“Missing Women” – international aspects of female-to-male ratio

“Missing Women” – international aspects of female-to-male ratio – Brief Article

Alejandro Reuss

If you look down a column of population statistics for the world’s 200-odd countries, the female-male split rarely seems to stray very far from 50-50. Women rarely make up less than 48% of a country’s population, and they seldom account for more than 52%. This seemingly narrow band, however, hides a demographic catastrophe of holocaust proportions. In the world’s most populous country, China, males out number females by about 40 million; in its second most populous, India, by about 30 million. In 1990, economist Amartya Sen calculated that, to bring the female-to-male ratio in China, India, and other countries up to the sub-Saharan African level (about 102 women per 100 men), one would have to add a total of over 107 million women to their populations. He dubbed this figure the number of “missing women.”

Sen used the concept of “missing women” to dramatize the wrenching consequences, in many parts of the world, of anti-female bias in nutrition, health care, and other basics of life. In China and other countries where there is a strong preference for male babies, sex-selective abortion and even infanticide of female babies undoubtedly contribute to the number of missing women. The figures mainly reflect, however, the enormous economic inequalities, hidden by official statistics focusing on total household income, within families.

Not all family members always enjoy an equal claim to a family’s income. All too often, especially when an adult male controls the family’s money income, women come after men in the family pecking order, and girl children come last of all — even when it comes to basics like food and visits to the doctor. In India, 11 more infant girls die per thousand born than boys per thousand born. In China, the difference is 13. These facts go a long way toward explaining why the two countries account for nearly three-fourths of the world’s missing women. Today, anti-female bias may account for as many as 135 million missing women worldwide.

Sen adopted the sub-Saharan African figure as a benchmark for calculating the number of missing women because the region — having very low income, low overall life expectancy, high overall birth rates, etc. — resembled the areas he was studying. Other economists have since developed more sophisticated estimates of expected female-to-male ratios. Based on complex studies of age-specific mortality in females and males under conditions of equal treatment, these benchmarks vary from one country to another. While the total number of missing women can vary considerably depending on the standard one applies, however, it always numbers in the tens of millions. A 1994 study published in the journal World Development, for example, put the worldwide figure at about 89 million missing women.

Of course, the missing women data should not be taken to mean that there is no anti-female bias in areas where women are in the majority, like the United States and most of Europe. Rather, in the words of Amartya Sen, excess female mortality is “a crude and sharply visible aspect of gender inequality, which often manifests itself in more subtle and less gruesome forms.”

Resources: Amartya Sen, “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” New York Review of Books, December 20, 1990; Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999); Stephan Klasen, “‘Missing Women’ Reconsidered,” World Development 22(7), 1994; United Nations, The World’s Women: Trends and Statistics, 2000; World Bank, World Development Indicators CD-ROM, 2000.

Alejandro Reuss is a co-editor of Dollars & Sense.


Country Women per Female pop. Expected

100 men (in millions) female pop.

(in millions)

China 93.8 599.4 654.3

India 93.7 473.9 517.7

Pakistan 92.9 63.4 69.8

Bangladesh 97.8 62.1 65.0

Indonesia 100.4 102.0 104.0

Philippines 94.4 37.3 38.8

Turkey 97.9 31.4 32.8

Total for countries listed

Country Missing


(in millions)

China 54.9

India 43.7

Pakistan 6.5

Bangladesh 2.9

Indonesia 2.0

Philippines 1.5

Turkey 1.4

Total for countries listed 112.9

For the sake of simplicity, the sub-Saharan African average of about 102 women per 100 men is used as the benchmark female-to-male ratio. The expected female population is the number of women that, given the actual male population, would raise the country’s female-to-male ratio to this level. The number of missing women is the difference between the expected female population and the actual female population. The source population data (total population of each country and women as a percentage of total population) are from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators CD-ROM. All figures are for 1998.


The gender disparities reflected in the missing women figures may be colossal, but they are not necessarily intractable. Studies of gender and mortality within India suggest that areas with higher rates of female education and labor-force participation tend to have higher female-to-male ratios as well. The two Indian states of Kerala (see Nick Thorkelson, “The Washington Consensus and the Kerala Alternative,” D&S, March/April 2001) and Uttar Pradesh, despite sharing very low per capita incomes and very high (40-50%) poverty rates, are polar opposites when it comes to missing women. The female-to-male ratio in Uttar Pradesh is about 88 (women per 100 men), while it is about 104 in Kerala.

Resources: Mamta Murthi, Anne-Catherine Guio, and Jean Dreze, “Mortality, Fertility, and Gender Bias in India: A District-Level Analysis,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 21, Issue 4, 1995.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Economic Affairs Bureau

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group