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Why is India ‘missing’ 63 million women — even though development is roaring?

Protesters demand justice on Nov. 7, 2017, after a gang rape in Bhopal, India. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

India’s recently released 2018 Economic Survey gushes about its economic progress. At the same time, it also notes the country’s 63 million “missing” women and 21 million “unwanted” girls. Why has India’s rising economic prosperity not delivered more gender equality?

Since 1991, when India embarked on economic liberalization, the size of its economy has more than quadrupled. It’s now estimated at about $8 trillion, making it the world’s third-largest economy, behind China and the United States. India also continues to be ranked among the fastest-growing economies in the world, often competing with China for the top spot. In a recognition of India’s stellar economic performance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a keynote address at the 2018 Davos summit.

Many observers believe that economic growth brings gender equality, but this hasn’t happened in India. Along some dimensions, gender equality has actually declined over the last decade.


Development affects gender equality differently in each of three phases, our research finds

We’ve researched the relationship between development and gender equality for 146 countries in the period between 1980 and 2005, and found three stages.

These 3 barriers make it hard for policymakers to use the evidence that development researchers produce

In the first stage, development improves equality as a larger proportion of women join the workforce. With their own incomes, women gain bargaining power at home and in public life.

In the second stage, reactionary forces try to roll back women’s gains in the economic and social spheres. Some women leave the workforce as their family becomes more affluent.

In the final stage, gender equality again improves. Technological advances release women from labor at home, and they gain more education — which brings them still more job opportunities, and brings a more robust shift in gender norms.

We have termed this process the “Gender Kuznets Curve,” drawing on the work of Simon Kuznets, who found a similar relationship between economic growth and income inequality.

So what does all this mean for India?

Let’s start with the positive news. According to India’s Economic Survey, Indian women are having their first child later in life than they did a decade ago. That allows them more time to pursue education and economic opportunities. Women also have more say in their own health, with 74.5 percent making those decisions, compared with 62.3 percent in a decade earlier. More women report that they feel safe from physical and emotional violence, with 71 percent saying so, compared with 63 percent a decade ago.

But there are worrisome trends, as well. While some women might be earning more than their husbands, overall, a smaller proportion of women are in the formal labor force; their participation has declined by almost a third, from 36.3 percent in 2005-206 to 24 percent in 2015-2016. That’s a problem, as holding jobs with salaries help women gain equality. With cash income, women’s household bargaining power increases and affords them greater control over nutrition, health, fertility and their children’s education.

‘Missing’ and ‘unwanted’ girls

The “missing” women are among the most troubling of India’s gender issues. If India’s population reflected the normal ratio of female-to-male births and survival rates, it would have 63 million more women. Experts say that the missing women can be attributed to sex-selective abortions and postnatal neglect in nutrition and health care.

As is true in some other countries, those missing women reveal a strong cultural and economic preference for male children. India outlawed sex-selective abortion in 1994. But that hasn’t stopped the practice. The normal ratio at birth is roughly 952 girls to 1,000 boys, which — because boys have a slightly lower survival rate — leads to a ratio of 1:1 in adulthood. But India’s ratio is even lower. According to its census, the birth ratio fell from 909 girls born for every 1,000 boys in 2001 to 899 to 1,000 in 2011.

The preference for a male child can also be seen in when families stop having children. Families that don’t have sex-selective abortions may continue having children until they reach have the desired number of sons, leading to “unwanted girls.” The survey estimates this number to be 21 million.

What causes gender inequality?

Many observers believe that economic development resolves gender inequality. Labor-saving technologies free women from a great deal of household labor, letting them pursue education and jobs. Girls’ greater earnings give parents an incentive to educate them. With jobs, women have more household bargaining power. Women get more involved politically, become more powerful on the job, expand their social networks — and end up with more social and political rights.

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In practice, our research finds a more complex relationship between economic growth and gender equality. Our statistical analysis suggests that economic development doesn’t influence gender equality in a uniform and linear way. Rather, we find that in the first phase of development, as countries reach a per-capita income of roughly $8,000 to $10,000, women do tend to gain more equality, as measured by factors such as female parliamentary representation and labor-force participation.

However, in the second phase, changing gender roles incite backlash: Men with working wives can feel shame and insist on keeping women home. Rising affluence enables women to leave their jobs and stay home, sometimes willingly and other times under coercion. Equality gains level off or even slide backward. But as development progresses to around $25,000 to $30,000 in per-capita income, we find that women’s equality advances again. Young girls continue to attend school, improving their human capital and the future value of their economic pursuits. This can again increase the opportunity costs for women who remain at home, weaken arguments that support male dominance, and result in post-materialist values that discourage gender discrimination.

Of course, there are outliers: Until recently, a rich country such as Saudi Arabia prohibited women even from driving cars. And while there are wide regional variations, overall India seems to be in that second phase of development. Deeply embedded gender norms — such as the preference for sons and the need to raise a dowry for each daughter — probably contribute to backsliding.

India celebrated its 70th birthday this year. How it answers these 3 questions will define its future — and the world’s.

But this can be reversed. India’s government has launched several initiatives including, “Save Daughters, Educate Daughters” to correct such trends. Whether such focused policy action will bring more equality remains to be seen.

Aseem Prakash is professor of political science and holds the Walker Family Professorship at University of Washington at Seattle.

Joshua Eastin is assistant professor of political science at the Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University.