Economics of the Girl Child and a Sickening Statistic

Today marks the first ever International Day of the Girl, being celebrated the world over as well as here in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has made impressive achievements, over its peers in the developing world, in ensuring greater gender equity in development. With a track record of strong social sector investments, Sri Lanka’s performance on the Gender Inequality Index (GII) of the Human Development Index is on par with ‘medium human development’ and ahead of South Asia.

Last year’s World Development Report had as its theme ‘Gender and Development’. Some important findings in it must be recalled here.The good news is that gender gaps in primary education have closed in almost all countries. In secondary education, these gaps are closing rapidly. In fact, in many countries especially in Latin America, the Caribbean, and East Asia, it is now boys and young men who are disadvantaged. Among developing countries, girls now outnumber boys in secondary schools in 45 countries. Despite the overall progress, primary and secondary school enrollments for girls remain much lower than for boys for disadvantaged populations in many Sub-Saharan countries and some parts of South Asia.

But the reality isn’t always captured in the numbers. Each day, millions of girls have to forgo education due to foolish “societal norms”. Occasionally,  when a girl bravely swims against the tide, fighting for the right to education, she becomes a victim of these “societal norms”. Fourteen year old Malala Yousufzai, the young Pakistani activist who was fighting for the right to education for girls like her, was shot by the Taliban. As the world marks International Day of the Girl Child, doctors are fighting to remove a bullet lodged in her neck and save her life.

Another taboo four letter word

In some countries, particularly China and India, there is a four letter word people would rather not hear. And it’s not the word you think. It’s “GIRL”On the International Day of the Girl, I am reminded of a lecture back in my undergraduate degree where we studied the economics of this whole issue with Prof. Bhaskar (earlier at UCL, now at Princeton). Essentially, it looked at ‘bride price’ (dowry, in other words) in developing countries (particularly South Asia), as well as how female infanticide is impacting vital demographic indicators and skewing the ‘marriage market’ (yes, economists can make theoretical economic models for anything). A big part of our discussion centered around the economics of ‘India’s missing girls’. More on this in this paper, and this blog.).

More than 1.3 million girls are not born in China and India every year because of overt discrimination and the spread of ultrasound technologies that allow households to determine the sex of the fetus before birth. Overt discrimination that leads to male-biased sex ratios at birth does have long-run implications for society and the economy. If more boys than girls are born, eventually many men will be unable to find wives. Recent research seems to suggest that such a “marriage squeeze” is already well under way in China and India.

According to the WDR 2011, a deadly combination of three factors led to increasing numbers of unborn girls in the late 20th century. First, fertility started dropping as female education and the returns to it in the labor force increased; in China, the one child policy reduced fertility. Second, ultrasound became widely available (allowing for prenatal sex determination), starting from big cities and moving to small towns and rural areas. Third, the preference for sons remained unchanged— families now want two children, but they want  at least one son.

It isn’t easy to analyse the impact of this issue on the economy, but the effects seem intuitive. Skewed gender balances in society skew a country’s demographics. Today, we need to think about two issues relating to the girl child as it relates to the economics. One – not making an active effort to ensure girls everywhere have the same access to social services like health and education is a serious socio-economic mistake, and a constraint on development and economic progress. Countries that have combated it, have stronger economies with better human development outcomes overall. Two – in a world where mainstreaming ‘gender’ into the development process is ‘buzz’ concept and a policy priority in most programmes, isn’t it absurd that millions of girls go ‘missing’ each year?. I am not aware of research on female infanticide in Sri Lanka and no doubt that may be isolated cases, but we know that we are a society that inherently values our girl child, more so than many other societies in South Asia and elsewhere.

So what is the sickening statistic, with critical economic implications? – 100 million girls ‘missing’ – died from discriminatory treatment in health care, nutrition access or pure neglect or because they were never born in the first place. Of this, India and China account for around 85 million of those. Sri Lanka can be proud that it is not part of this sickening statistic.

The Curionomist will be at the launch of the ‘Because I Am A Girl’ campaign by Plan International Sri Lanka this evening.


The full UNDP report on ‘Power, Voice and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific’can be accessed at http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/regional/asiathepacific/RHDR-2010-AsiaPacific.pdf

(updated 1710h, 11th October)

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