The Missing Women Phenomenon in India: Causes and Effects

Author:  Wiebke Probst
Institution:  Universität Hamburg

For decades, India's demography has featured an unnaturally low child sex ratio. Much fewer girls than boys have been born, which has given rise to the so-called missing women phenomenon. Most plausibly, this bias can be assumed to be caused by the rational discriminatory behavior of parents who prefer sons over daughters. The present demographic development is not only morally reprehensible; it may also have undesirable socio-economic consequences such as criminal violence and social disorder. This paper provides both theoretical and empirical evidence regarding the causes and effects of the missing women phenomenon. It offers a socio-economic theory of son preference based on gender-specific cost and revenues as well as parents' opportunity of choice. The unwaning importance of dowry payments and the proliferation and affordability of modern preconceptual and prenatal sex selection techniques are suggested to be the key drivers of the skewed sex ratio. Three hypotheses derived from this theory are tested by means of a district-level multiple regression analysis based on 2001 census data. The regression results confirm that the overall economic status is negatively correlated with the child sex ratio. Regarding the relative economic value of females as compared to males, empirical evidence is mixed. As expected, conservative, anti-female socio-cultural attitudes, as proxied by religion, cast, and political party affiliation, are correlated with lower child sex ratios.