100 Million women are missing


By Jean Batou

Contrary to common belief, there are today more men in the world than women. But this is not due to natural causes. While 105-106 boys are born for every 100 girls, this is more than compensated for by the higher death rate among men of all ages. Thus in regions where the two sexes are both adequately fed, clothed and sheltered (Europe, North America, Japan), the overall male/female ratio works out at 103-105 women to each 100 men.

On the other hand, there are only 87 women for every 100 men in India's Punjab, 93.3 in India, 94 in Bangladesh, 94.1 in China, 94.8 in the Middle East, 98.4 in north Africa and 100 in Latin America. In the Third World, south-east Asia, black Africa and India's Kerala state are exceptional, with 101, 101.2 and 103 women for every 100 men.

This has led the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya K. Sen to conclude in a recent article: "Given the enormity of the problem of women's survival in big parts of Asia and Africa, it is surprising that this prejudice has received so little attention. The number of 'missing women' with regard to their possible number if men and women benefited from a comparable level of attention to health, medicine and nourishment, is extremely high. More than 100 million women are quite simply not there because women are neglected in comparison with men ... These figures sum up the terrible story of inequality and neglect which results in the over-mortality of women."

Biology seems to give women a better chance of survival than men. Some researchers have even contended that there is a causal relation between this phenomenon and the birth of a larger number of boys. However, powerful socio-cultural factors at work in many countries combine to give the opposite result. Why?

More prejudice?

It is often said that the East is more sexist than the West. But this generalisation hardly withstands the facts. Japan was no less "Asiatic" in 1940 than at the start of the century, but while the 1899 and 1910 censuses revealed a very marked deficit of women, by 1940 the ratio of the sexes was nearly the same as in Europe. Furthermore, in most of east and south-east Asia, women are as numerous, even more numerous, than men (104-106 women to every man in Indochina, 101 in Indonesia, 100 in Thailand and 99 in the Philippines).

There is another remarkable contradiction. On the question of socio-cultural prejudice against women, how can we explain that while Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have the biggest

number of missing women, these countries have been among the first to elect women to lead the government or the main opposition parties? Certainly, these women are part of the ruling class and are the political heirs of a male leader — thus Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Nehru, Benazir Bhutto that of Zulfikar Bhutto and so on. It nonetheless remains the case that they have received the votes of the majority at elections.

In India, the lower house had 7.9% and 5.3% women in the last two parliaments. The figure for the House of Representatives in the United States is 6.4%. However, India's upper house has 10% women as against 2% in the US Senate. Amartya Sen remarks that he had more female colleagues in Delhi than at Harvard, where he currently teaches. From this angle, it is hard to see the cultural specificity of the East.

Rich and poor

On the economic level there seem to be two indisputable constants. Firstly, all the "rich countries" have more women than men. Secondly, most poor countries have a deficit of women. However, while the first rule is absolute, the second is more of a tendency. In fact, it is not always the most "developed" regions of the South where women do best. One can even say that economic development is often accompanied by an increase in discrimination against women.

As we have seen previously, Black Africa, Latin America and east and south-east Asia excluding China, have no significant deficit of women. Punjab and Haryana, which are among the richest states in India, have the most "missing women", while Kerala, which is twice as poor — with a per capita income lower than that of Bangladesh — has a male/female ratio close to that in Europe. In fact, the deficit of women in India has grown along with economic development from 97/100 in 1901 to 93/100 in 1971, although the life expectancy of both sexes has increased.

In China, since the economic reforms of 1979, which have led to important successes in agriculture, the proportion of women to men fell from 94.3/100 to 93.3/100 in 1989. Furthermore, women's life expectancy, which was higher than men's before the reforms, now appears to be lower.

Status in the family

The status and power of women within the family differ significantly from one region to another. For example, the fact that they have their own property, and above all that they engage in socially recognised economic activity, considerably strengthens their position. Sen analyses the relations between men and women in the family as a particular type of "conflictual cooperation" (the two cooperate to gain, but the distribution

of the gains is the object of a conflict of interests of which the two parties are not necessarily conscious). As a general rule, the fact that the mother distributes the food does not prevent her from being deprived, along with her daughters.

