Two Hundred Million Missing Women

Beginning with Amartya Sen's demographic calculations in the Eighties, estimates of how many women die each year in excess of demographic projections have been gradually refined.

The term "missing women" was coined in 1990, when Indian economist Amartya Sen calculated a shocking figure. In parts of Asia and Africa, he wrote in The New York Review of Books, 100 million women who should be alive are not, because of unequal access to medical care, food and social services. These are excess deaths: women "missing" above and beyond natural mortality rates, compared to their male counterparts.

His research began a flutter of activity in academic circles and by 2005, the United Nations produced a much higher estimate for how many women could be "missing": 200 million.

(Details of various methodolgies for estimating the number of "missing women" are discussed in The Elgar Companion to Development Studies, which is available online, beginning at page 389.)

Professor Siwan Anderson of the University of British Columbia is one of the principle researchers whose work supports the recent UN estimate 200 million "missing women," and some of her conclusions are very dark.

In China, Anderson says, most of the 141,000 excess female deaths by injury were suicides, making China the only place in the world where women are more likely than men to kill themselves, often by eating pesticides used for crops.

    And in India, a category called "injuries" yielded ominously high figures: 86,000 excess deaths in the age group 15-29 in 2000 alone. Anderson has done extensive research in India, and says the numbers beg the question of exactly how many deaths were so-called "kitchen fires" - often used to mask dowry-related killings, the result of a new bride being tortured by her new family until her parents pay their debts.

For example...

According to an Amnesty International report in 1999, though 1,600 "bride-burnings" were reported, sixty were prosecuted but only two resulted in convictions.

The same report includes a lot of vivid details, and not much hope for progress in the foreseeable future.

The lives of millions of women in Pakistan are circumscribed by traditions which enforce extreme seclusion and submission to men. Male relatives virtually own them and punish contraventions of their proprietary control with violence.

For the most part, women bear traditional male control over every aspect of their bodies, speech and behaviour with stoicism, as part of their fate, but exposure to media, the work of women's groups and a greater degree of mobility have seen the beginnings of women's rights awareness seep into the secluded world of women.

But if women begin to assert their rights, however tentatively, the response is harsh and immediate: the curve of honour killings has risen parallel to the rise in awareness of rights.

Until recently, discussion of Professors Sen's original research had concentrated on gender-based abortion and infanticide, but a growing consensus of researchers in the field has recognized that abuse of adult females also plays a significant role in the disappearance of so many women, for example in India and Pakistan, where thousands of women are burned alive every year because of problems with their dowries.

< You'll Never Get Ahead ...With Torture on the Resume | Obama, John Rawls, and a Defense of the Unreasonable >
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