Millions of women are missing and feared dead Research hints that, in Asia alone, 60 million are victims of their sex.

November 06, 1991|By New York Times

BEIJING -- Little girls in China no longer have their feet crushed by foot-binding, and widows in India are no longer supposed to be roasted alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands.

But a stark statistic testifies to women's continuing unequal status: At least 60 million females in Asia are missing and feared dead, victims of nothing more than their sex.

Worldwide, research suggests, the number of missing females may top 100 million.

If sex discrimination in the West means office harassment or fewer good jobs for women, in the third world it often means death.

In China, India and many other developing countries, a traditional preference for boys translates into neglect and death for girls.

While the discrimination is widely seen as a relic of outdated attitudes, in fact the problem appears to be getting worse in Asia.

Recently released census data in China and India show that in both countries the sex ratio of the population became more skewed over the course of the past decade.

The tens of millions of missing include females of all ages who are aborted or killed at birth or who die because they are given less food than males, or because family members view a daughter with diarrhea as a nuisance but a son with diarrhea as a medical crisis requiring a doctor.

"If a boy gets sick, the parents may send him to the hospital at once," acknowledged Li Honggui, an official in China's State Family Planning Commission. "But if a girl gets sick, the parents may say to themselves, 'Well, we'll see how she is tomorrow.' "

Remarkably little research has been conducted on the plight of the missing women, and even their disappearance is discernible merely as a shadow on the census data and mortality statistics.

"It's shocking that so little is known," said Amartya Sen, a Harvard economist who has tried to call attention to the issue. Sen estimates that considerably more than 100 million females are missing around the world, and he asserts that the reason the shortfall is getting worse in some areas is that girls are not allowed to benefit as much as boys from the improvements in health care and nutrition that are lowering death rates in developing countries.

Any investigation into the case of the missing women begins with one fact: 5 or 6 percent more boys are born than girls, but in normal circumstances males die at higher rates at every age thereafter.

Typically in the West, where female infanticide is not considered an issue, children are disproportionately male, the number of men and women evens out by the time people are in their 20s or 30s, and the elderly are disproportionately female.

In relatively advanced countries such as the United States, Britain and Poland, there are about 105 females for every 100 males.

In India, however, a census this year found only 92.9 females for every 100 males, down from 93.4 in the 1981 census and 93.0 in the 1971 census.

And in China, the 1990 census found just 93.8 females for every 100 males, compared with 94.1 at the time of the 1982 census.

By a conservative calculation there are 30 million females missing in China, about 5 percent of the national total and more than are missing in any other country.

A U.N. report this summer, "The World's Women," found that other countries with very low ratios of females include Afghanistan, with 94.5 for every 100 males; Bangladesh, 94.1; Bhutan, 93.3; Nepal, 94.8; Pakistan, 92.1; Papua New Guinea, 92.8, and Turkey, 94.8.

"Millions of women have died because they're women," said Sharon Capeling-Alakija, director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, adding that mothers as well as fathers are responsible. "In most societies, women are the bearers of tradition, and if decisions are made between boy children and girl children, women were involved in making those decisions."

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