong reason to believe that these social features can be related to the economic role and independence of women.
  • Employment outside the home and ownership of assets are crucial for women’s importance.
  • Men and women have both cooperative and conflicting interests that affect family decisions.
  • ‘Cooperative conflicts’ are a key feature of group relations and are useful in understanding the ‘deal’ that women get or the workload they receive.
  • Conflicts in families are usually agreed on through implicitly agreed on patterns of behaviour, which may or may not be egalitarian.
  • Family living requires shared ownership and cooperation. Women who play such an important role in the household are unlikely to raise ‘conflict issues’ regularly and routinely have unequal say to the ‘bread-winner’/producer in the family.
  • This is a crucial factor in continuing gender inequality in the developed world and in particular in developing nations.
  • The division of joint family benefits is likely to be more favourable to women if 1) they earn an outside income, 2) their work is recognised as productive, 3) they own economic resources & 4) there is a clear understanding of the ways in which women are deprived and how this can be changed (4 can be much influenced by education and participatory political action!)
  • Empirical evidence proves that ‘gainful’ labour (e.g. paid work or production) substantially improves the deal women get – it offers ease of access to resources, improves status within the family & results in an improvement in security and legal protection through employment.
  • The ‘deal’ that women get in the family not only impacts on their own lives but can also impacts the way girls are raised – a lot of the economic importance of boys is removed. It weakens the hold of traditional beliefs and behaviour.
  • If we list certain regions of the world with the highest proportion of women in ‘gainful’ work (descending order): 1) Sub-Saharan Africa, 2) Southeast & Eastern Asia, 3) Western Asia, 4) Southern Asia & 5) Northern Africa
  • We can then list the relative life expectancies of the same region and we get a very similar pattern: 1) Sub-Saharan Africa, 2) Southeast and Eastern Asia, 3) Western Asia, 4) Northern Africa& 5) Southern Asia.
  • It is difficult to make the broad conclusion that gainful employment improves the lot of women, however there does seem to be the influence of some other factor correlated to the two.
  • Chinadeserves special attention. China’s life expectancy has increased rapidly during the 20th Century & the relative position of women improved significantly during an deeply inefficient economic system
  • Post-reforms agricultural output massively increased, however the relative condition of women has worsened – the ratio of women to men in 1979 was 94.3 but was 93.4 in 1986. The World Bank’s most recent development report suggested life expectancy for men was 69 yrs and for women was 66 yrs.
  • Why have relative conditions of women worsened in years of rapid economic expansion?
  • The compulsory measures to control family size were definitely a factor. One-child policy resulted in a strong preference for males. Estimates have suggested that female infant mortality rose from 37.7 per 1000 in 1978 to 67.2 per 1000 in 1984.
  • The worsening of health services since reforms is also key. Previously agricultural production was organised in brigades/collectives that provided much of the funding for health-care in rural areas. This system was dismantled and agriculture was centred on the family. In view of the pro-male bias that existed in rural China, the cutbacks were not neutral but gendered.
  • The new ‘responsibility system’ additionally reduced women’s involvement in ‘gainful’ employment in agriculture.

  • The variables that seem important (e.g. female literacy, female employment) combine economic and cultural factors.
  • The key questions are for example why outside employment is stronger in Sub-Saharan Africa than North Africa, or in Southeast/Eastern Asia than in Western/Southern Asia. Cultural (inc. religious), economic, social are required for depth of analysis.
  • Gainful employment is not the only important factor; so are women’s education & economic rights (inc. property rights).
  • Kerala for example, where female life expectancy reached 68 in the 1981 census, has a remarkably high literacy rate (as well as bountiful opportunities for employment). The state has made massive efforts to improve the education system here.
  • Parts of Kerala also inherit family through the family’s female line. Combined with high levels of communal medicine help explain the strong position of women.
  • In view of the seriousness of the problem, it is remarkable how little attention this has received. If the shameful problem of 100 million missing women is to be solved by public policy and political action the reasons for this situation must be better understood.

 

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