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63 Million Women in India Are ‘Missing,’ More than 11 Million are ‘Missing’ Due to Sex-Selective Abortion

Millions of women have gone missing from India’s population due to persistent, deep-seated male bias and extreme son preference.

According to a recent report from the Government of India, a staggering 63 million women are now missing from India’s population. The report estimates that nearly 2 million women are lost every year. The report further estimates that an additional 21 million girls are “unwanted” by their parents who would have preferred a boy instead.

The figures were released by the Indian Ministry of Finance in its Economic Survey 2017-2018 this January.

There are a number of reasons why the gender gap between men and women in India is so large. For one, many women in India suffer significantly diminished access to healthcare, adequate nutrition, education, and other resources compared to men. As a result, the mortality rate for women relative to men is higher than would be expected for a country with India’s level of economic development.

Millions of girls have also been eliminated prior to birth by the widespread practice of sex-selective abortion, a discriminatory practice where girls are selectively terminated simply because they were not boys. Even after birth, girls may be subjected to various kinds of neglect, receiving less food, healthcare, education, or other necessities. This appears to be particularly true if they happen to be a second or third daughter.

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It is generally believed that a natural sex ratio at birth is somewhere close to 1.06 boys for every girl. Sex ratios at birth are naturally higher than 1.0 due to the fact that males suffer higher mortality than females. The sex ratio at birth may vary slightly from country to country from 1.03 to 1.07 depending on mortality rates prevalent in that country and other factors that are not entirely understood.[1],[2],[3]

However, the sex ratio at birth does not deviate far from the norm unless sex-selective practices come into play. According to figures cited by the Economic Survey report, India’s sex ratio at birth in 2014 approached 1.11, far exceeding the expected natural ratio.

The Ministry of Finance derived its estimate of the overall number of missing women using methods developed by Amartya Sen (1990), Ansley Coale (1991),[4] and Siwan Anderson and Debraj Ray (2010).[5]

Despite the fact that sex-selective abortion is a major cause of India’s ‘missing women,’ the report made no mention of the number of women lost through sex-selective abortion. As a result, we at the Population Research Institute utilized the same methodology and paired it with United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) population estimates and projections for India to estimate the number of women lost through sex-selective abortion.

Assuming this methodology, we estimate that sex-selective abortion in India has eliminated between 11.8 to 14.1 million women from India’s population since 1990.[6]

Sadly, even this staggeringly high number may be a conservative estimate. Because these figures were derived using natural sex ratios at birth prevalent in Western countries, and because sex ratios at birth tend to be lower in developing countries, the actual number of women lost through sex-selective abortion could be much higher.

Our lower bound estimate of 11.8 million assumes a natural sex ratio at birth of 1.066, the average sex ratio at birth for Asian Indian-Americans living in the United States between 1992-2004, according to Abrevaya (2008).[7] But as studies and mortality statistics have consistently shown, male infants are naturally more prone to mortality than female infants.[8][9],[10][11] Since infant mortality is much higher in India than in the U.S., it is unlikely that the natural sex ratio at birth in India sits as high as 1.066.

Moreover, studies have found evidence that immigrant Indian women in U.S.[12] and in other Western countries[13],[14],[15] continue to be coerced into practicing sex-selective abortion, even years after relocating to Western countries.[16] As a result, the observed sex ratio at birth of 1.066 among Indian immigrants in the U.S. is undoubtedly high due to the fact that some immigrants continue to practice sex-selective abortion, a factor that would cause our figure to underestimate the incidence of sex-selective abortion in India.

The upper bound estimate of 14.1 million assumes that the natural sex ratio at birth equivalent to 1.059, the ratio Coale found to be the median sex ratio at birth among a sample of European countries between 1962 and 1980.[17] This very nearly agrees with Gretch’s (2002) all Europe estimate of 1.058 for sex ratio at birth from 1950-1999.[18] However, infant mortality in India in 2015 exceeded the mortality rates seen in most European countries since the 1960’s.[19]

If we use the sex ratio at birth often cited by demographers and the World Health Organization as a good approximation for the natural ratio (1.05), then the number of women lost to sex-selective abortion in India climbs even higher to 16.9 million.

Additionally, we estimate that since 1990 roughly 1 million girls were never born because their hypothetical would-be mothers were terminated through sex-selective abortion 15 years or more prior.[20] If these mothers had not been selectively aborted, we also estimate that less than 62,000 additional births on top of the 1 million would have been prevented as a result of sex-selective abortion.[21]

“As the death toll from sex-selective abortion continues to mount, we call upon the countries of the world to ban this heinous practice,” says PRI President Steven Mosher. “Sex-selective abortion is, after all, the worst form of discrimination imaginable.  It is a discrimination that kills.”



[1] Chahnazarian A. Determinants of the sex ratio at birth: review of recent literature. Social Biology. 1988;35(3-4):214-35.

[2] Andersson R, Bergström S. Is maternal malnutrition associated with a low sex ratio at birth?. Human Biology. 1998 Dec;70(6):1101-6.

