The Missing Women in India

“More than 100 million women are missing”, lamented Amartya Sen, Indian economist and philosopher.  India contributes a big part of these missing women! Boys are valued more than girls before they are born, after they are born, as they grow up and as they take up careers. This is not only true in uneducated class, rural and small towns but also amongst educated urban families. An extension of attitudes that leads to missing girls translates into missing women from the workforce and missing women in leadership roles.

In India, the child sex ratio (0-6 years) has worsened from 927 girls for 1000 boys in 2001 to 919 in 2011, lowest since independence. Haryana and Punjab lead the ‘daughter deficit’ with 834 and 846 girls for 1000 boys, respectively. For these daughters, the battle is yet to start. India and China are the only two countries in the world where the infant mortality is higher for females than for males, even in the 21st century. In India, statistics report 56 male child deaths for every 100 females in the under-5 age group. This ratio has progressively worsened since the 1970s, revealing the preferential spending on health of children based on their sex. Research shows that boys receive more childcare time than girls, they are breastfed longer and they get more vitamin supplementation. More resources translate into more opportunities for boys. The common conception, rather misconception, is that boys will earn and support parents whereas investing in girls is like “watering the neighbor’s garden” as they get married and move to the in laws families.

On the brighter side, there has indeed been steady improvement in education. School enrollment, secondary (gross), gender parity index (GPI) in India has steadily increased from 0.42 in 1971 to 1.01 in 2014, indicating more girls enrolled at secondary level in public and private schools compared to boys. As per the WEF Global Gender Parity Report of 2016, though India ranks 113 out of 144 countries in the Gender Gap Index, it ranks 1 in enrolment in primary and secondary education and 99 in enrolment in tertiary education. While we have a long way to go, the achievement is worth mentioning.

With ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ launched by the Prime Minister in 2015, the government is trying to bring a transformational shift in the way our society looks at the girl child. More and more parents are celebrating girls and educating them. ‘Selfies with daughters’ became a world-wide hit on social media.

But we are far from where we need to be. Discrepancies still exist in many forms.

Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 states that a girl in India can’t marry before the age of 18, and a boy before 21. At 18, most girls have just about finished school. So are careers not envisaged as a primary route for girls? Maybe due to this, in India, women constitute only 24.3% of the labor force. What happens to the potential of the others to contribute to the country’s economic activities?

Despite many challenges, female children today are studying further and graduating from colleges.  In India, women make up 42% of new graduates but only 24% of entry-level professionals. Of these, only 7.7% of board seats and just 2.7% of board chairs are held by women. What happens to these educated women en route? But that’s another story!

Societal norms, family hurdles, lack of equal opportunities, access to finance, knowledge, technology and information, women’s own confidence levels, resilience and drive, organizational inflexibilities, work place attitudes, lack of supporting infrastructure, safety of women among many others contribute in small or large measures to the digging of the black hole into which the potential women workers and potential leaders disappear.

But one of the most striking reasons is the lack of role models. Women do not see enough women participating in the workforce and rising to the top, becoming leaders. They see more women being the primary and often the sole care givers in the family, the home makers, letting go of opportunities to be independent, especially if their family income is adequate. A woman not working outside the home is also positively associated with status in society. Many of those who join, drop out as soon as they can “afford” to. Those who stay, struggle in the face of unequal pay and opportunities. The few who have reached the top are very visible, share their stories to inspire but they are so few and so far that their influence is limited and their voice does not reach the huge pool of women.

Social norms place high premium on financial independence of a man. So staying out of the workforce is a luxury men cannot afford. Neither can women actually! If women want respect and parity in decision making, they need to be financially independent. They need to rise to leadership roles and influence policies, practices and mind sets that would motivate other women to join the workforce.

Countries and organizations, which stand to benefit, not only economically but also socially, through greater participation of women, should show more urgency to tackle the issue. Amartya Sen links women’s gainful employment to their survival prospects – the missing women giving us yet another reason to bring more women into the workforce.

However, more opportunities also mean more responsibility. It takes away the luxury of coasting – just doing enough to keep a secure job or to give up at the face of slightest obstacles. It calls for the need to compete head-on. But how does competition fare on the grand chessboard at home?

World-wide women spend more time than men on the house work and on child care. In India, it is far worse. OECD research shows that in India, men devote 36 minutes a day to unpaid care responsibilities, out of which 36% goes into housework, with the remaining time spent on shopping, care for household members, and travel related to household activities. Out of the 6 hours women devote to unpaid care activities, time specifically spent on housework is 85%. As we advocate for equal opportunities, let’s not forget that change begins at home.

Next time we hear a father bragging about his daughter’s success at work, let’s celebrate!  But let’s also cheer that father who talks about his son’s ability to cook or do laundry with the same pride!

Co-authored with Ipsita Kathuria, Published @Financial Express


Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