THERE are almost 4m “missing women” in the world—that is, women who have died because the rate of female mortality is disproportionately high compared with men’s or because fetuses were aborted before birth simply because they were female. The figure is higher than had been previously thought. It comes from the World Bank’s annual flagship publication, the World Development Report, published on September 19th. Each year the bank looks in detail at an aspect of development, this year at the impact of sexual discrimination on growth and income. The persistence of high female mortality, says Ana Revenga, the report’s co-editor, was one of the biggest surprises revealed by the research.
One might expect female mortality to fall as countries get richer. Better medical care, clean water and improved public health should reduce female mortality along with male. Arguably, women’s mortality should fall more, since public-health improvements should slash deaths in childbirth or during pregnancy, which are particularly dangerous times for women. And in fact, maternal mortality has fallen considerably—by a third since 1990.
Yet it remains stubbornly high. In Africa, maternal mortality remains at 640 deaths per 100,000 live births, roughly the level Sweden had reached in 1830. In Afghanistan the level is where Sweden’s was in the 17th century. Economic growth does not always help. Maternal mortality fell by only about 1% a year in Tanzania in 2000-08, even though the economy grew 7% a year. In South Africa maternal mortality actually rose.
The combination of persistently high mortality rates and a growing population means that in parts of the world the number of “excess” births is growing fast. In Africa, more than 750,000 women of childbearing age (15 to 49 years) died in 2008—well over twice as many as in 1990. In countries with high rates of HIV/AIDS (such as South Africa), the numbers increased tenfold.
Deaths in childbirth account for about a third of the overall number of “missing women” (1.35m out of 3.89m). An even bigger share comes from the 1.43m girls missing at birth, mainly in China and India. These are victims of so-called “gendercide”. The combination of a traditional preference for sons in Chinese and Indian societies with new technologies that enable expectant parents to know the sex of their imminent children has enabled families to abort female fetuses in their millions. In China, almost 120 boys are born for every 100 girls, resulting in over 1m too few daughters (too few, that is, relative to the natural level). The World Bank says gendercide is spreading. The number of “missing girls” doubled in Europe and Central Asia (mainly in the Balkans and the Caucasus), from a low base. The number also rose in the Middle East and in East Asia outside China.
Though son preference is often seen as “backwards”—a product of poverty and insularity—sex-selective abortion is actually independent of wealth and income. It is highest, for example, in some of the richest, most open parts of China and India, such as Guangdong province in southern China and Haryana state in north India.
And that is consistent with the wider theme of the World Bank’s report: discrimination against women persists despite economic growth. Women do similar sorts of work—health care, retail business and communications—in countries at very different levels of income. They are also paid less (by anywhere from 20% to 40%) in countries as different as Bangladesh, Mexico and Sweden. This is mainly because women continue to do far more child care and housework than men in every country. In Pakistan, women do 5.5 hours of housework a day, men 2.5. In Italy, women do 4.9 hours, men 1.4. So relative to men, Italian women do more housework than their sisters in Pakistan.
One result is that women take jobs that enable them more easily to combine family commitments and paid employment. They are usually lower-paid, part-time or informal jobs. So women are paid less on average even where they get the same wages for the same work (which of course does not always happen in the first place). The bank argues for legal changes to improve women’s position in the workplace and to limit this tendency to separate out work by sex. By itself, the report suggests, there is only do so much that growth can do.