The Search for 100 Million Missing Women

The author duo of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have made economics accessible to the general reader through their popular work Freakonomics and its sequel.  Continuing on with the spirit of scholarly adventure, they yet again unfold unexpected correlations in understanding odd phenomenon.  In the article in question, originally published in Slate magazine in May of 2005, the authors connect the dots and explain the skewed sex ratio in some parts of the Third World.

Amartya Sen, who has done extensive research on the problems of the Third World, especially his native India, originally attributed the skewed sex ratio to a list of social ills.  This includes preference for boy babies in a patriarchal society, leading to female infanticide; neglect of baby girls in terms of care, nutrition and education; trafficking of adolescent girls through prostitution.  Sen argued that all these factors combined to create a disparity of 100 million missing women in Asia.  Although the reasons given by Sen are true, they only account for 50 million missing women.

Looking to explore this statistical void, other economists took interest in the problem.  One such was Emily Oster, who pursued the link between Hepatitis B occurrence and Asia’s missing women population.  By perusing reliable repository of medical statistics from the region, Oster was able to establish a definite link between Hepatitis B incidence levels and sex ratio in India, China and Pakistan.  Backed by reliable statistics and a provable thesis, the finding has altered conventional wisdom.  In this case, Oster’s finding corrected and expanded Amartya Sen’s stated reasons for skewered sex ratio.  At the core of the finding’s success is the absence of ‘n of 1’ patterns in the data.  As Oster’s own personal history as a prodigious child shows, discounting exceptions to the rule is an important aspect of proper scientific research.  In other words, the proper objective of economists should be to “take a mass of disparate numbers and somehow wring from it one thing that is true” (Levitt & Dubner, 2005)

Beyond the ingenuity showed by Emily Oster in accounting for millions of missing women is the sad truth about developing economies.  In countries such as India, China and Pakistan, steeped as they are in patriarchal tradition, the birth of female babies are frowned upon.  One reason for this is the perception of female babies as economic liabilities to the family.  The ‘dowry’ system, which requires payments and gifts to the bride-groom at the time of marriage, saps away most of the economic resources of a family.  Consequently, the birth of a female baby is seldom an occasion for celebration.  Even in the Emily Oster study, we learn that India scored poorly in the correlation between Hepatitis B and sex ratio.  This suggests that other causes, originally attributed by Amartya Sen, are more at play in the country.  It is sad that such inhumane practices as female infanticide still goes on in countries such as India and China, which are projected to be upcoming economic superpowers.  A social transformation is a more pressing need now than mere economic progress.


Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (May, 2005), The Search for 100 Million Missing Women: An economics detective story, Column: The Dismal Science, Slate magazine,  retrieved from <> on 19th March, 2011.