Gender and Justice Today

by Ronald J. Sider | April 30, 2007

A dramatic statement in a United Nations document in 1980 has often been repeated: “Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food, and yet earn only ten percent of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property.”1 If that generalization is even close to being accurate, then enormous injustice against women is rampant in our world today. That is the focus of this article.

But there is a big problem. We do not have nearly enough hard data to describe with precision exactly where and how much injustice against women exists today. On January 18, 2006, the Global Policy Forum issued a press release launching a major report called “The World’s Women 2005: Progress in Statistics.” This groundbreaking study by the United Nations attempted to describe what good statistical data we have (and do not have) today. The basic conclusion was that in many areas it is not very good.2

That is not to suggest that we know so little that we cannot say with certainty that major injustice against women exists. The United Nations reports that 70 percent of the world’s poorest people are women.3 Michael Todaro, the author of one of the most prestigious textbooks on economic development, says that “women and children are more likely to be poor and malnourished, and less likely to receive medical services, clean water, sanitation and other benefits.”4

I want to lay out what we know in six areas:

  1. A preference for boys that leads to tens of millions of “missing women”
  2. Inequality in education
  3. Inequality in health
  4. Inequality in ownership of property and work
  5. Violence against women
  6. Sexual trafficking and prostitution

The data are better in some areas than others.

A preference for boys and tens of millions of “missing women”

In a landmark article in 1990, Amartya Sen (a distinguished economist and later Nobel laureate) estimated that approximately 100 million women were missing. The reason? A cultural preference for boys that leads to neglect of female babies and abortion of female fetuses.

Everywhere, if nature takes its normal course, a few more boys than girls are born every year. But women tend to live longer if given equal care. As a result, many parts of the world (including Europe, North America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America) have more women than men in the total population. In Europe and North America, the ratio of women to men is about 1.05 (105 women for every 100 men).5

The situation is radically different in much of Asia. The ratio is 0.94 in Bangladesh and China, 0.93 in India and 0.90 in Pakistan (i.e., 90 women for every 100 men)6

The prejudice in favor of boys is very ancient. In his book Death by Government, R.J. Rummel reports that infanticide of girls was widespread in ancient Greece. In 200 b.c., in the Greek city of Delphi, there were far more sons than daughters. In the case of one group of 79 families, there were 118 sons and only 28 daughters.7

Historically, in both India and China, infanticide of female babies was fairly common. In India, the system of dowry required the family of a girl to pay a large sum of money to her husband’s family at the girl’s marriage (dowry is now illegal, but not uncommon even today). For centuries, Chinese peasants wanted sons to care for them in old age. Baby girls were sometimes called “maggots in the rice,” and infanticide was fairly common.8 In one Chinese province in the nineteenth century, persistent, severe natural disasters led to widespread female infanticide. The resulting male/female imbalance (129 men for every 100 women) led to desperate problems when the young men wanted to marry. Many young men formed groups of bandits to steal young women.9

Today, in India, birth statistics report far more male than female births. In 1997, in China, it was 117 male births for every 100 female births. In 1995, in India, it was 110 to 100; in Korea, 114 to 100. (The natural ratio at birth is about 106 males to 100 females.)10

It is generally believed that this large, unnatural gap between the number of male and female babies at birth is the result of abortion. After ultrasound devices to determine the sex of the fetus became available in the 1970s, the percentage of baby boys at birth jumped dramatically in China, India, and Korea: from 5 percent to 12 percent in China and by 10 percent in India.11 In both China and India, it is illegal to use prenatal sex identification techniques for non-medical purposes, but often the laws are not enforced. One study in Bombay from 1984 analyzed 8,000 abortions after a prenatal determination of sex. Of the 8,000 aborted fetuses, 7,999 were female.12

China’s imbalance of men and women is now so severe that a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported in 1999 that there were 111 million men in China who were not able to find wives. As a result, kidnapping and slave trading of women has increased. The Vancouver Sun reported on January 11, 1999, that, according to official Chinese figures, 8,000 women each year are rescued from forced “marriages.” One can only guess at the actual numbers, which undoubtedly are vastly higher.13

In early 2007, even more horrendous figures were reported by the Chinese state news media.14 Now, 119 boys are born for every 100 girls. China estimates that, by 2020, China alone will have 30 million more men than women.