Here the perception of the respective value of the man's and the woman's work is crucial. Is their work equally "productive"? Which of the two contributes the most to the upkeep of the family? Each society has its own answers to such questions, answers which in their turn shape individual behaviour. The solution of the conflict in the family is thus largely conditioned by a culturally acquired false consciousness.

Empirically, it can be observed that family life is unfavourable to women if:

1. they cannot count on an external income.

2. their work is considered to be unproductive.

3. they have no possessions of their own.

4. society does not recognise that women are the objects of prejudice and does not seek to remedy this.

The first three points depend to a large extent on the women having paid employment outside the home. This last condition is clearly dependent on education, and the organisation of social and political action by women.

A woman who works outside has direct access to income, albeit small. This means that she enjoys the respect due to someone who brings in at least a part of the household's necessary income. When the job also enjoys a degree of social and legal protection, the woman is guaranteed a certain security.

Subjectively also, the experience of working outside the home has an educational effect; the woman becomes more aware of her interests and their value to the family. These factors improve not only the position of the mother, but also that of her daughters, who generally are underprivileged compared to the boys. In fact, their lower status is largely due to the fact that they offer less of a guarantee for the old age of their parents.

In descending order, here are the figures for employment of women outside the home in different regions of the Third World: China 74%, Black Africa 56%, south/south-east Asia 51%, Latin America 31%, south-central Asia 38%, Middle East/North Africa 14-15%. If one then looks at the life expectancy ratio of women compared to men, the order of the regions is the same, with the exception of China, which this time occupies one of the lowest positions, and the Middle East/North Africa, which moves up a place. This is a striking convergence given the big differences in all other

respects between these regions.

The case of sub-Saharan Africa is particularly significant. Here, women perform 80% of agricultural work, produce 60% of goods consumed and bring in more than a third of monetary revenue in rural households. It is without doubt this central economic role and its socio-cultural implications that lead to the relative equality of men and women in the face of death, despite the discrimination against women on other levels.

China is a special case. The China of the 1950s inherited millennia of prejudice against women. However, the policies of the new regime effected a spectacular turnaround. The general expansion of health services and of opportunities for paid work, as well as the recognition of women's economic role, resulted in deep socio-cultural changes. While average life expectancy rose by 15 years between 1950 and 1979 (before the introduction of the economic reforms), that of women rose faster than that of men.

Reforms in China

Starting in 1979, the introduction of the economic reforms led to strong growth in agricultural output. According to (doubtless exaggerated) official figures, agricultural output doubled between 1979 and 1986. But during this time, curiously, the death rate also rose, particularly for women. The women/men ratio in the population went from 94.3 in 1979 to 93.4 in 1986 (it is 94 today). It is even probable that women's life expectancy at birth has fallen below that of men (66 compared to 69 years).

How is the combination of strong economic growth and a deterioration in the situation of women to be explained? The reason is that the "responsibility system" which went into general effect after 1983, which means that each family disposes of its own surplus product above a fixed norm, while it has permitted appreciable gains in productivity, has developed to the detriment of social gains of which women were the prime beneficiaries. For example, the disbanding of the work brigades and rural communes has meant the collapse of health organisation in the countryside.

At the same time, the new organisation of work has meant a decline in paid work for women and thus of economic recognition within society. "The responsibility system has displaced the sources of women's income from work outside the home towards domestic activities, where there is no way of evaluating their contribution." Between 1978 and 1985, the share of net income of peasant households derived from individual plots rose from 26.8% to 81.1%.

Furthermore, the new insecurity contributes to reinforcing the preference for male children as a guarantee for the parents' old age. In this context there is nothing astonishing in the fact that

the authoritarian measures introduced in 1979 to promote one-child families led to increase in the infanticide of girl children. According to some authors, infantile mortality of girl children went from 37.7 per thousand in 1979 to 67.2 per thousand in 1985.

