A privilege that shouldn’t be

If I asked what an ideal, perfect world would look like, people might say no climate change, zero terrorism,  capable and fair governments, and in my world, a lake of coffee at my disposal. I like to believe (perhaps naively so), that most of us would also say equality for everyone, regardless of the race they belong to, the god they pray to, the people they love, the set of chromosomes they were born with, or the gender that they recognize with. In a perfect world, at least in my definition, none of these become the basis of unjust treatment meted out to a person. You don’t need me to tell you- we are a long way from this.

Like most of the world, Indians like to revel in the growth of our nation across many avenues, as they should. There’s certainly progress when it comes to recognizing the rights of women too, but perhaps not as much as we would like to believe. One such aspect was highlighted by Amartya Sen in 1990- the case of the missing women.1
Sen stated that millions of women were “missing” from the population totals of many countries, especially in Asia. He compared female-to-male ratios in Europe and North America to those in South and West Asia, as well as China, and said that the lower rates in Asia were due to high female mortality. He estimated the proportions of extra women that would have survived in these societies if it had the same sex ratio as parts of the world where they receive equal medical and health care. According to Sen’s calculations, 100 million women were “missing”, as such. Other reputed researchers calculated slightly varying numbers, but they were all just as horrifying. The highest numbers of these missing women were found in India and China. While China might have had some reasons different from those in India, the root cause was the same- favor for the male child, primarily for the economic survival of the family. Daughters were viewed to be financial burdens in many ways, especially so in India.

Two decades or so back

(Source:Miller, B. D. (1987). Female Infanticide and Child Neglect in Rural North India. Child Survival, p 95.)

A 1987 paper by Barbara D Miller about the morbid extent of female infanticide in north India,  talks about how daughters are seen to be the burden a family must get rid of, sooner or later- and the sooner happens often because of the financial burden of marrying a daughter off, wherein lies the issue of dowry practices. Sons are assets, for when they marry, they will bring a dowry with their brides, whereas daughters would drain a substantial amount of what the household had earned over the years and be of no real value to the welfare of their maternal family. Studies mentioned by the author reveals that the skewed ratio is often also due to the nutritional bias in favor of sons in many families, especially during lean seasons, as well as a bias in providing medical help in times of sickness.

Since pre-determination of the sex of a foetus was legal at the time this paper was written and published, there was some data available regarding the prevalent sex-selective abortion.

(Source:Miller, B. D. (1987). Female Infanticide and Child Neglect in Rural North India. Child Survival, p 103.)

There is a chilling fact mentioned by the author that very well may be a problem today as well- it is rather difficult to document outright neonaticide. The actual birth of a child is almost always a private event, and killing a baby isn’t exactly a herculean task. 

15 years down the line2

In Stephan Klasen and Claudia Wink’s  2002 update on the number of missing women, they found that the world had seen a relative rise in the share of women alive in most countries, though there had been an increase in the absolute number of missing women. India had actually seen a rise and seen better results in 1991 before it dipped back to the previous disappointing numbers in 2001. They found that while rates of survival were better when the daughters were older (more than 15 years old), the younger daughters find themselves in the bleak uncertainty of, well, murder in one form or the other, at the hands of their family. 

(Source: Klasen, S., & Wink, C. (2002). A Turning Point in Gender Bias in Mortality? An Update on the Number of Missing Women. Population and Development Review, 28(2), p 292)

They found that while India had worked to improve the disadvantage that women found themselves in, the simultaneous advent in methods of sex selection—perhaps accelerated by the fact that though pre-determination of sex was made illegal in 1994, misogynistic traditions remained set in stone—offset the good. In fewer words, they found no real improvement.

Amartya Sen too revisited the matter in 2003 and echoed  Klasen and Wink’s findings. The push for women’s education, the policies to give women their rights seemed to have boosted the mortality for women, but none of them seemed to have dented the reported rates of female infanticide. 

Around 15 more years into the future, closer to today

#Metoo certainly brought a tsunami of change and empowerment with it, but it was for those of us who were allowed to be born and had the privilege of being allowed to live beyond the first few days and months of our life. 

The 2018 Economic Survey calculated about 60 million missing women in India. Phase 1 of NFHS 5 surveys revealed distinct negative trends in the sex ratios at birth (SRB), even in states that seemed to be showing better results in the past years. You must be wondering, as did I – with so many initiatives in place to protect the girl child, to protect women, why are we still locked in battle with this monster?

Activists, scholars, and research would suggest answers whose essence would come down to this- there will be backlash onto women if the age-old cultural norms and patriarchal values are not accounted for in the formulation of women-centric policies. Making pre-determination of sex simply had people swapping pre-natal discrimination for post-natal discrimination. Inheritance rights might become an incentive for eliminating the daughter who would inherit the wealth and take it to her husband’s house, in addition to the possible dowry she would be sent with, whereas the son would care for the parents when they are old. Adding more women in the police work means zilch if they are not armed with the acceptance and investigative rights that their male counterparts have. It is important to understand the complex structural disparities, social norms, and gender relations that women and girls face when designing a policy or program. And the faster we do that, the better. 

For those of you who are thinking something to the effect of “oh, but not all of India is like this.” “You mustn’t generalize” “Some of us are progressive” “We give our daughters equal rights”- I wholeheartedly agree with you. The very fact that I can write this means that I have had the privilege of a family who did not think any less of me or get rid of me just because I’m a daughter.  But my right to life shouldn’t be a privilege in the first place.

-Devangee Halder

SY B.Sc.


  1. Klasen, S. (1994). “Missing women” reconsidered. World Development, 22(7), 1061–10

    Coale, A. J. (1991). Excess Female Mortality and the Balance of the Sexes in the Population: An Estimate of the Number of “Missing Females.” Population and Development Review, 17(3), 517
  2.  Croll, E. J. (2001). Amartya Sen’s 100 Million Missing Women. Oxford Development Studies, 29(3), 225–244. h

One thought on “A privilege that shouldn’t be

  1. jayashri Swaminathan says:

    Devangee, very relevant article for the Hipocrisy which is there. Agree with your views.

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