The problem is so severe—both in China and India—that the U.S. Department of State, in its June 5, 2006, report on sexual trafficking, devoted a section to “Bride Selling.” The report indicates that traffickers kidnap (or purchase from desperately poor parents) young women from economically disadvantaged parts of the country and neighboring countries and then sell them to young men desperate for wives. The report also notes that the lack of women to marry also leads to a greater demand for women prostitutes.15 Nobody knows the actual numbers.

China’s “one child policy” has undoubtedly contributed to the problem. Parents want a male child, so they abort female fetuses. They also underreport the birth of girl babies. That means that the actual ratio of male to female births may be closer than the officially reported ratio of 119 to 100. But that does not mean there is no problem for unregistered baby girls. When Chinese baby girls are not registered, they have no legal existence, and, therefore, they will have difficulty receiving medical care, going to school, and receiving other government services.16 That means lifelong disadvantage and discrimination.

Clearly, the cultural preference for boys, especially in Asia, is one current cause of widespread injustice against women. Millions of female fetuses are aborted every year, and girl babies receive less care. Professor Sen’s earlier estimate of 100 million missing women is much too low.17 The actual numbers are probably more than twice that figure.

Inequality in education

In most of the developing world, women have less education and are more likely to be illiterate than men. That is the bad news. The good news is that women have made substantial progress in closing the gap in the last fifteen years. (In this area, the statistics are quite good.)

Adult literacy (people aged fifteen and above) provides one measure. In low-income countries in 1990, 35 percent of all men and 56 percent of all women were illiterate. In 2001, only 28 percent of all men and 46 percent of all women could not read. (In Europe, the comparable figures are 2 percent and 5 percent in 1990 and 1 percent and 4 percent in 2001.) In South Asia (i.e., India, etc.), 41 percent of the men and 66 percent of the women could not read in 1990. By 2001, the figures were 34 percent and 56 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa is similar: 40 percent of men and 60 percent of women were illiterate in 1990; 30 percent and 46 percent in 2001.18

The youth illiteracy rates (people ages fifteen to twenty-four) provide another measure. Women are still at a substantial disadvantage, but there are fewer people, both men and women, who cannot read in this younger group. For low-income countries, in 1990, 24 percent of male youth were illiterate and 40 percent of young women. By 2001, the figures were 19 percent and 31 percent. In this younger age group, both men and women are more literate than in the older group. But young women are still, in 2001, well behind young men.19

Still another way to talk about the education gap is to compare enrollment at the three levels of primary, secondary, and tertiary education. In India, in 2002–2003, at the primary level, 85 percent of all girls were enrolled, and the ratio of female to male enrollment was 0.94—i.e., for every 100 boys in primary school, 94 girls were enrolled. At the tertiary level, only 10 percent of all girls were enrolled, and the ratio was 0.68—68 young women for every 100 young men.20

In Nigeria, in 2002–2003, the picture was worse. Only 60 percent of all girls were in primary school, and the ratio of female to male enrollment was 0.82. At the secondary level, only 26 percent of girls were enrolled, and the female/male ratio was 0.80. At the tertiary level, only 7 percent of young women were enrolled, and the female/ male ratio was 0.69.21

The situation for women is clearly improving—but far too slowly. The U.N. Millennium Project Taskforce on Education and Gender Equality estimated (in 2005) that, even in the year 2015, 21 countries would have ratios of female to male below 0.90 for primary school, and 27 countries would have ratios below 0.90 for secondary school.22

In our global information society, knowledge and education mean power and wealth. The continuing substantial inequality in access to education between men and women is a major source of injustice.

Inequality in health

In this next area, the data are less extensive and reliable than in the previous section on education. But it seems fairly clear that, in many developing nations, women are more likely to receive both poorer nutrition and poorer health care than men. The result is poorer health. That, in turn, contributes to the fact that there are fewer women than men in some countries.

Michael Todaro says that women and children are more likely to be malnourished. In India, he writes, girls are four times as likely to suffer acute malnutrition.23 The United Nations’ Human Development Report for 1995 reported that, in Latin America, 31 percent of girls are underweight while only 17 percent of boys are.24

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has been engaged in careful study of South Asia (India, etc.) for decades. In an article in 2001 on the “Many Faces of Gender Inequality,” Sen notes that there has been plenty of evidence for some time that girls become more nutritionally deprived than boys as they grow older. He mentions one careful study in which he personally participated. They weighed every child under five in two large villages. At birth, of course, the boys and girls were equally healthy. But, over time, the girls fell more and more behind the appropriate weight for their age than did the boys.25

