Sex preference at birth is ingrained in many Asian cultures. In South Asian countries, whether in the dominant Hindi society in India or the dominant Bengali society in Bangladesh, there is a parental preference for a boy-child. Boys have historically been seen as social security for the family. These societies even often have proverbs that discourage investing in a daughter.

Although preference for a boy is deeply rooted, gender rights movements over the 20th and 21st centuries have uprooted some of the stigmas. This is a problem that is tackled through multilayered advocacy, which includes research, activism and policy actions. This is a work in progress.

The notion of ‘missing women’ was first brought to our attention in 1986 by Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen. In 1990, Amartya estimated that at least 100 million women were missing globally. Where were these women?

It turns out that women faced a higher mortality rate stemming from their neglect as compared with men. Hence, they were ‘missing.’ In other words, if women received the same societal attention as men, they would be living. Sen’s concern was that countries with extreme gender discrimination have distorted population sex ratios. This means they have more men than women.

…a deep dive into three populated emerging countries of Asia – China, India and Bangladesh – gives a clear picture of the complexities of sex ratio.

These effects are typically concentrated in Asia, with the largest numbers in India and China. Bangladesh and a few other developing countries have also contributed their fair share to the effects. However, a deep dive into three populated emerging countries of Asia – China, India and Bangladesh – gives a clear picture of the complexities of the problem.

A projected high of 150 million women will disappear by 2035 owing to gender discrimination and son preference. This means endangerment to survival, a fundamental human right. Advances in fertility reduction and sex determination technology are the driving forces behind the practice of sex selection.

What are ‘missing women?’

‘Missing women’ are the women who would be alive had they not been subjected to severe gender discrimination. They represent a shortfall in the actual number of females in a population when compared with the expected number (if there were a gender-equal society).

Scenario in Asia (China, India and Bangladesh)

China, India and Bangladesh are unique because they are three emerging economies of Asia with very high populations. More importantly, they have also had a history of ‘missing women,’ for very unique reasons.

China’s famous One-Child Policy was introduced in 1979 to ensure population control. The policy allowed couples to have one child. It naturally exacerbated a traditional preference for male children, leading to a huge gender gap. The policy, along with the availability of ultrasound technology, forced a rapid decline in fertility in the country. The total fertility rate declined by almost half, from 3.0 in 1980 to 1.6 in 2000.

Under the One-Child Policy, exceptions were made for ethnic minorities and families where the father was a disabled veteran. This meant that the average Chinese family could have only one child. However, in 2016, China officially ended the policy and introduced a Two-Child Policy. Subsequently, in 2021, the country announced a Three-Child Policy.

In India, the availability of ultrasound technology from the mid-1980s acted as a trigger similarly to in China. The domestic production of ultrasound machines in India increased rapidly. Around 1991, average ultrasound machine production was some 1,314; by 2003, this had reached some 19,581. As a result, more than 1.3 million girls essentially went missing in the country from 2019 to 2021 alone.

The ‘missing women’ picture in Bangladesh is rather different. Bangladesh has witnessed a decrease in fertility rates. The policies here have actually led to an equalising of the sex ratio. The survival rates of girls have constantly improved, and sex-selective abortions have faded out. In other words, Bangladesh has a low rate of missing women. However, this is a rather new development. There was high preference for sons at birth until 2001 and there were many ‘missing women’ in the country up until 2011.

Bangladesh has witnessed a decrease in fertility rates. The policies here have actually led to an equalising of the sex ratio.

The number of missing women in China was 27.2 million in 1970 and had increased to 62.3 million in 2010; in India it was 21.8 million in 1970 and had increased to 43.3 million in 2010; and in Bangladesh it was 2.3 million in 1970 and had increased slightly to 2.4 million in 2010. This means that while the numbers of missing women in the four decades from 1970 increased by 129% and 99% in China and India, respectively, they increased by only 4% in Bangladesh.

Calculating missing women

To understand ‘missing women,’ we have to understand the concept of the population sex ratio (PSR). The PSR is a crucial indicator to estimate ‘missing women.’ It is the total number of males per 100 females in a country. When the actual PSR in a country is compared with an expected PSR, then we get the number of ‘missing women.’ If the actual ratio exceeds the expected ratio, the number of ‘missing women’ is calculated based on the additional females required to fill the gap.

The population sex ratio is usually influenced by another data point, the sex ratio at birth (SRB). The SRB is affected by sex-selective abortions, female infanticide and underreporting of newborn girls. In number terms, the SRB is male births against 100 female births over a time period. The SRB determines the gender structure of the population for the future. For researchers, it is a key indicator for measuring gender equality.

What rankings

The Social Institutions & Gender Index (SIGI) is a tool of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development used to compare gender-based discrimination across countries. The index uses social and legal variables under five categories: family code, physical integrity, civil liberties, son preference (by measuring missing women) and ownership rights. The higher the score, the greater the discrimination.

In SIGI’s 2023 update, Bangladesh scored 49.3, India scored 43 and China scored 27.1. This means gender-based discrimination in Bangladesh is very high. India ranks similarly. Whereas China reveals less discrimination, according to SIGI. Bangladesh’s sex ratio at birth is 104.7 whereas China’s is 113.2 and India’s is 108.4. Despite Bangladesh being ahead on SRB, it has very high gender discrimination when compared with India or China. This shows that gender discrimination can prevail even when boy-child preference is less.

