Missing in India: 63 million women

More than 11 million of these, owing to sex-selective abortion. Could be as high as 16.9 million.

By Jonathan Abbamonte

Photo: pixelfusion3d/Getty Images

Millions of women have gone missing from India’s population due to persistent, deep-seated male bias and extreme son preference.

According to a recent report from the Government of India, a staggering 63 million women are now missing from India’s population. The report estimates that nearly 2 million women are lost every year. The report further estimates that an additional 21 million girls are “unwanted” by their parents who would have preferred a boy instead.

The figures were released by the Indian Ministry of Finance in its Economic Survey 2017-2018 this January.

There are a number of reasons why the gender gap between men and women in India is so large. For one, many women in India suffer significantly diminished access to healthcare, adequate nutrition, education, and other resources compared to men. As a result, the mortality rate for women relative to men is higher than would be expected for a country with India’s level of economic development.

Millions of girls have also been eliminated prior to birth by the widespread practice of sex-selective abortion, a discriminatory practice where girls are selectively terminated simply because they were not boys. Even after birth, girls may be subjected to various kinds of neglect, receiving less food, healthcare, education, or other necessities. This appears to be particularly true if they happen to be a second or third daughter.

It is generally believed that a natural sex ratio at birth is somewhere close to 1.06 boys for every girl. The sex ratio at birth may vary slightly from country to country from 1.03 to 1.07 depending on mortality rates prevalent in that country and other factors that are not entirely understood.

However, the sex ratio at birth does not deviate far from the norm unless sex-selective practices come into play. According to figures cited by the Economic Survey report, India’s sex ratio at birth in 2014 approached 1.11, far exceeding the expected natural ratio.

The Ministry of Finance derived its estimate of the overall number of missing women using methods developed by Amartya Sen (1990), Ansley Coale (1991), and Siwan Anderson and Debraj Ray (2010)

Despite the fact that sex-selective abortion is a major cause of India’s ‘missing women,’ the report made no mention of the number of women lost through sex-selective abortion. As a result, we at the Population Research Institute utilized the same methodology and paired it with United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) population estimates and projections for India to estimate the number of women lost through sex-selective abortion.

Assuming this methodology, we estimate that sex-selective abortion in India has eliminated between 11.8 to 14.1 million women from India’s population since 1990.

Sadly, even this staggeringly high number may be a conservative estimate. Because these figures were derived using natural sex ratios at birth prevalent in Western countries, and because sex ratios at birth tend to be lower in developing countries, the actual number of women lost through sex-selective abortion could be much higher.

Our lower bound estimate of 11.8 million assumes a natural sex ratio at birth of 1.066, the average sex ratio at birth for Asian Indian-Americans living in the United States between 1992-2004, according to Abrevaya (2008). But as studies and mortality statistics have consistently shown, male infants are naturally more prone to mortality than female infants. Since infant mortality is much higher in India than in the U.S., it is unlikely that the natural sex ratio at birth in India sits as high as 1.066.

Moreover, studies have found evidence that immigrant Indian women in U.S. and in other Western countries continue to be coerced into practicing sex-selective abortion, even years after relocating to Western countries. As a result, the observed sex ratio at birth of 1.066 among Indian immigrants in the U.S. is undoubtedly high due to the fact that some immigrants continue to practice sex-selective abortion, a factor that would cause our figure to underestimate the incidence of sex-selective abortion in India.

The upper bound estimate of 14.1 million assumes that the natural sex ratio at birth equivalent to 1.059, the ratio Coale found to be the median sex ratio at birth among a sample of European countries between 1962 and 1980. This very nearly agrees with Gretch’s (2002) all Europe estimate of 1.058 for sex ratio at birth from 1950-1999. However, infant mortality in India in 2015 exceeded the mortality rates seen in most European countries since the 1960’s.

If we use the sex ratio at birth often cited by demographers and the World Health Organization as a good approximation for the natural ratio (1.05), then the number of women lost to sex-selective abortion in India climbs even higher to 16.9 million.

Additionally, we estimate that since 1990 roughly 1 million girls were never born because their hypothetical would-be mothers were terminated through sex-selective abortion 15 years or more prior. If these mothers had not been selectively aborted, we also estimate that less than 62,000 additional births on top of the 1 million would have been prevented as a result of sex-selective abortion.[21]

“As the death toll from sex-selective abortion continues to mount, we call upon the countries of the world to ban this heinous practice,” says PRI President Steven Mosher. “Sex-selective abortion is, after all, the worst form of discrimination imaginable. It is a discrimination that kills.”

Jonathan Abbamonte is a research analyst at the Population Research Institute, where this article first appeared. Footnotes were omitted.