Defend Girls Blog

“It’s a girl,” should not be death sentence.

How Many Women are Missing?

22 January

Millions, but tracking down actual estimates is not as simple as one would think. Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner, attracted international attention when he gave an estimate of 100 million in 1990.1

A decade later the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated, through comparisons of age and sex distributions in 14 countries, that there was a “total gender gap of 117 million women missing in 2010, most of them from China and India.”2

Yet the UNFPA’s approach to this issue is somewhat suspect, as, according to Mara Hvistendahl’s book Unnatural Selection, “a 2010 internal staff memo warns country officers that they should stay away from the Beijing Conference definition [which included sex selection within the category violence against women] at all times. If country offices choose to take up the issue, the memo advises, ‘refer to the human rights concerns which are related to sex selection (e.g., gender inequalities in general, or specific cases such as women who are forced to abort), or the human rights consequences that may result (e.g., trafficking, early marriage).’ Officers should be careful, the memo stresses, to ‘not identify sex selection itself as a human rights abuse.’” 3

French demographer Christophe Guilmoto put the number of missing woman in Asia alone at 163 million in 2005.4

The UN, according to numerous organizations, campaigns, and individuals,5 has put the estimate at 200 million, but the source for that number is not available on those websites. If, however, 160 million, as estimated by Guilmoto, are missing from Asia alone, the number worldwide – which would include missing women from the Balkans, Caucuses, and even the U.S. and Canada – may approach the 200 million quoted.

In Canada, where abortion statistics have become increasingly difficult to access, the number of sex-selective abortions is largely unknown. But investigative reports have found that numerous clinics do offer ultrasounds for those who will abort because of gender and that certain regions of Canada do have skewed sex ratios.


1Amartya Sen, “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing in Asia”, New York Review of Books, Volume 37, Number 20, 20 December, 1990, http://tinyurl.com/4zxe2s6.
2United National Population Fund Asia and the Pacific Regional Office, Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current trends, consequences and policy implication, August 2012, page 10, http://tinyurl.com/aydq5xs .
3Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 153.
4Christophe Z. Guilmoto, “Sex Ratio Imbalance in Asia: Trends, Consequences, and Policy Responses” (paper presented at Fourth Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights, 2007), 1, http://tinyurl.com/4ldcpgd.
5Various campaigns, organizations, websites and even people have cited the 200 million statistics, but link to other sites or reports (if there are references at all) stating that the UN estimates a figure of 200 million. The source for this statistic has not been referenced. Some of these include: ProtectOurGirls.com, itsagirlmovie.com, Girlkind.org, Population Research Institute, Anna Diamantopoulou (European Commissioner responsible for Employment and Social Affairs), and even a fact sheet from International Woman’s Day 2007.

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