The curious case of Bangladesh

In 1975, Bangladesh’s government conducted an important policy study called the Bangladesh Fertility Survey. This revealed that 62% of ever-married women preferred a boy, and only 8% preferred a girl. Soon after, maternal mortality in the country decreased from 800 deaths per 100,000 births in 1990 to 156 in 2022. There has also been a steady rise in women’s education, resulting in the reversal of the gender gap at schools.

…there are no ‘missing women’ in modern-day Bangladesh.

Although primary education sees equal access, higher education remains inaccessible owing to discriminatory norms. Interestingly, a woman’s husband’s education level is also related to her preference for a child’s sex. If a husband’s education is higher education, then the wife is more indifferent towards their child’s sex.

Bangladesh’s first census after independence was in 1974. In that census the country’s sex ratio at birth (SRB) was 108.0, which means that there were 108 sons born for every 100 daughters. The ratio decreased to 98.0 in the 2022 census, meaning that now 98 sons are born for every 100 daughters. This means that at-large there are no ‘missing women’ in modern-day Bangladesh.

Causes behind women being missing

Missing women is a phenomenon caused by societal malpractice and policy inaction. In 2023, a government report in India mentioned sex-selective abortion, infanticide and discrimination as the main reasons for women going missing. It is clear that the patriarchal mindset fuels gender discrimination. This mindset fosters a culture of violence and harassment against women. Moreover, women often encounter resistance from their communities when they try to seek justice in response to abusive relationships.

But in general, lack of education, limited awareness of laws, social stigma and financial dependency are often the reasons why women can’t counter discrimination. Violence against women is also a result of discriminatory policies or inadequate implementation of laws.

Policies addressing missing women in India and China

From a policy angle, both China and India adopted birth control policies owing to unforeseeable population growth. For policymakers, birth control was a resource-optimised and firm action. Unfortunately, birth control policies have a direct link to son preference.

To reduce son preference, China and India have implemented a myriad of policies. Two such policies, in both countries, were bans on prenatal sex selection and cash transfers to parents with female children. These policies yielded success in decreasing son preference. For empowerment strategies to work, new technologies and missing women need to be linked.

With the win, Bangladesh’s 39-year-old Ruqsana Begum clinched the WBU Intercontinental Championship title in the flyweight category, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 21 March 2023 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

India

  • In 2001, alarmed by the missing women problem, India’s highest court took a position against sex detection before birth. This led to the amendment of the country’s main prenatal sex selection law, the Prohibition of Sex Selection Act of 1994, which bans sex selection. Directed by the court, India’s government created stronger regulations in 2023 to restrict selection before and after conception. This legal tool has been a gamechanger for India.

China

  • China’s dissolution of its One-Child Policy in 2015 was a major decision to counter its missing women problem. This action shows how changing policies can improve the birth sex ratio (SRB). To combat its high SRB, China launched a nationwide girls’ campaign. The Chinese government provided a favourable living environment for girls and boosted their social status.

China also prioritised women’s reproductive health by adopting a policy to reduce non-medical abortions. This initiative sits alongside broader efforts to promote gender equality. The country’s iconic law, the Law of Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests, enshrines ‘equality between men and women’ as a core principle. Such an overarching governance principle seeps into all walks of life.

Policy imperatives of Bangladesh

Gender discrimination against women is a serious issue in Bangladesh. However, more so than India or China, Bangladesh has been successful in rapidly reducing son preference. Son preference still exists in some pockets of Bangladesh. These practices are driven by deeply rooted religious and patriarchal values along with prevalence of illiteracy and poverty.

Son preference still exists in some pockets of Bangladesh.

In 2020, Bangladesh’s highest court made a landmark decision based on a comprehensive report submitted by its health sector regulator, the Directorate General of Health Services. The court imposed an embargo on prenatal sex detection. The aim was to protect the unborn and pregnant mothers.

A policy document, the National Guideline for the Prevention of Son Preference and the Risk of Gender-Biased Sex Selection, was formulated. This directs all medical institutions to maintain records of all tests related to prenatal sex determination. It has a holistic strategy to mitigate the societal consequences of prenatal sex disclosure.

Meanwhile, abortion is illegal in Bangladesh’s Penal Code. It is allowed only to save a woman’s life. A person who performs an illegal abortion may face imprisonment.

Ways forward

Female infanticide and neglect have sadly continued till today. The survival disadvantage of girls increased with the introduction of sex-selection technologies. Countries with a ‘missing women’ history (China, India and Bangladesh) should widely adopt low-cost tracking systems for any new born.

Sustained policy efforts by governments can reduce the demographic intensity resulting from son preference bias within a generation or two. Moreover, son preference happens in parallel with gender-based discrimination. Policymakers in these countries should thus keep advocating for anti-gender-discriminatory policies.

Ensuring women’s safety is a collective responsibility. A societal shift, involving legal, political and cultural reforms, is essential to address gender inequality and sex preference. Bangladesh should pursue legislative and procedural changes to completely eradicate preference for sons over daughters. The policy’s convergence of legal, ethical and societal considerations represents a significant step towards creating a more equitable society.

 

Photo © Mahmud Hossain Opu

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Soma Dhar is Associate Editor of the Canadian Journal of Business and Information Studies and the International Academic and Scientific Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. She is an economist. She specialises in development economics, gender issues and women’s empowerment. She pursued her doctoral studies in economics at the University of Chittagong, Bangladesh.
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Neha Goyal is Assistant Professor at IMS Unison University, India. She is an academic and researcher. She specialises in gender economics. She was a consultant at the Ministry of Women & Child Development, India. She pursued her doctoral studies in gender and economics at Aligarh Muslim University, India.