“Missing Women”: An overview of the gender imbalance debate and public policy (Part 1)

21 Sep 2010

Ever since Amartya Sen's use of the phrase “Missing Women” in his 1990 article in The New York Review of Books (and in the British Medical Journal, 1992), the growing gender imbalance in parts of Asia, particularly China and India, has attracted much attention from researchers – demographers and economists alike. Numerous studies have sought to explain the existence of a low female-to-male sex ratio and its increasing masculinization over time in these societies. Concurrently, awareness campaigns by interest groups have initiated proactive demographic policies from some governments that aspire to bridge the population gender gap. Across the globe, the current weave of gender issues and related policymaking presents a dynamic environment capable of fascinating even the most casual reader.

A new study published in the Review of Economic Studies provides evidence on gender disparity in populations beyond the usual suspects (i.e. young-age population in India and East Asia) to include a broader geographic and demographic domain. The authors find that a considerable proportion of the missing women in India and China are of adult age, and that a comparable number of women are missing in Sub-Saharan Africa. The study also presents evidence on missing women in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.  In light of these new findings, this two-part series will provide an overview of the current gender imbalance debate. With a historical perspective, the discussion will cover the fundamentals of the sex selection problem, its evolution over time, and the resistive measures that seek to heal.

Why is sex imbalance undesirable, really? Since much of the debate revolves around sex-selection through prenatal (e.g. selective abortion of girls) and postnatal (female infanticide or lower human  capital investment in girls, resulting in higher gender-relative mortality rates) discrimination, most people will cringe if I seem to question the merit of the issue. However, what I will actually do is deconstruct the problem from an economist's viewpoint, to take us to the heart of the debate and examine some implications of sex imbalance for societies.

Human right activists denounce sex-selection as an outright violation of the rights of women and prescribe a comprehensive curbing of sex-selective abortions. Abortion by itself is not a hot button issue in most Asian countries, unlike in the US. However, opponents will argue that restricting access to abortions in general is an encroachment of individual freedom in the libertarian sense. Advocates of free market may bring in another controversial dimension – with the marriage market squeeze (i.e. shortage of female partners), the perceived value of women will improve in the long run among societies with a strong preference for sons. This will restore the sex ratio balance and the state need not interfere. Others argue that too much is at stake to wait for the free market to correct itself, an argument likely accompanied by the deadpan John Keynes' quote about long runs.

The relationship between excess men and social distortion, particularly crime rates, provides a less abstract basis for promoting gender balance. For example, Messner and Sampson (1991) in the context of US, and Edlund et al. (2007) in the context of China, associate male-biased sex ratios with increased violence. Another large literature points out the relatively more obvious positive effects of marriage on health and employment outcomes of the partners, as well as child outcomes in a stable family. These results hold even after incorporating reverse causality (successful people are more likely to get married etc.). Thus, one can chalk up a direct association between marriage, higher productivity and economic growth. 

To the economist objectively studying the sex imbalance phenomenon and related activism, the picture resembles a standard “externality” problem. The externality arises with the mismatch between private and social preferences. In particular, the total relative household demand for boys in societies with a son-preference is higher than the corresponding social demand, assuming that the society prefers a more egalitarian sex distribution.

The simple demand curve diagram above shows the discrepancy between the private and social demand functions for boys (relative to the demand for girls). Supply is assumed to be exogenously determined (by “nature”), although more complicated supply functions can be hypothesized. The price of a boy is the relative cost of raising a boy, which measures the perceived gender-specific net worth of a child. The outcome of this market would be a socially suboptimal excess number of boys.

Policymakers have attempted to tackle the sex imbalance problem in various ways. For example, a direct ban on selective abortion of girls will make it impossible for the parents to choose the sex of a baby, which will eventually restore the balance in the population. Even if the ban is not fully enforced, the transaction cost associated with obtaining a selective abortion (e.g. price of the service, travel time to a clinic etc.) is likely to rise. This may serve as a deterrent to poorer households in the absence of an overwhelmingly strong son-preference unabated by the rise in cost. 

Among other policies that improve the net worth of girls are the conditional cash transfer programs which provide monetary incentives to parents for taking care of their girls. These programs subsidize the cost of raising a girl child and may improve the female child survival rate. Other non-monetary policies such as public awareness campaigns attempt to change a household's preference by raising the perceived value of a girl child.

In part 2, I will discuss the magnitude of the sex imbalance problem and the role of these policies across different countries.



Sen, A. 1990. More than 100 Million Women are Missing. New York Review of Books 20: 61-66

Sen, A. 1992. Missing Women. British Medical Journal 304: 587-588

Messner, S. F. & Sampson, R. J. 1991. The Sex Ratio, Family Disruption, and Rates of Violent Crime: The Paradox of Demographic Structure Social Forces. University of North Carolina Press, 693-713.

Edlund, L.; Li, H.; Yi, J. & Zhang, J. 2007. Sex ratios and crime: Evidence from China's One-child Policy. IZA Discussion Paper 3214


Photo Credit: Flickr: calamur

Health and Development
kids, policy