Gender inequality is a universal problem. Inequality between treatment of men and women is one of the most crucial disparities in many societies. Differential treatment of women is re­flected in matters such as education and opportunity to development, availability of health care facilities, nutrition, property rights, etc.

The significance of this issue can be understood by the fact that the United Nations has set promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women as one of its Millennium Development goals. Empowerment and equality are important human rights on the their own.

The record-class status of women carries a social cost, not only for women, but also for men, and society in general. Gender inequality exists in most countries of the world; however, the problem is more acute in some countries as compared to others. To be more specific, greater gender inequality has been observed in the developing countries of Asia Africa and Latin America.

According to Nobel Laureate Amartya sen- “Gender inequality is not one homogeneous phenomenon, but a collection of disparate and interlinked problems”.


He identified seven dif­ferent forms of gender inequality:

1. Mortality inequality

2. Natality inequality

3. Basic facility inequality


4. Special opportunity inequality

5. Professional inequality

6. Ownership inequality

7. Household inequality


It has been observed that women tend to have lower age-specific mortality rates than men do, given similar health care and nutrition. However, due to existing gender bias, women and girls tend to receive lower health care and nutrition, resulting in higher mortality rate for women than men.

The question of maternal mortality also arises, because countries with greater gender inequality tend to have high maternal mortality rates. Mortality inequality has been observed extensively in North Africa and Asia, including China and South Asia.

A preference of boys over girls in many male-dominated societies often manifests itself in the form of parents wanting the newborn to be a boy rather than a girl. Advances in technology have enabled determination of gender of the foetus, common in many countries. This has led to the serious problem of falling female to male ratio (FMR).

The remarkably low FMR in India, as to compared not only to Europe and America, but also sub-Saharan Africa, demonstrates the extent of gender inequality in our country. In general, women tend to have greater survival rate as compared to men, given equal health and nutri­tional facilities. Europe and North America have an average FMR of 1.05, i.e., 105 females per 100 males, whereas it is 0.97 in Egypt and Iran, 0.95 in Bangladesh and Turkey, 0.94 in China, 0.93 in India and Pakistan, and 0.84 in Saudi Arabia.

On an average, there are 98 females per 100 males on the globe. This means that given the size of the world population [6.53 billion (653 crores) in 2006] there are millions of ‘missing women’ (estimated to be over 100 million) in the world!

Even when demographic characteristics do not show much or any anti-female bias, there are other ways in which women can be subjected to gender inequality. Denying education to women slows down economic and social development.

This is because women who use their skills to increase their income tend to invest more in the education of their children; also, educated mothers support educating daughters. Female literacy is found to have an unambigu­ous and statistically significant impact on reducing under-five mortality.

It has been observed that increase in female literacy rate and female labour participation rate both tend to lower the of relative female disadvantage in child survival. These factors also tend to lower fertility rates. This arises from the unwillingness of educated women to be restricted to continuous child rearing.

In countries where gender inequality is relatively high, parents show more resistance to send their daughters to school—for a number of reasons.


Firstly, in places where schools are far away from homes, parents are concerned about the safety of their daughters in travelling over distances.

Thus boarding facilities have to be arranged for, which are more costly. Again, in many societies, parents prefer to send their daughters to institutions providing education to girls only. The absence of such facilities results in girls remaining uneducated or discontinuing education early.

Secondly, in societies where earning in order to run the family is considered to be men’s job, and taking care of the household and children the duty of women, investing in a girl child’s education seems unnecessary to most parents. Hence, where boys receive school­ing, girls are encouraged to learn housework.

Even when there is relatively little difference in basic facilities including schooling, the opportunities of higher education may be far fewer for young women than for young men. Indeed, gender bias in higher education and professional training can be observed even in some of the richest countries of the world in Europe and North America. Over centuries, science, commerce and related fields have been considered the domains of men. Thus, women are often deprived of higher education and other facilities.


In terms of employment as well as promotion in work and occupation, women often face greater handicap than men. A country like Japan may be quite modern, and yet progress to elevated levels of employment and occupation seems to be much more problematic for women than for men! Professional inequality exists even in countries like the USA and England.

In many societies, the ownership rights of property may also be unequal between men and women. Even basic assets such as homes and land may be asymmetrically shared. The absence of claims to property not only reduces the voice of women, but also makes it harder for women to enter and flourish in commercial, economic and even some social activities.

