Missing women: Is nature or culture to blame?

Researchers tackle gender disparities in Asia and North Africa.

Published February 13, 2006 10:43PM (EST)

The New York Times Sunday Magazine revisited Amartya Sen's shocking 1990 essay that argued that vast numbers of women -- to the tune of 100 million -- were missing from Asia and North Africa. At the time, he concluded that his calculations told "a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women."

His conclusions were based on a great disparity between sex ratios in fully developed countries compared with those in Asia and North Africa. According to the Times, "because of biological advantages in fighting disease, women typically outnumbered men in fully developed countries, with about 105 women for every 100 men. And yet in developing countries like China and India, there were only about 94 women for every 100 men."

But in an interesting twist, researcher Emily Oster has raised questions about whether the 100 million missing women can be explained by disease, rather than by a cultural preference for male children. She found that in Alaska in the 1970s a reported boost in hepatitis B cases was accompanied by a high rate of male births. When the hepatitis B vaccination was made available in the 80s, the imbalance was corrected. Through her research -- published in December in the Journal of Political Economy -- she concluded that the virus "can account for about 45 percent of the 'missing women': around 75 percent in China, between 20 and 50 percent in Egypt and western Asia, and under 20 percent in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal."

But, as the Times article points out, Oster's research does not account for 33 million female births that theoretically should have occurred. So critics warn against ignoring the very real cultural influences at play.

Interestingly enough, unlike in Alaska, the distribution of the hepatitis B vaccine made little difference in Asia, where the gender imbalance has only grown. According to the Times, it can be boiled down to ultrasound technology that allows parents to abort according to sex. This has resulted in what Ena Singh, assistant representative of the U.N. Population Fund in India, called "an unholy alliance between tradition and technology."

The Times article suggests that "perhaps the more than 20 million lonely, surplus men predicted in China in 2020 will be the ones" to bring about real cultural change. That is at once depressing and encouraging. But looking at the numbers, it feels appropriate to welcome any cause for change -- even if it is men's loneliness.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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