Food For Thought

The impact of gender imbalance

“One of the best ways that we can deal with all of the abuses that are so troubling against women and girls is through economic empowerment.”

— Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State


 By Donna Shaver

Approximately 80% of Indian women in the non-agricultural sector have informal jobs—scrounging out a living however they can.  They are extremely vulnerable economically, and may have to turn to prostitution as a way to feed their children and themselves.  Especially troubling is that their daughters also are likely to become sex workers, as they have few other prospects.   But while some women in India become sex workers as a matter of survival, most are trafficked into the sex trade involuntarily.


Our Dining for Women recipient this month is Anchal’s “Designing Change, Stitch by Stitch” program, which is working to empower women to make their own way with dignity in a deeply patriarchal society.  Anchal works with women who are trying to leave voluntary prostitution, teaching them practical skills that will enable them not only to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, but to educate their daughters and break the cycle of poverty and exploitation.


Introduction to Gender Imbalance

The sex trade in India is booming for a reason:  Gender imbalance.  In December 1990, a shocking article appeared in the New York Review of Books, “More Than 100 Million Women are Missing”.  The author, Dr. Amartya Sen, was a visiting professor of economics at Harvard (the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economics for his work in welfare economics).  Dr. Sen asserted that 100 million more females would be in the world if discrimination due to preference for sons and lower levels of health care and nutrition for girls were not the norm.  Although these practices occurred in a number of regions, they were most pronounced in Asia.  From that point forward, the victims became known as the “Missing Women of Asia”.


In countries that have historically preferred sons over daughters, there has been a long tradition of female infanticide, coupled with significant discrimination in care and feeding of girls.  Sen did not mention sex selective abortion in his article, but today it is usually the preferred method of sex selection due to the advent of ultrasound technology and its widespread distribution.  The most skewed sex ratios occur in the states of Albania, Armenia, and Azjerbijan, but effects of sex selection play out on a massive scale in India and China simply because of the size of their respective populations.


In the normal course of events, approximately 106 to 107 boys are born for every 100 girls.  In the first five years of life, boys are more likely to die than girls, and by adolescence, the numbers will be roughly equal.  But those numbers are highly skewed when a pronounced preference for sons is the norm.  The statistics tell an ugly story:


India:  2011 census–109 boys for every 100 girls.  In the states of Punjab and Haryana, the number for boys is in excess of 120.

  • 2001 census – 927 girls for every 1,000 boys
  • 2011 census – 914 girls for every 1,000 boys – which translates to 7,000 fewer girls born every day


By 2020, the number of surplus males ages 15-34 in India is estimated to be 30 to 35 million.

Sex selection has been a longtime practice in India, primarily through infanticide and neglect.  It is rooted in the culture, as the son is responsible for the care of parents.  Only a son can light the parents’ funeral pyres.  Traditionally, only the son could inherit property.  One of his responsibilities is to bring home a wife to care for the household and bear the son.


Conversely, the daughter will be married off and become the virtual property (literally in older times) of her husband and in-laws. Raising a daughter is considered to be “planting a seed in another man’s garden”.


In India, an additional problem is dowry—the expectation that the parents of the bride will give money and items of value to the husband’s family.  So bringing up a daughter means a heavy financial burden on the family to “marry her off”.


But sex selective abortion is not the only way in which girls disappear from the population.  As noted earlier, boys die at a higher rate from birth to age 5.  But in India, a little girl is 75% more likely than a boy to die before age 5.  Girls tend to be fed less (and are sometimes systematically starved) and less likely receive medical care.  It is estimated that a little Indian girl dies from discrimination every four minutes.  Girls who are not fed properly and do not receive adequate medical care may grow up with significant physical and intellectual deficits.


A study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health published in 2011 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine shows that girl children are at much higher risk of dying in households where there is domestic violence.  Boys in such households are not affected.


The Domestic Violence Act was passed in 2006 to protect women and compensate them for abuse.  In New Delhi alone, 14,887 cases have been registered since 2007, and there has not been a single conviction.



The Consequences of Gender Imbalance

Large numbers of young and frustrated men represent a volatile source of conflict and unrest.  Especially in large numbers, they can be capable of significant violence and crime, and are a destabilizing force in society.  Crime rates are skyrocketing.


