The developing world has notoriously low sex ratios, a phenomenon that has been described as "missing women". This is believed to be driven by parental preferences for sons, sex-selective abortion and different levels of care during infancy. This column shows that these higher rates of female mortality continue into adulthood. It argues that being unmarried, especially through widowhood, is a key factor behind this trend.
The phrase 'missing women', coined by Amartya Sen (1990, 1992), refers to the observation that in parts of the developing world – notably in India and China – the ratio of women to men is suspiciously low. On average, in developed countries, males outnumber females at birth, but that imbalance begins to redress itself soon after. The combined effect is (or should be) a roughly equal proportion of men and women in the population as a whole. This is not the case in many parts of the developing world.
The "missing women" phenomenon
Sen calculated how skewed sex ratios translate into absolute numbers of missing women. His computations permit us to derive the number of additional women who would have been alive in, say, India or China if these countries had the same ratio of women to men as in developed countries, where women and men presumably receive similar care. Sen"s methodology suggests that more than 200 million women are 'demographically" missing across the developing world. This is meant to be an estimate of the total number of women who have died prematurely due to gender discrimination.
These astronomical numbers have spawned a significant literature aimed at explaining the "missing women" phenomenon. A central focus of this literature is on skewed sex ratios at birth, a red flag for sex-selective abortion (Junhong 2001, Lin et al. 2014, and Jha et al. 2006).
Vast majority of "missing women" are of adult age
In earlier work (Anderson and Ray 2010, 2012) we critically examine the age distribution of missing women. Instead of relying on overall sex ratios that point to an overall 'stock" of missing women and make it difficult to separate the problem across different age groups, we use 'flow" mortality rates by age and gender. This allows us to estimate the number of missing women (per year) in each age category. In stark contrast to the emphasis in the earlier literature on sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, we found that the vast majority of missing women are actually of adult age. Moreover, a large number of missing adult women are to be found in sub-Saharan Africa, where an unusual birth ratio (the percentage of girls born is biologically higher among African ethnicities) masks the problem from the traditional 'stock" viewpoint.
That the majority of missing women are of adult age suggests that excess female mortality across the developing world is not just the result of gender-biased parental preferences. Rather, our estimates reveal that the plight of adult women can be as serious a problem as that of young girls who were either never born or die prematurely in childhood.
Role of widowhood
In recent work, we take these findings a step further, by examining the role of widowhood in explaining missing women of adult age (Anderson and Ray 2015). There are prima facie reasons for entertaining such a suspicion: that unmarried individuals die at a faster rate than married individuals is well documented. In developed countries, this relative excess mortality for the unmarried occurs at all ages, for both sexes, for all ethnicities, and for all causes of death (Johnson et. al. 2000). While data for developing countries are somewhat coarser, the evidence similarly indicates relative excess mortality for the unmarried in most age groups and for both sexes. Most of this stems from widow(er)hood, given that marriage at a young age is essentially universal in developing countries, so that unmarried adults are typically widowed. None of this is surprising: after all, marriage provides significant economic, psychological and environmental benefits, and it involves two partners caring for each other.
However, the fact that both developed and developing countries suffer from the '
A similar plight can be documented for African countries (Sossou 2002, Oppong 2006). As in South Asia, rules of inheritance and property rights restrict the access of a widow to her late husband's resources. The general isolation of
In short, given these extreme vulnerabilities faced by widows in developing countries, we expect that 'excess unmarried mortality" will be relatively more extreme for women in these regions. That sets up the possibility that "
The total number of missing unmarried women each year, by region, are listed in Table 1.
Table 1. "Missing" unmarried women by region
Data Sources: United Nations (UN) World Marriage Data 2012; UN Demographic Yearbook 2003; UN World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision.
Approximately 70% of the missing unmarried women are of reproductive age (20-45). These younger unmarried women are classified as missing precisely because
The remaining 30% of the missing unmarried women are older (between 45 and 65). Our computations demonstrate that excess female mortality amongst this older unmarried group is driven mainly by a second key factor: the relative incidence of widowhood is larger in developing regions. It may well be that this factor is not as directly linked to gender discrimination, and has more to do with patterns of mortality across age and gender with development. But further research is needed to identify precisely the sources of the significant excess female mortality from the absence of marriage amongst women in parts of Asia and Africa.
The vulnerabilities faced by unmarried women in developing countries have been much discussed. Our approach places these vulnerabilities explicitly in the context of missing women, thus permitting a comparison across different sources of excess female mortality. The resulting statistic – that over 40% of excess female mortality can be attributed to just this one factor – is quite remarkable.
This column first appeared on VoxEU.
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