[3] Davis DL, Gottlieb MB, Stampnitzky JR. Reduced ratio of male to female births in several industrial countries: a sentinel health indicator?. JAMA. 1998 Apr 1;279(13):1018-23.

[4] Coale AJ. Excess female mortality and the balance of the sexes in the population: an estimate of the number of” missing females”. The Population and Development Review. 1991 Sep;17(3):517-23.

[5] Anderson S, Ray D. Missing women: age and disease. The Review of Economic Studies. 2010 Oct;77(4):1262-300.

[6] Sex ratios at birth (SRB) calculated from: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision. Migration for population aged 0 was assumed to be 0. Methodology for calculating missing women at birth taken from: Anderson (2010), supra note 2, including the adoption of estimation figures for normal SRB derived from: Coale (1991), supra note 1 (upper bound), while lower bound based on SRB of Asian Indian-Americans in the United States, 1992-2004 from: Abrevaya J. Are there missing girls in the United States? Evidence from birth data. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. 2009 Apr;1(2):1-34.

[7] Abrevaya J. Are there missing girls in the United States? Evidence from birth data. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. 2009 Apr;1(2):1-34.

[8] MacDorman MF, Atkinson JO. Infant mortality statistics from the linked birth/infant death data set–1995 period data. Monthly vital statistics report. 1998 Feb 27;46(6 Supp 2): 1-23.

[9] Mathews TJ, MacDorman MF. Infant mortality statistics from the 2013 period linked birth/infant death data set. National Vital Statistics Reports. 2015 Aug 6;64(9):1-30.

[10] Stoll BJ, Holman RC, Schuchat A. Decline in sepsis-associated neonatal and infant deaths in the United States, 1979 through 1994. Pediatrics. 1998 Aug;102(2):e18.

[11] Wells JC. Natural selection and sex differences in morbidity and mortality in early life. Journal of Theoretical Biology. 2000 Jan 7;202(1):65-76.

[12] Puri S, Adams V, Ivey S, Nachtigall RD. “There is such a thing as too many daughters, but not too many sons”: a qualitative study of son preference and fetal sex selection among Indian immigrants in the United States. Social Science & Medicine. 2011 Apr;72(7):1169-76.

[13] Urquia ML, Ray JG, Wanigaratne S, Moineddin R, O’Campo PJ. Variations in male-female infant ratios among births to Canadian-and Indian-born mothers, 1990-2011: a population-based register study. CMAJ Open. 2016 Apr;4(2):E116.

[14] Singh N, Pripp AH, Brekke T, Stray-Pedersen B. Different sex ratios of children born to Indian and Pakistani immigrants in Norway. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. 2010 Dec;10(1):40.

[15] Ray JG, Henry DA, Urquia ML. Sex ratios among Canadian liveborn infants of mothers from different countries. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2012 Jan; 184(9): E492–E496.

[16] Brar A, Wanigaratne S, Pulver A, Ray JG, Urquia ML. Sex Ratios at Birth Among Indian Immigrant Subgroups According to Time Spent in Canada. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada. 2017 Jun;39(6):459-64.

[17] See Coale (1991).

[18] Grech V, Savona-Ventura C, Vassallo-Agius P. Unexplained differences in sex ratios at birth in Europe and North America. BMJ. 2002 Apr 27;324(7344):1010-1.

[19] See United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision.

[20] We used UNDESA, Population Division abridged life tables for estimating the probability of surviving from age x to x+n (npx) for years 1990-2000, assuming a linear relationship between all values for npx estimating mortality in the first year of life. See United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision.

Until 1994, for all cohorts that were x>1, a quadratic relationship was assumed between UNDESA npx for 1990-2000 and World Health Organization (WHO) life table survival probabilities for India (npx = 1- [(1-nqx)/n], where nqx is the probability of dying from age x to x+n). See World Health Organization. Life tables by country: India. Global Health Observatory data repository. Available at:

From 1994-1997, due to only two data points available from which to estimate from, a linear relationship was assumed between UNDESA and WHO life table estimates. All cohorts after 2000 utilized WHO estimates for nqx, reconfigured to be expressed in terms of single-year npx. It was assumed that all WHO nqx values after 1999 were related linearly. R-squared values were 0.99 for 1-4 years of age, 0.96 for 5-9 years, 0.91 for 10-14 years, 0.96 for 15-19 years, 0.97 for 20-24 years, and 0.95 for 25-29 years. We projected values for 2016 and 2017 assuming a linear relationship between the prior years (2000-2015).

We used UNDESA 5-year age group, 5-year age-specific fertility rate estimates and projections to calculate the number of births in each hypothetical cohort. See United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision. We assumed a sex ratio at birth for each year equivalent to the male to female ratio of the population aged 0.

[21]We say less than 62,000 because the oldest women in our hypothetical cohorts were under 30 by 2017 when our data cut off. It is well known that sex-selective abortion is much more common at higher births orders (particularly 3+) and at the final birth (even if the final birth is at first parity). Because younger women less frequently experience higher order births than older women and since younger women are less likely to be having their final birth than older women, the sex ratio at birth will inevitably be much lower for younger women than for the general population in India. We assume here a natural sex ratio at birth of 1.05.



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