Even if these figures are exaggerated, the tendency clearly exists: indeed it has been recognised by the authorities who today authorise a second child if the first is a girl. To these factors it is necessary to add a political element; since 1979 the improvement of women's lot has ceased to be a government priority. On the contrary, the authorities are calling on women to "reinforce the domestic economy".

Neither traditional prejudices, nor the place of women in "oriental" civilisations, nor underdevelopment provide a full explanation for the missing women in vast regions of the Third World. In fact, we can see that egalitarian economic development, and the participation of women in paid work, reduces the demographic anomaly.

This participation, however, is not only determined by economic factors. For example, the level of education plays an essential role in the demographic outcome. And while there is a connection between levels of education and participation in social economic activity, this is neither automatic nor one-way. Thus in Kerala there is a particularly high women/men ratio. Furthermore, female life expectancy at birth is 72 years there as against 67 for men. However, the participation of women in economic activity is not especially high. On the other hand, there is a level of literacy (71%) which is higher than in any other Indian state (the average being 26%), or even China (56%) where two-thirds of the illiterate are women.

This specific case has a long history, which provides some insights into the role of the family structure in relation to the property system. In a large part of Kerala, inheritance is matrilinear, which strengthens women's position. In the north of India, on the other hand, the right of succession discriminates against girls. In fact, since the 19th century, "in Travancore (part of what is now Kerala) as in other populations in the south, the proportion of the sexes has been closer to European standards than to those in the north". In the same period, female infanticide was very widespread in Punjab. We can see from this that ancient socio-cultural peculiarities can work either in favour of (as in Kerala) or against (as in northern India and China) women.

Political action

Political action, including efforts by public authorities and a level of mobilisation and organisation among women themselves, is an important factor. In 1917, the queen of Travancore noted that "the state must take charge of the total cost of its people's

education in order to avoid any backwardness in the diffusion of education". At the start of the 19th century, the independent kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin, which are the origin of Kerala state, enjoyed a public education system ahead of their time. In the last decades of this century, this heritage has been systematically developed by the left-wing forces that rule the state (the Communist Party won power in 1975), by putting emphasis on education and health services, and giving special attention to the position of women.

The example of Cuba also shows the relative autonomy of political factors. If the male/female ratio is still one of the poorest in Latin America, the trend since the 1950s has nonetheless been favourable to women. The ratio was 91.6 in 1950, 94.8 in 1960, 95.1 in 1970, 97.8 in 1980, and 98.8 today.

Examples such as Kerala, black Africa, Cuba or pre-1980 China show that underdevelopment does not inevitably lead to the inequality of women in the face of death. Ancient socio-cultural prejudices can be combated by political measures backed up by the mobilisation and self-organisation of women. On the other hand, economic growth unaccompanied by appropriate social and political measures can lead to growing inequality of the sexes, as is seen in northern India and in post-1980 China.

However, while non-egalitarian growth can reinforce discrimination against women, generalised impoverishment certainly has even more dramatic effects. This can be seen currently in sub-Saharan Africa, where stabilisation programs and structural adjustment plans are causing unprecedented misery and leading to a deterioration in the lot of women through the dismantling of public services, with the consequent effects on women's employment, education and health, the exodus from the countryside and the swelling of the informal sector in the big cities and all the rest.

In this field, the inequality of women in the face of death, as in all others, Third World countries have ever less room for manoeuvre. Nonetheless, Sen has shown that the growth of the overall resources of a poor country does not necessarily reduce the misery of the majority of its inhabitants, notably of women. For this to take place, there must be a more just distribution within society and the family.

This is not just a moral issue, but a political necessity. A real alternative to dependence and underdevelopment is impossible without the mobilisation of the great mass of the disinherited around unifying egalitarian objectives, which must by their nature also be feminist.
[From International Viewpoint.]