Part of the problem is probably that girls receive poorer health care than boys. Todaro reports that, in India, boys are 40 times more likely than girls to be taken to the hospital when ill.26

One way to measure the effect on girls of poorer nutrition and health care is to compare the child mortality rate (children under five) for boys and girls. If girls received equally good nutrition and health care as boys, their child death rate would be similar to boys’. Unfortunately, we lack comparative figures for many countries. But, in some places where we do have data, the differences are striking. In Bangladesh, the mortality rate for boys under five is 28 per 1,000. For girls, it is 38. In India, the difference is even greater: 25 boys per 1,000 and 37 girls.27

Inequality in ownership of property and work

We simply do not have adequate, reliable statistical data to determine what percent of property around the world is owned by women. But we do have enough hard data to know that women have legal title to vastly less property than do men.

In an article published in 2003, Deere and Leon reported on land ownership in Latin America (which is generally thought to be more equal than in other developing countries). In Brazil, in 2000, women owned 11 percent of the land and men 89 percent. In Mexico, in 2003, women owned 22 percent and men 78 percent. In Nicaragua, it was 16 percent and 81 percent (couples owned 4 percent), and, in Peru, 13 percent and 74 percent (couples owned 13 percent).28

We have a few studies from other parts of the developing world. In Cameroon, women do 75 percent of the agricultural work, but own only 3.2 percent of the land titles in the Northwest Province and 7.2 percent in the Southwest Province. For the country as a whole, the estimate is 10 percent. A 1994 survey in rural Punjab in Pakistan surveyed 1,000 households and found that only 36 women owned any land in their own names. Another survey in Pakistan in 2001 discovered that women owned only 2.8 percent of the plots of land.29

There are several reasons for this huge gap in ownership. In most of the developing world, inheritance laws favor male heirs. Historically, in most places in South Asia and East Asia, only sons inherited land. Islamic countries are somewhat better. Shar’ia law declares that daughters can inherit property, but they only receive one-half of what the sons receive.30

Women, of course, have access to much more land than they own. But that access depends on their relationship to a man— their father, husband, brothers, etc. In the recent AIDS crisis in Africa, many wives lose access to the land needed to feed their children when a husband dies of AIDS.31

There are good reasons to work for greater gender equality in ownership of property. Studies show that, where persons have secure land titles, their productivity increases. Furthermore, women produce a great deal of the world’s food. It is estimated that rural women produce half of the world’s food, and the figure rises to 60–80 percent in developing countries. In the rice fields of Asia, women do 50–90 percent of the work. In Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, women produce up to 80 percent of basic foodstuffs.32

The other interesting fact (and here we have many good studies) is that women typically spend much more of their income on their children (food, education, health care) than do men. Studies from many places as diverse as Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Ethiopia, Indonesia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom have proven this fact.33 Studies by the Grameen Bank have clearly demonstrated that loans to women produce much greater improvement in child nutrition and school attendance than do loans to men.34 Since productivity increases with secure land titles, and women spend much more of their extra income on family wellbeing than do men, it is clear that increased property ownership by women would very likely improve the lives of children.

In light of the huge inequality in ownership of property, it is interesting that apparently women do more work than men. The United Nations’ Human Development Report for 2005 included fascinating data on the total number of minutes worked per day by men and women. The data come from time-use surveys in a number of countries. The surveys included both market and non-market activities.

In a large majority of cases, women worked more minutes per day than men. On average, in urban areas, women worked 481 minutes a day and men only 453. In rural areas, women worked 617 minutes and men only 515. The vast majority of developed countries reported the same pattern: 423 minutes for women and 403 for men. (In the United States, it was 453 vs. 428).35

Debate has raged over the legitimacy of the charge that women do not receive equal pay for equal work. The World Economic Forum said in a recent report that, worldwide (outside agriculture), women earn slightly less than 78 percent of the wages of men for the same work.36

Violence against women

For some time, there has been widespread recognition that considerable numbers of men physically abuse women. But we did not have detailed, accurate statistics. There has been underreporting by victims and under-recording by police.37

On October 7, 2006, however, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet published the results of a massive study, led by the World Health Organization, of physical and sexual abuse of women by intimate partners (husbands, domestic partners).38 Between 2000 and 2003, 24,097 women in eleven countries were interviewed using a rigorously tested survey mechanism.

