Recently, the State of World Population 2020 report was released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which stated that the number of missing women has more than doubled over the past 50 years: from 61 million in 1970 to 142.6 million in 2020. Of this global figure, India accounts for 46 million missing females as of 2020 and China accounts for 72.3 million. The report examines the issue of missing women by studying sex ratio imbalances at birth as a result of gender- biased sex selection and excess female mortality due to deliberate neglect of girls because of a culture of son preference.
The report mentions a 2014 study to state that India has the highest rate of excess of female deaths at 13.5 per 1000 female birth or one in nine deaths of females below the age of 5 due to postnatal sex selection. The same study shows that in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, excess female mortality of girls below 5 years of age was under 5 percent.
However, the advent of technology and increased access to ultrasound imaging ensured that parents didn’t have to wait for the birth of their girl child to kill her but could terminate a fetus upon knowing its gender. This resulted in the number of girls missing due to foeticide exceeding those that were missing because of postnatal sex selection. According to the report, missing females are women missing from the population at given dates due to the cumulative effect of postnatal sex selection in the past.
The UN report said that every year, millions of girls globally are subjected to practices that harm them physically and emotionally, with the full knowledge and consent of their families, friends and communities. At least 19 harmful practices, ranging from breast ironing to virginity testing, are considered human rights violations, according to the UNFPA report, which focuses on the three most prevalent ones: female genital mutilation, child marriage, and extreme bias against daughters in favour of sons.
Female genital mutilation involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. This year, an estimated 4.1 million girls will be subjected to female genital mutilation. An extreme preference for sons over daughters in some countries has fueled gender-biased sex selection or extreme neglect that leads to their death as children, resulting in the 140 million missing females.
The demographic imbalance will have an unavoidable impact on marriage systems. In countries where marriage is nearly universal, many men may need to delay or forego marriage because they will be unable to find a spouse. This so-called “marriage squeeze”, where prospective grooms outnumber prospective brides, has already been observed in some countries and affects mostly young men from a lower economic strata. According to the report, at the same time, the marriage squeeze could result in more child marriages. Some studies suggest that the marriage squeeze will peak in India in 2055. The proportion of men who are still single at the age of 50 is forecast to rise after 2050 in India to 10 per cent.
According to an estimate averaged over a five – year period (2013-17), annually, there were 1.2 million missing female births, at a global level. India had about 4,60,000 girls missing at birth each year. The report notes that governments have also taken action to address the root cause of sex selection.
India and Vietnam have included campaigns that target gender stereotypes to change attitudes and open the door to new norms and behaviours. They spotlight the importance of daughters and highlight how girls and women have changed society for the better. The report said that successful education related interventions include the provision of cash transfers conditional on school attendance or support to cover the costs of school fees, books, uniforms and supplies, taking note of successful cash- transfer initiatives such as ‘Apni Beti Apna Dhan’ in India.
The report said that ending child marriage and female genital mutilation worldwide is possible within 10 years by scaling up efforts to keep girls in school longer and teach them life skills and to engage men and boys in social change. Report further said it require investments totaling USD 3.4 billion a year through 2030 would end these two harmful practices and end the suffering of an estimated 84 million girls, worldwide.
A recent analysis revealed that if services and programmes remain shuttered for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an additional 13 million girls may be forced into marriage.
- We need a societal shift in attitudes which hold a different yardstick for women and this is only possible through targeted social and behaviour change communication interventions.
- We have to scale up efforts to keep girls in school longer and teach them life skills and to engage men and boys in social change.