Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reforming Women's Education in Developing Countries (Part 1 of 2)

Nobel prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen (sadly no relation to me) once wrote a very influential article entitled "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing". In it he argued that it is a mistake to compare Europe sex ratios with that of places like India.

"The fate of women is quite different in most of Asia and North Africa [compared to US or Europe]. In these places the failure to give women medical care similar to what men get and to provide them with comparable food and social services results in fewer women surviving than would be the case if they had equal care.

In India, for example, except in the period immediately following birth, the death rate is higher for women than for men fairly consistently in all age groups until the late thirties. This relates to higher rates of disease from which women suffer, and ultimately to the relative neglect of females, especially in health care and medical attention.

Similar neglect of women vis-à-vis men can be seen also in many other parts of the world. The result is a lower proportion of women than would be the case if they had equal care—in most of Asia and North Africa, and to a lesser extent Latin America.
This pattern is not uniform in all parts of the third world, however. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, ravaged as it is by extreme poverty, hunger, and famine, has a substantial excess rather than deficit of women, the ratio of women to men being around 1.02.

Indeed, sharp diversities also exist within particular regions—sometimes even within a particular country. For example, the ratio of women to men in the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, which happen to be among the country's richest, is a remarkably low 0.86, while the state of Kerala in southwestern India has a ratio higher than 1.03, similar to that in Europe, North America, and Japan.

To get an idea of the numbers of people involved in the different ratios of women to men, we can estimate the number of "missing women" in a country, say, China or India, by calculating the number of extra women who would have been in China or India if these countries had the same ratio of women to men as obtain in areas of the world in which they receive similar care. If we could expect equal populations of the two sexes, the low ratio of 0.94 women to men in South Asia, West Asia, and China would indicate a 6 percent deficit of women; but since, in countries where men and women receive similar care, the ratio is about 1.05, the real shortfall is about 11 percent.

In China alone this amounts to 50 million "missing women," taking 1.05 as the benchmark ratio. When that number is added to those in South Asia, West Asia, and North Africa, a great many more than 100 million women are "missing." These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women."

Since Sen first wrote the article in 1990, the economic situation in India and China has certainly improved. But the glaring disparities remain.

The fact of the matter is being a woman in India, China or anyplace else in the developing world is very difficult. Anyone who has spent much time in India will know the monumental scale of the problem at hand.

So what can be done?

There is obviously no one solution. These are colossal, deep rooted problems. But this does not mean that we should despair. Indeed, I do believe that the Internet and the resulting free access to information can play a very significant role in helping to reverse this statistic.

In part two of this post, I will describe 5 ways in which the Internet can play a significant role in reversing women's inequalities in India as well as other developing countries. I will try to discuss why online freedom is so important in this process and how the Internet can also also reduce many of the barriers that previously excluded women from full participation in Indian and global community. Finally, I will discuss some of the regional differences that we see in India between Kerala and Punjab and what role the Internet can also play here.