It has been observed that women’s well-being is strongly influenced by such variables as women’s ability to earn independent incomes through education and ownership rights. In the state of Kerala, where FMR is around 1.06, there is little or almost no gender bias. Here women have a higher life expectancy at birth of 76 years compared to 70 years for men.

The reasons behind equity between men and women are many, such as very high levels of women’s literacy, more access to employment and well-paid jobs, and matrilineal system of inheritance, by which women have a share in their paternal property. Also, social evils such as the dowry system are not in practice here. Thus empowerment of women has led to a society which is free from gender bias.


There are often enough, basic inequalities in gender relations within the family or the house­hold, which can take many different forms. Even in cases in which there are no overt signs of anti-female bias in, say, survival or son-preference or education, or even in promotion to higher executive positions, the family arrangements can be quite unequal in terms of sharing the bur­den of housework and child care.

The burden of caring for the aged in the family most often falls on the women in the family. There is unequal division of labour between men and women in the household. While women work long hours every day at home, since this work does not produce remuneration, it is often ignored in the accounting of contributions of men and women in the family’s joint prosperity. Very often son-preference in the family leads to deprivation of the girl child in matters of education, nutrition and even health care.

The governments of developing countries as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play a pivotal role in bringing about gender equality in the society. A large part of the economic “miracle” in Asian countries such as South Korea has been due to investment in girls’ educa­tion. In countries such as Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, UN bodies and NGOs are fighting to save women from their plight.

The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) is the wing of the UN which deals with women’s issues, and provides monetary grants to NGOs and other grass root groups and researchers in developing countries. In fact, the fourth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security provides for the protection and political empowerment of women in conflict and post-conflict situations.

The governments of less developed countries (LDCs) and NGOs have realised the need to empower women economically. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a micro-credit movement, aims at reversing discriminatory treatment in the rural credit market by providing credit to women borrowers. Economic independence significantly impacts a woman’s decision-making power in the family.

The sharp decline in the fertility rates of women in Bangladesh in recent years seems to have a direct link with the higher involvement of women in social and economic affairs in the country. In Bangladesh, the government also encourages female education by eliminating school fees for girls at targeted grade levels and a programme to supply families with food in return of keeping their children in school.


In India, too, the Government has taken concrete steps to bring about gender equality in the country. In 1999, UNDP and the Ministry of Agriculture launched three major sub-programmes to support women farmers in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa. The impact of these programmes goes beyond improving access to food security alone.

These con­tribute in improving women’s access to agricultural land, markets, banks, district administra­tion and Panchayati Raj institutions. In the rural areas, self-help groups have given boost to women’s employment through setting up of cottage industries and small scale industries.

Thus we see that gender inequality affects women as well as men. The many forms of gender inequality reflect the fact that women face differential treatment in almost all spheres of life—education, property rights, health, social status and the like. Much has been done to pro­mote equality among men and women, but the job is far from done.

The formulation of policies for the settlement of women is not enough; very often these policies cannot be implemented properly due to social, economic or various other causes, and the-desired goals are not achieved. What is required is not only freedom of action but also freedom of thought.

The Mystery:

In most of the developing countries of the world, the female to male ratio is less than 1, indicat­ing that there are more men compared to women in the country. This gives rise to the theory of ‘missing women’. Gender inequality in matters such as health care and nutrition often raises the mortality rate of women. Usually women tend to have lower age-specific mortality rates than men, given similar health and nutritional facilities. However, women in developing countries receive lesser health care and nutrition compared to men, thus raising their mortality rates significantly.

There are strong variations in the female to male ratio (FMR) among different countries of the world. In countries of West Europe and North America, women tend to outnumber men with an average FMR of 1.05. This means that for every 100 males there are 105 fe­males in the country. In contrast, many countries of the Third World have FMR below 1. For North Africa FMR is 0.96, 0.94 in China, Bangladesh and West Asia, 0.93 in India, 0.91 in Pakistan, 0.84 in Saudi Arabia, 0.97 in Egypt and Iran.


Thus there is a shortage of women in these countries. This shortfall of women compared to men has been termed as ‘missing women’. There is, however, relatively low gender bias against women in sub-Saharan Af­rica, which has an average FMR of 1.022. There is much evidence, in India and in other countries with ‘deficit’ of women, of relative neglect of health and well-being of women, particularly young girls and infants.

Thus there were millions of ‘missing women’ in India, around 37 million in 1986 (using the sub-Saharan standard—Dreze and Sen). China had around 44 million missing women; thus we can safely conclude that there were around 100 million missing women in the world.