The result? Physical violence against women by intimate male partners is reported being widespread around the world. Researchers used two categories of physical violence. Moderate violence included being pushed, shoved, slapped, or having something that could hurt thrown at the woman. Severe violence included being hit with a fist or something that could hurt; being kicked, dragged, or beaten up; being choked or burnt on purpose; or being threatened with or actually attacked with a gun, knife, or other weapon.

Huge numbers of women in most countries reported experiencing physical violence at least once in their lives: 40 percent in Bangladesh, 30 percent in Brazil, 49 percent in Ethiopia, 49 percent in a Peruvian city and 61 percent in the country, and 33 percent in a city in Tanzania and 47 percent in the country. Astonishing numbers reported physical abuse within the last twelve months: 19 percent in Bangladesh, 29 percent in Ethiopia, 17 percent in Peru (city), and 15 percent in Tanzania (city). At almost all sites, severe physical violence was at least as frequent as moderate physical violence. At more than half the sites, severe physical violence was more frequent.

This study demonstrates an incredibly high level of physical violence against women around the world. Female genital mutilation is an especially horrid example of this violence. Amnesty International estimates that it devastates about two million young girls each year.39 Female genital mutilation is an ancient practice that is fairly widespread in about 28 African and Middle Eastern countries. (The fact that most have laws against it has not ended the practice.)

Popular culture teaches that genital cutting tames female sexuality and preserves virginity until marriage. Traditional circumcisers (usually older women) use razors, knives, or glass without any anesthesia to cut or even remove parts of the genitalia of young girls usually between the ages of four and eight. The result always includes severe pain and frequently leads to a host of serious physical problems.

Sexual double standards and traditional practices are contributing to the spread of AIDS among women, especially in some parts of Africa. Some cultures demand sexual fidelity for women, but permit or encourage promiscuity for men. As a result, even marriage can be dangerous for women. A U.N. AIDS survey in parts of Zimbabwe and South Africa found that 40 percent of the young women were HIV positive even though they had had only one sexual partner.40 “Widow cleansing” is one particularly unjust tradition that also spreads AIDS. In a number of countries in central Africa, tradition dictates that, after a husband dies, his widow must have intercourse with one of her husband’s relatives in order to break the bond with his spirit and save the village from insanity or disease.41

Sexual trafficking and prostitution

Perhaps sexual trafficking and prostitution represent the ultimate violence against women. The U.S. Department of State issued a report on June 5, 2006, on sexual trafficking. It estimates that, every year, 600,000 to 800,000 women and children are trafficked across international borders. Eighty percent of these are women and girls. About 50 percent are minors. Most of them end up in prostitution.42

These figures do not include the millions of girls and women that the State Department estimates are trafficked within their own national borders every year. Most become prostitutes— usually against their will. In India alone, there are more than 2.3 million girls and women engaged in prostitution.43 In the Philippines, prostitution is legal, and the Philippines’ “sex industry” is the fourth largest contributor to the nation’s GDP. Approximately 300,000 people from Japan alone come to the Philippines every year to visit prostitutes.44

In the Netherlands, where prostitution is also legal, it is a $1 billion per year industry; 68–80 percent of the women in the Dutch sex industry come from other countries.45

The effects on female prostitutes are devastating. The prevalence of AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, and a wide variety of other physical ailments is very high. Female prostitutes have a homicide rate that is 17 times higher than that of the general population in their age range.46

Whether the issue is a preference for baby boys over girls; inequality in education, health, and ownership of property; or violence against women and sexual trafficking, it is clear that widespread, longstanding injustice against women exists in our world. One does not need to be a member of Christians for Biblical Equality to see that this is a moral outrage that demands our urgent attention.

Historically, Christianity has, in spite of major, widespread, and longstanding failure, contributed enormously to the growing respect for and equal treatment of women. Now is the time for Christians—especially Christian men—to insist that we take another major leap forward. Christian men should rise up today and say, “Enough. Enough discrimination, injustice, and violence against women.” Christian men should join their sisters in working for a world that treats all God’s children, both women and men, with the full respect and equality that the Creator intended and Christ our Savior exemplified.