The men that are without hope of marriage are young and in societies that expect them to settle down and create a family.  In India, over 50% of the population is under 25, and over 65% under the age of 35.  If sex selection were to end today, it would be 15 years before gender ratios would be normal in the 15-34 age cohort for the youngest age.


When there are far more men than women, the effect is to vastly increase the violence within a society.  Women become both the source of frustration (not enough women to marry) and the target of violence.


Sex trafficking:  With some 35 million young Indian men with no hope of marriage and family, there is already great demand for sexual services, meaning great danger for millions of girls.  Because girls are deemed of little value, some families sell daughters into a brothel or to traffickers rather than pay dowries, and girls will be kidnapped, tricked, and sold into the sex trade.  Girls are being trafficked in from other countries to meet the demand.  Of course the explosive growth of the sex trade contributes to the objectification and fungibility of women and girls.


In June 2011, Trustlaw, a service of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, published a list of the most dangerous countries in the world for women.  The top five were Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India, and Somalia.  The main bullet points for India were:

  • 100 million people trafficked, mostly women and girls
  • 44.5% of girls married before age 18
  • 50+ million girls are “missing” (female feticide and infanticide)


Bride trafficking:  Girls are already being sold–or kidnapped to be sold–to men as brides.  Sometimes, they are forced to be “brides” to a number of brothers, and may be sold to other men.  Even in legitimate marriages, some brides find that they are expected to be “brides” to the brothers of the groom.


Violence:   Rape is exploding as an issue in India.  But few arrests are made, other than when there is significant publicity. Compounding the problems for women is rampant corruption. If women report a rape, perpetrators can easily bribe police—and in a deeply misogynistic society, police are more likely to side with the perpetrator.  It is extremely difficult to get a conviction.  And of course the woman is shamed.  Most rapes are never reported.


Inequitable Treatment by the Authorities:  Even though the government is trying to manage the destabilizing social change of gender imbalance, India is a large country and much of it is rural and traditional.   Traditional local councils flout the gender laws and sentence women for various infractions of traditional societies.   And we’ve already seen how police departments routinely fail to protect women.


All of these hazards are constricting the lives of women in Indian society.  As the second most populous country on the planet (and scheduled to surpass China in population in the next few years), India is remarkably backward in utilizing the incredible resource of a major part of the adult population.  The World Economics Forum in Geneva issues a Global Gender Gap Report each year, ranking 135 countries.  India’s rankings are as follows:

  • 113 overall
  • 131 in “Economic Participation and Opportunity”
  • 121 in “Educational Attainment”
  • 134 in “Health and Survival” (only Albania is worse).



UN Millennium Development Goals

Goals that are addressed by Anchal, Designing Stitch by Stitch


Goal 1:  Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Target:  Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day:

  • Proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day in Southern Asia has progressed from 58% in 1990, to 38% in 2005, and to 34% in 2008


Target:  Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people:

  • Much work remains to be done.  Women are far more likely than men to be engaged in vulnerable employment.  More than 80% of Indian women working outside of agriculture hold informal jobs.


Target:  Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger:

  • Little progress has been made.  The proportion of people in Southern Asia who are undernourished was 22% in 1990-92, 21% in 2000-2002, and 20% in 2006-08.
  • Significant progress has been made.  The proportion of children under age five who are moderately or severely underweight was 31% in 1990 and 17% in 2010 (the 2010 percentage is an average of a range of estimates).



Goal 3:  Promote gender equality and empower women

Target: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.


Southern Asia is on target to meet this goal.  Gender disparities in education are greater as families are poorer, however.  In other arenas of gender equality, though, women are not faring nearly as well:

  • Equal access to job opportunities remains a distant target for women in Southern Asia.  The percentage of females in non-agricultural wage employment has progressed from 13% in 1990 to 17% in 2000 to 10% in 2010.
  • Women continue to gain representation in parliaments, but the pace is slow.  The proportion of seats held by women in single or lower houses of national parliaments in Southern Asia has progressed from 7% in 2000 to 18% in 2012.

Additional Information on Gender Imbalance in India


Several research studies in India have shown that, in most families, if the first child is a girl, she is usually treated as well as a boy.  Parents assume that they will be having more children, and eventually they will get a boy.  But any subsequent girls will be treated poorly.


