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How discrimination at the dinner table leads to ‘missing women’ in Asia

Guest post by Diego Gonzalez-Medina, data specialist from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

In the early 1990s, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen called attention to the “missing women” hypothesis.


As Sen described in this article, there was an unnatural deficit of young girls in South Asia, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. They were missing, he said, as a result of hundreds of thousands of sex-selective abortions or neglect of female children in preference of male children. The argument was supported by anecdotes of general male preference in specific societies and world regions.

The gender imbalance in some countries is now more widely recognized. China has ‘too many men‘ due to years of sex selection. In India, neglect and mistreatment of women is highlighted in tragic stories around dowries, sex-selective abortions (see “Gendercide,” The Economist 2010), and most recently in the context of sexual abuse.

What is less appreciated is how women and girls are injured at the dinner table.

Overall poverty in India is well documented, but gender inequality within households is often considered separately, if at all. For example, it is common for women to eat after men and for the mother of the household to serve herself last, receiving smaller portions of quality food such as milk and fruits. Research on this phenomenon found that the majority of missing women in India die as adults (older than 15).

The Global Burden of Disease 2010 study took a comprehensive approach to measuring nutritional deficiencies for each country, age-group, and sex between 1990 and 2010.

The burden of poor intake of protein, iron, Vitamin A, and food energy was measured in terms of years lived with disability as well as the number of deaths it causes. Of all the regions in the world, South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan) had the highest gender gap in 2010. The gap was most prominent for women aged 15 to 19, whose death rate for nutritional deficiencies was three times greater than that of males. This is illustrated in the screen grab below.

Female Nutrition 1

In 2005, this gender gap peaked when females in South Asia experienced deaths due to nutritional deficiencies at a rate four times higher than that of their male counterparts. This is shown in the graph below along with other countries in the South Asia region. Among countries in the region, India had the most dramatic gender gaps in death rates caused by nutritional deficiencies followed by Afghanistan.

Female Nutrition 2

Go to the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation website and use the online tools to further explore this gap in in other world regions and countries across time and age groups.


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Humanosphere will sometimes post articles from authors from around the globe. Although these folks are not regular contributors, we hope you enjoy this change of pace.