  1. Report of The World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, Copenhagen, 14–30 July 1980. Doc. A/CONF. 94/35, 8.
  2. Press conference launching report, “The World’s Women 2005: Progress in Statistics,” U.N. News, 18 January 2006. Online:
  3. Bread for the World Institute, Agriculture in the Global Economy: Hunger Report 2003 (Washington, D.C.: Bread for the World Institute, 2003), 22.
  4. Michael Todaro, Economic Development, 5th ed. (New York, N.Y.: Longman, 1994), 151.
  5. Amartya Sen, Freedom as Development (New York, N.Y.: Knopf, 1999), 104. See also Amartya Sen, “Many Faces of Gender Inequality,” Frontline [India’s National Magazine], 18, 22 (27 Oct.–9 Nov. 2001).
  6. Sen, Freedom as Development, 105.
  7. R. J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994), 65–66, cited in “Case Study: Female Infanticide,” gendercide watch. Online:
  8. “Case Study,” gendercide watch, 7.
  9. Stephanie Tripp, “Professor Studies Effects of Female Infanticide,” BYU Magazine (winter 1997). Online: php?a=369.
  10. Tripp, “Professor Studies Effects of Female Infanticide.”
  11. Tripp, “Professor Studies Effects of Female Infanticide.”
  12. “Case Study,” gendercide watch, 3.
  13. “Case Study,” gendercide watch, 5.
  14. Reuters, “China: It’s Skewing Men,” New York Times, 12 January 2007, A8, with correction 13 January 2007. Online:
  15. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State, 5 June 2006. Online: tiprpt/2006/65983.htm.
  16. “Case Study,” gendercide watch, 6.
  17. In a recent article, Stephan Klasen and Claudia Wink argue that the total number of missing women is larger today than when Sen published his famous study in 1990; “Missing Women: Revisiting the Debate,” Feminist Economics 9 (2003), 2–3, 263–99.
  18. World Bank, 2003 World Development Indicators (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2003), 90.
  19. World Bank, 2003 World Development Indicators, 90.
  20. United Nations, Human Development Report 2005 (New York, N.Y.: United Nations, 2005), 309.
  21. United Nations, Human Development Report 2005, 309.
  22. Caren Grown, Geeta Rao Gupta, and Aslihan Kes, UN Millennium Project Taskforce on Education and Gender Equality 2005.
  23. Todaro, Economic Development, 151.
  24. United Nations, Human Development Report 1995, 35.
  25. Sen, “Many Faces of Inequality,” (see n. 5 above).
  26. Michael Todaro and Stephen C. Smith, Economic Development, 8th ed. (Boston, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 2003), 231.
  27. World Bank, World Development Indicators 2003, 112–13.
  28. Karen O. Mason and Helene M. Carlsson, “The Development Impact of Gender Equality in Land Rights,” in Philip Alston and Mary Robinson, Human Rights in Development (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2005), 119. See also Carmen Diana Deere and Magdalena Leon, Empowering Women: Land and Property Rights in Latin America (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001) and Richard S. Strickland, To Have and To Hold: Women’s Property and Inheritance Rights in the Context of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa (Working Paper, June 2004), published by the International Center for Research on Women.
  29. Mason and Carlsson, “Gender Equality in Land Rights,” 119–20.
  30. Mason and Carlsson, “Gender Equality in Land Rights,” 121.
  31. Strickland, To Have and To Hold, 14, 17, 19, and elsewhere.
  32. Mason and Carlsson, “Gender Equality in Land Rights,” 126.
  33. Mason and Carlsson, “Gender Equality in Land Rights,” 128.
  34. Mason and Carlsson, “Gender Equality in Land Rights,” 129.
  35. United Nations, Human Development Report 2005, 315.
  36. “Women’s Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap,” World Economic Forum (Geneva), (No data are given, but it was published in 2005 or 2006).
  37. Grown, Gupta, and Kes, UN Millennium Project, Task Force on Education and Gender Equality 2005, 16.
  38. Claudia Garcia-Moreno, Henrica A. F. M. Jansen, Mary Ellsberg, Lori Heise, and Charlotte H. Watts, “Prevalence of intimate partner violence: findings from the WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence,” The Lancet 368 (October 2006): 1260–69.
  39. “Women’s Empowerment: Measuring the Gender Gap,” World Economic Forum, 6.
  40. Centre for Development and Population Activities, WomenLead in the Fight Against AIDS, summer 2006, 5. Online at
  41. Sharon LaFraniere, “AIDS Now Compels Africa to Challenge Widows’ ‘Cleansing,’” New York Times, 11 May 2005, 1, 8.
  42. U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 5 June 2006 Report, 1. Online:
  43. See “Sexual Trafficking Facts” of the Salvation Army’s Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking (Coordinator, Lisa Thompson) at
  44. “Sexual Trafficking Facts.”
  45. “Sexual Trafficking Facts."
  46. “Sexual Trafficking Facts.”