The cause for ‘missing women’ in today’s world is bias against women. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen identifies seven forms of gender inequality. Women tend to have lower age-specific mortality rates than men, given similar health care and nutrition.

However, due to existing gender bias, women and girls tend to receive lower health care and nutrition, resulting in higher mortality rates for women than men and son- preference in a family can often lead to female infanticide.

In India, the extent of gender discrimination differs from region to region. The FMR is particularly low in large parts of northern India, especially the north-western states. Haryana has a FMR of 0.87, 0.88 in Punjab and 0.91 in Rajasthan. ‘However, FMR is much higher for Southern States: Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have FMR of 0.97, 0.96 in Karnataka and 1.06 for Kerala.

The regional patterns of FMR is consistent with what is known of the character of gender relations of the country. The north-western states are notorious for highly unequal gender relations, some symptoms of which include the continued practice of female seclusion, low female labour participation rates, extremely restricted female property rights, strong boy- preference in fertility decisions, widespread neglect of female children and drastic separation of married women from their natal families. In all these respects, the social standing of women is better in south India.


The implications of ‘missing women’ for economic development are many. Women can be seen as active agents of change: the dynamic promoter of social transformations that can alter the lives of both women and men.

A number of empirical studies indicate that the extent of anti-female bias in survival is substantially reduced by various influences that give women more voice and agency within the family. Two such major factors are education and the ability to earn independent income through paid employment. These opportunities tend to enhance the standing of women in households and in the society. Women’s well-being is also influenced by ownership rights.

This is clearly observed in the state of Kerala where this form of inheritance is practiced. The anti-female bias tends to be affected by the social standing and economic power of women in general. It has been observed that empowerment of women enables them to have more say in family matters reduces child mortality and fertility rates significantly.

This influence works through the im­portance that mothers typically attach to the welfare of children. This can be understood better when we look at countries with basic gender inequality—India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh Iran, those in West Asia and North Africa and others.

These countries often tend to have higher female mortality of infants and children, in contrast with the situation of North on America or sub-Saharan Africa, where female children typically have a substantial survival advantage In India, female and male death rates in the 0-4 age group are now very similar to each other on an average for the country, but a disadvantage persists for women in regions where gender in­equality is particularly pronounced.

Studies in different States of India have shown that child mortality, female disadvantage and fertility rate decreases with increase in female literacy rate. At 10% level of female literacy child mortality is 166.4, female disadvantage is 10.7 and fertility is 5.38, whereas at 80% level of female literacy, the same indicators take values 105.3, – 14.8 and 3.22 respectively.


States which have experienced rapid progress in improving health care and reducing mor­tality and fertility are often those where women play an important socio-economic role. Two such examples are Kerala and Manipur. The empowerment of women has had a different basis in each case: promotion of female literacy and the influence of matrilineal inheritance in Kerala and the economic empowerment of women in Manipur.

In both cases, women have a far more active and equal role in the society than women in the Northern States of India So in Kerala and Manipur, there has been more progress in the fields of health and mortality reduction not only for women but for everyone.

The agency of women as a source for change is one of the most neglected aspects of development literature. The focus on the agency of women has a direct bearing on women’s well- being, but the issue goes well beyond that.

Also, it is not merely that more justice must be received by women but also that social justice can be achieved only through active agency of women—the suppression of women from social, political and economic life hurts the people as a whole and not just the women.

Different Forms of Gender Discrimination:

Inequality between men and women is one of the most crucial disparities in many societies even in modern age—particularly in the less developed countries. Women tend in general to fare quite badly in relative terms compared with men, even within the same families.

This is reflected not only in such matters as education and opportunity to develop talents, but also in the more elementary fields of nutrition, health and survival. There are, in fact, striking variations in the ratio of females to males (called ‘female-male ratio’ or FMR in short) in population in different regions of the world.

In North America and Europe the average FMR is around 1.05 (i.e., about 105 women per 100 men):

This is mainly due to lower age-specific mortality rates of women compared to men given similar health care and nutrition. Besides, there are also possible social and occupational factors at work. But there is no reason to assume that women outnumber men in the world as a whole; in fact, there are only about 98 women per 100 men on the globe.

This “shortfall” of women is most acute in Asia and North Africa. For example, the FMR in Egypt, China, India are 97, 94 and 93, respec­tively. In these countries women receive less attention and health care than men, and girls in particular often receive very much less support than boys.

