Why Is India Short 40 Million Women?

U.N. Population Fund Maintains a Curious Silence

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NEW YORK, FEB. 15, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Concern over sex selective abortion in India and other Asian countries is rising again. Exact data are hard to come by, but a Financial Times analysis published Feb. 8 spoke of a national shortfall of around 40 million women in India. The use of ultrasound tests to find out the sex of unborn children is now routine, the article said, and in some villages the sex ratio is 6 or even 7 boys born for every 3 girls.



Recent meetings gathering leaders of all faiths condemned the practice of female feticide, but their declarations attracted little coverage in the local press, the Financial Times said.

Hindu culture along with feudal and caste traditions are held to blame for a good part of the preference for boys. Many observers also note that the elimination of girls is carried out to avoid paying dowries, though the data might not support that view, at least in some cases.

The Financial Times quoted an Indian government report of the mid-1990s showing that the selective elimination of girls is not due to educational or economic factors. In fact, in two states, Punjab and Haryana, the number of girls has declined even as incomes have risen. Large disparities in sex ratios of children also exist in the poorer northern regions of India.

According to a study published in December's issue of Population and Development Review, provisional estimates from the 2001 Indian census reveal a sex ratio for children under 7 of 107.8 males for every 100 females. The male surplus is a marked increase on the 1991 census, which showed a level of 105.8 males. There are large regional differences, with the ratio exceeding 110 males per 100 females in 10 of India's 26 states.

Using ultrasound to find out the sex of fetuses is increasingly common, despite a government ban. According to the Population and Development Review article, up until recently there has been little domestic opposition to female feticide, even among women's groups. Feminists are divided on the issue, caught between their support for a women's "right" to abortion and their opposition to eliminating females.

The disequilibrium in sex ratios is creating serious problems for young men looking for brides. The shortage of wives is also being felt in China, where sex-selective abortion is common. The London Times reported Dec. 7 that tens of thousands of Vietnamese women are being kidnapped and sold to Chinese men each year, due to the at-home shortage.

In large parts of China there are up to 20% more boys than girls, leading to Chinese men now paying up to $4,000 for kidnapped Vietnamese women, the Times reported. In recent years 33,000 kidnapped Vietnamese women have managed to escape from China, but an unknown multiple of that figure are still trapped, the newspaper said.

Selective vision

The issue of missing girls is well known -- in recent months both the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune published lengthy articles on the matter. Readers of the latest "State of the World Population" report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), however, will search in vain for an analysis of the issue.

The 2002 report, published in December, centers on how family planning can help developing countries and women. An entire chapter is devoted to "Women and Gender Inequality," but no mention is made of how family planning has led to the deaths of millions of girls in the most populous nations.

In fact, the UNFPA report takes a very selective view of population matters. The report urges an increase in family planning funding so as to reduce poverty in developing nations.

The relationship between population and economic growth, however, is complicated. Economic experts differ on whether merely reducing the number of children will lead to higher growth. One of the sources the UNFPA report relied upon is the 2001 collection of essays "Population Matters: Demographic Change, Economic Growth, and Poverty in the Developing World." A lengthy critique of this book in last June's issue of Population and Development Review noted the many difficulties associated with this argument.

The magazine, a publication of the private Population Council, itself active in promoting family planning, observes that for a start most of the data in the essays is rather old, with only a few chapters having information from the 1990s. The review also notes how there is no agreement among experts on how demography should enter into models of economic growth. While population levels do have an influence, the review concluded, relatively little is known about the nature of the links between population growth and poverty.

Global graying

For a report that aims to examine the relationship between demography and economic development, UNFPA is curiously silent on a problem affecting more and more countries -- namely, global aging due to a lack of children.

A Jan. 24 Wall Street Journal feature on declining fertility pointed out that the long-standing Western European decline in birthrates is now prevalent in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. In many developing nations -- India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico and Iran -- fertility rates are declining faster than predicted.

In fact, the United Nations Population Division, a professional demographic center not connected with UNFPA, now forecasts that the world's population (now 6 billion) could level off at about 9 billion by 2050. A decade ago the projected peak was 12 billion.

With the fertility decline comes an aging population, and a whole series of economic problems. One of the many recent studies on this issue, "The Macroeconomic Impact of Global Aging" by Robert S. England, observed: "There is wide agreement that population aging will lower economic growth relative to what it would be if the proportion of the elderly population were not rising."

England's book points to research carried out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showing how aging countries will likely suffer from a decline in personal savings and increasing government indebtedness due to rising health and pension costs. Economic models point to how a shrinking labor force could take up to percentage point or more off economic growth.

This was confirmed in a recent study by the European Union forecasting that the EU economy's potential growth rate could shrink to just 1.25% a year, half of the U.S. rate. The difference would be caused by Europe becoming grayer, compared to a U.S. economy boosted by migration and rising fertility rates, the Financial Times said Dec. 11.

Shrinking labor forces are already causing problems in some countries. The government agency Statistics Canada issued a report Feb. 11 noting that an aging work force is a concern in the health and education sectors. Moreover, doctors are already older on average than the general work force, "which compounds concerns about potential shortages."

And in Scotland a study by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that the low birthrate might be the cause of the region's low level of business creation, the Financial Times reported Feb. 12. Scotland's population has been shrinking since 1974 and will continue to do so, says the country's registrar-general.

On this and other problems, UNFPA's report is silent. The pessimistic neo-Malthusian view on population has been increasingly discredited in recent years. It's time someone brought UNFPA up to date.