Although it is counterintuitive, sex selective abortion is used at a significantly higher rate in upper class households.  The gender ratios are the most skewed in the richest states in India—Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat.  These are families that can easily afford to house and educate children.  A possible explanation is that upper class families are likely to want fewer children, so they are driven to ensure that they have a son.


The primary means by which parents ensure that they don’t have a daughter is sex selective abortion.  Although it is illegal to use ultrasound to determine gender, clinics throughout India are set up to do just that.  Penalties for informing parents of gender are not enforced.  Infanticide continues in, but is not limited to, rural areas.  A traditional birth attendant can be paid a few extra rupees to dispose of a female newborn. Rita Banerjee, a well-known Indian writer and activist, and founder of the 50 Million Missing Campaign, noted that families have learned how to induce pneumonia and diarrhea in baby girls so it will look like a natural death.  That will keep them from being accused of infanticide.


And sex selection is not limited to the Hindu population.  This is practiced by Sikhs, Muslims and Christians in India.


It is important to note that the West bears some culpability.  Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection, traces the troubling history of attempts in the late 60’s and early 70’s to control the rapid population growth in developing countries, especially in Asia.  A number of influential individuals, large foundations, and organizations in the west, including the United Nations, actively promoted sex selective abortion of girls.  Building on an already historical precedent of favoring sons, Indians were encouraged to abort females because doing so would reduce the pool of potential mothers.  Although a number of advocates were aware of the horrendous price that women would pay in loss of autonomy, they argued that it was justified for the greater good of controlling population growth.


Constriction of Women’s Autonomy

In addition to horrendous crimes against women such as sex trafficking, rape, and dowry deaths, there is the daily harassment women experience called “Eve-Teasing”.  The term refers to sexual harassment of women, usually on the street or on public transportation.  The very term has built into it the assumption that women are temptresses, and thereby somehow at fault for bringing on male attention.  It ranges from rude remarks to groping, and is becoming more and more prevalent.  It limits women’s mobility, as they try to go through their day without fending off unwanted advances.


In Mumbai, Ladies Special trains have been introduced to allow women working and studying in the city to travel without the fear of being sexually harassed–for the length of the journey at least. Given that the number of women needing to travel has doubled since 1995, there is a very strong demand for these kinds of services.  (The Times, 19 September 2009)  Today “Ladies Special” Compartments are present in all local trains in the big cities.


Potential Changes in Society  

While it would seem on the surface that, like gold, women would be more highly prized if there were fewer of them, the truth is exactly the reverse.  They become a commodity.  Although there is hope that the shortage of women will eliminate the custom of dowry, it may well be replaced with bride price—money going from the groom’s family to the bride’s family.  In either case, the bride bought and sold.


Potential Solutions

The most important step would be to enforce the laws that are already on the books—preventing the use of ultrasound to enable gender selective abortion, prosecuting domestic violence, enforcing the law against dowry, investigating and prosecuting rape, fully investigating and punishing dowry deaths, and putting significant resources into combating trafficking.  But in a country the size of India, with traditional misogynistic attitudes and traditions, enforcement is very difficult.


India has had a number of campaigns to promote the value of daughters. India is also experimenting with various ways to encourage families to value their daughters by such programs as rewarding families for keeping girls in school.  Such programs are limited at this point.


As in other countries that have had a severe gender imbalance, many women are being imported from poor states to wealthier states and from other countries to be brides.   As in South Korea, which once had a serious gender imbalance, the importation of women from other regions and other countries is starting to break down the barriers of prejudice—and in India, dowry and the rigidity of the caste system.  Some of these marriages are contracted through legitimate marriage bureaus and some women may be significantly improving their circumstances.  (This is not true, of course, with involuntary bride trafficking—which is growing exponentially.)


More Publicity and Education to the Broader Society 

More attention is being called to the problem within India, and now it has reached the popular media.  A famous Bollywood movie star, Aamir Khan, has started a talk show, Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Prevails).  Each show takes on a social issue, and the first one was devoted to sex selection—titled “Female Foeticide”.  Because of his high profile and popularity, the show is bringing nationwide and international attention to the issue.  He has covered a number of social issues, including child marriage, the dowry system, and domestic violence.  (See “Sources” below for how to access the shows with English subtitles.)