The abduction of over two hundred Nigerian schoolgirls this April has received overwhelming international attention. The US, UK, France and China have sent expert teams to help with the search, the UN Security Council has condemned the act absolutely, and the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign has gone viral. Thanks to the admirable efforts of these girls’ families and friends, the whole world shares the agonizing wait for further news, and hope for their safe return.
But how many more women are missing whose names don’t make the papers? Twenty-five years since Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen first claimed there are 100 million women missing in the world, the United Nations Development Programme concedes that the global issue of missing women is ‘increasing in absolute terms’. This calculation of 100 million missing refers to the number of women who have died due to discriminatory treatment, including abortion, unequal access to nutrition and healthcare or severe neglect.
Sen argued that excess female mortality due to gender discrimination was one of the worst catastrophes of the last century; subsequent debate, refutations and revisions ensued. More recently, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky has attracted publicity to the issue. Today, whilst the culture of ‘boy preference’ found in all corners of the world is well known, the repercussions of such a phenomenon remains largely unacknowledged. The sheer scale of Sen’s estimate is enormous – equivalent to the entire population of the Philippines, the twelfth most populous nation in the world.
Reports show that the most recent threat to the natural gender balance is the aborting of female foetuses – a particularly serious problem in the Asia-Pacific. Here the male-female sex ratio is suspiciously high, instead of 105 males being born for every 100 females, in some countries there are as many as 118 males born. As ultrasound technology becomes increasingly available in both China and India, (the two countries responsible for over 80% of the world’s missing women) this gender imbalance can be expected to escalate.
There are many factors that could account for this serious discrepancy in the normal sex ratio. For one, China’s one-child government policy places a huge amount of pressure on families to have sons in order to continue the ‘family line’. In India the culture of providing dowries for brides compels many to abort female foetuses to avoid crippling future expenses, recalling the notorious advertisement suggesting parents abort females to ‘spend 500 rupees now and save 500,000 later’. The market for sex determination is estimated to be worth at least £70 million annually, and is still growing.
The second, and most long-standing reason for the millions of missing women worldwide is their neglect in education, nutrition and medical care. UNICEF claims that in India, for example, the mortality for girls under 5 years old is 40% higher than for boys of the same age. Numerous studies confirm that in many developing countries, girls are admitted to hospital at a far later stage in their illness than boys. Thus not only are females are more likely to be malnourished, their families may also act with less concern when they’re taken ill.
Thus the fight against extreme poverty and hunger, and the fight for universal gender equality remain intertwined. These two issues have proven to be a mammoth task for the UN. Gender based mortality, similarly to endemic poverty and deprivation, go ‘largely unnoticed’ because they seem to be too large an issue; too overwhelming to tackle. They simply do not generate ‘the moral outrage and flurry of activity and intervention that the more ‘‘sensational’’ catastrophes such as famines, floods, earthquakes, wars, and refugee crises typically create’.
Moreover, in the case of sex selective abortions, murders, and death due to severe neglect, the families of the missing women don’t want the loss to be recognized. A combination of these two factors might begin to explain why these women who are missing in their millions are not making front page news.
Half the Sky goes so far to claim that ‘more girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they are girls, than men killed in all the wars of the twentieth century’. Armistice Day, memorials and history lessons will continue to recognise the losses incurred by the tragedy of war: and more than ever as the centenary of the First World War approaches. Press coverage, celebrity appeals and political discussion will, we hope, continue to fuel a successful search for the missing Nigerian schoolgirls. But when will something be done for the millions of missing women across the globe, who should exist, but don’t?
 UNDP, ‘Power, Voice and Rights’, (Macmillan: 2010) [http://sites.asiasociety.org/womenleaders/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Powervoiceandrights.pdf] p. 34.
 Amartya Sen, ‘More than 100 Million Women are Missing’, The New York Review of Books, (December 20, 1990).
 Siwan Anderson and Debraj Ray, ‘Missing Women: Age and Disease’ Review of Economic Studies (2010) p. 1293.
 Fred Arnold, Sunita Kishor and T K Royd, ‘Sex-selective abortions in India’ in Population and Development Review 28 (December 2002) p. 783.
 UNICEF, ‘The State of the World’s Children: South Asia Edition’ (2007) p. 10.
 Stephan Klasen and Claudia Wink, ‘“Missing Women”: Revisiting the debate’, Feminist Economics 9 (2003) p. 264.
 Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky, (Hachette UK: 2010)