It has also been observed that the nutritional intake of women is not only less than that of men but also quite less relative to their requirements. The intake shortfall varies from a minimum of 11% (in the youngest age group) and rises to a high of 44% (in the 70 + age group).

As a result of this gender bias, the mortality rates of females often exceed those of males in these countries. The concept of ‘missing women’ was devised by Dreze and Sen to give some idea of the enormity of the phenomenon of wom­en’s adversity in mortality by focusing on the women who are simply not there, due to unusu­ally high mortality compared with male mortality rates.

In the developing countries there is an enormous gender gap in the provision of educational opportunities which is clearly reflected in the statistics for primary and secondary school enrol­ment rates and in levels of literacy.

The World Development Report (1996) noted that for low- income countries as a whole, there were almost twice as many female illiterates as there were males, on an average, in 1995 (the illiteracy rates were 45% for females and 24% for males); there are few exceptions—for instance in Columbia and Philippines the literacy rates for men and women are a almost equal.

This disparity is echoed by enrolment figures- in low-income countries taken together, male enrolment in primary schools exceeded female enrolment on an average by over 12% and the difference exceeded 30% on an average for secondary schools.

The underinvestment in women’s education can be explained partly by cultural factors, and largely by economic factors. Families see greater returns from investing in the education of boys because women have inferior work opportunities, the costs of educating women are not so easily recouped, and the rate of return is low, at least the private return.

In the labour market also, the women hold a considerably disadvantageous position. In many societies (including many developed countries), it is presumed that women must allocate the bulk of their time to the upbringing of children. In such societies, wages for women’s work are low as well.

Over the last century or more, there has been an increase in the wages of women relative to men. This is certainly the case in currently developed countries (like Swe­den). This is mainly due to larger investments by women in education which raised their wages.

To some extent the household can be viewed as an unit of inequality and internal discrimi­nation which generate reciprocal rights and obligations. Typically, women incur obligations to grow food crops for subsistence, to gather fuel and water, to cook and to rear children. In return, the man will provide and till land and will meet the cash needs of the household. This allocation is clearly unequal—women work much harder than men. This is clearly the case in much of rural Africa as measured by hours of work.

Amartya Sen, in his work on gender inequality, has taken into account the principal issues as discussed above. According to him, gender inequality is not one homogeneous phenomenon but a collection of disparate and interlinked problems.

It can take seven different forms as mentioned below:

1. Mortality Inequality:

In some regions of the world, inequality between women and men directly involves matters of life and death and takes the brutal form of unusually high mortality rates of women and a consequent preponderance of men in the total population as opposed to the preponderance of women found in societies with little or no gender bias in health care and nutrition. Mortality inequality has been observed extensively in North Africa and in Asia including China and South Asia.

2. Natality Inequality:

Given a preference for boys over girls that many male-dominated societies have, gender inequality can manifest itself in the form of the parents wanting the new­born to be a boy rather than a girl.

With the availability of modern techniques to determine the gender of the foetus, sex-selective abortion has become common in many countries. It is particularly prevalent in East Asia; in China and South Korea in particular, and it is beginning to emerge as a statistically significant phenomenon in India and South Asia as well.

3. Basic Facility Inequality:

Afghanistan may be the only country in the world the gov­ernment of which is keen on actively excluding girls from schooling (it combines this with other features of massive gender inequality), but there are many countries in Asia and Africa and also in Latin America where girls have far less opportunity of schooling than boys. There are other deficiencies in basic facilities available to women varying from encouragement to cultivate one’s natural, talents to fair participation in rewarding social functions of the commu­nity.

4. Special Opportunity Inequality:

Gender bias in higher education and professional attaining can be observed in some of the richest countries in the world in Europe and North America along with the developing countries.

5. Professional Inequality:

In terms of employment as well as promotion in work and occupation, women often face greater hardships than men. A country like Japan may be quite egalitarian in matters of demography or basic facilities, and even, to a great extent, in higher education, and yet progress to elevated levels of employment and occupation seems to be much more problematic for women than for men!

6. Ownership Inequality:

In many societies the ownership of property can also be very unequal. Even basic assets such as homes and land may be very asymmetrically shared. The absence of claims to property not only reduces the voice of women but also makes it harder for women to enter and flourish in commercial, economic and evens some social activities.

7. Household Inequality:

There are often enough, basic inequalities in gender relations, within the family or the household, which can take many different forms. For example, the family arrangements can be quite unequal in terms of sharing the burden of housework and child care. Again, within the same family, women receive less nutrition than men and face many other similar deprivations!