Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 14, 2017
Although the proportion of women globally, and in Asia, has decreased over time, it is important to note that the trend is not irreversible.
Gender and conflict in Asia

In the last decade, the research community has provided substantial evidence of a link between gender inequality and various forms of politically motivated violence. On a global level, these results show that countries with relatively high gender inequality are more often involved in disputes with other states, <1> more often experience civil wars, <2> and are more repressive towards its own citizens <3> compared to countries with more equal equations between men and women. Moreover, for countries that have experienced internal conflict in the past, peace is more fragile and increasingly likely to break down in countries with higher inequality. <4> These results are overwhelmingly strong and hold through many alternative specifications and controlling for numerous alternative explanations. <5> While there exists several explanations for why gender inequality would be linked to the use of violence, there is indeed more agreement on there being a causal connection between gender inequality and conflict than there is on what gender inequality actually means and how it should be best captured. Studying the link between gender and conflict is additionally complicated by the fact that different geographical areas struggle with diverse forms of challenges as regards to gender inequality. For example, in one area, economic indicators of gender equality, such as women's participation in the labour force, can be quite high while political indicators remain poor. In another area, the situation can be quite the reverse.

Drawing on previous research, this essay will discuss one aspect of gender inequality — son preference, resulting in highly distorted sex ratios — which has been brought up as particularly important in the Asian context. The prevalent and strong son preference, resulting in highly distorted sex ratios, is a dimension of gender inequality where some Asian countries divert the most from the global average. <6> From a security perspective, this is important, as we will outline below, for a number of reasons. For example, research argues that skewed sex ratios can be seen as a manifestation of a broader societal norm where different groups in society are valued differently; groups that are valued lower are excluded and discriminated. Such a norm is further linked to norms that legitimise the use of violence, hence making violence more expected. In addition, an excess male population may provide resources in terms of individual men who are more easily targeted in mobilising for violence, as well as in gangs and for crime, because they have little to lose from engaging in violence. Moreover, these individuals are likely more susceptible to the hyper-masculine language that further facilitate the mobilisation process. The combined effect increases the risk of existing conflicts becoming violent.

The article proceeds as follows. The first section provides a brief overview of the meaning of gender inequality in this line of research and the different explanations for why gender inequality increases the risk of violence. The second section focuses on using distorted sex ratios as an indicator of gender inequality. The third section discusses some of the potential security implications of skewed sex ratios, i.e., why and in what forms it may explain the use of political violence. The final section draws conclusions and broader implications.

Gender inequality and conflict — an overview

Gender inequality is used in the research field of armed conflict to capture norms assigning negative values and stereotypical roles to men and women, which result in an unfair distribution of power and other material resources to men's advantage. As this is a rather wide definition, different studies have focused on different components of gender inequality and often discussed it in different dimensions. A political dimension is used to capture women's (and men's) access to power as "a divisible, infinite resource and/or as the ability to reach goals." <7> An economic dimension centres on access to material resources, which can be used by individuals to affect their own lives. A social dimension is discussed both in terms of the value given to individuals depending on their sex and the value attached to perceptions of femininity and masculinity in a society. Some studies have also focused on the physical (in)security of women as an important dimension of gender (in)equality. This essay looks closer at the social dimension relating to sex ratios in the population.

There exist several quite diverse explanations for why gender inequality should increase the likelihood of violent conflict. Two clusters speak to the social dimension. The first cluster of explanations focuses on norms that may enhance violence, in particular given a hyper-masculinised political culture that lowers the threshold for violence. One rationale behind this is that an unequal distribution of resources between men and women is assumed to follow from a norm that assigns lesser value to women compared to men. Such a norm can be said to be indicative of a normative intolerance more broadly, which in turn tends to view violence as a legitimate tool. A second cluster focuses instead on capacity, suggesting that gender-unequal societies have less capacity in various forms, because a large part of the adult population is restricted from fully participating in society. Such societies are therefore less capable of resisting violent conflict. An alternative way to conceive of capacity is more negative, and concerns the direct provision of capacity to mobilise for conflict, in particular recruitment of young men. According to this explanation, societies with large male surpluses will more often see political violence, as there are more individuals available to mobilise. As is suggested below, a male surplus may be linked to both the normative explanation and to the explanation focusing on resources for mobilisation.

Distorted sex ratios as an indicator of gender inequality

According to Fisher's Principle, absent human manipulation the population on earth would naturally converge to have about the equal number of women and men. <8> While more boys than girls are born (biologically we expect 103-106 boys born per 100 girls), boys have higher childhood mortality and women generally live longer than men. In most countries, the latter effects outperform the first, resulting in a female surplus. However, based on only a few (mainly Asian) countries having large numbers of missing women, the world population at present has significantly more men than women. UN data reveals a disturbing trend over time, moving towards a smaller and smaller female world proportion. This is due mainly to the two most populous countries also being among the most imbalanced in terms of sex ratios — China and India — who jointly account for about 75% of the male surplus worldwide. Table 1 provides World Bank estimates of the female proportion across Asian countries in 2015. As can be seen, there are a few other Asian countries with sex ratios as low as, or lower than, India and China; however, due to the large population sizes of China and India, these two countries also significantly skew the world average and will be the main focus of this analysis.

Although the proportion of women globally, and in Asia, has decreased over time, it is important to note that the trend is not irreversible. Some other Asian countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and South Korea, have instead moved towards increasingly balanced sex ratios during the last few decades. <9> There is also substantial subnational variation. Here, India stands out. A number of districts, most of which are located in either the Northeast or South of India, have balanced sex ratios among young children. At the other extreme there are some districts with quite large distortions, including in most of the Northwest and Central states, such as in Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan, states known for having a strong son preference. <10>

But is a male surplus always a consequence of gender-unequal norms that prioritise and value sons/boys/men? Most likely not: in some countries male surpluses result from labor migratory patterns. Most strikingly this is seen in the Arabian Peninsula; for instance, in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, only about a quarter of the population is female. Such demographic imbalances capture aspects of gender distributions of labour and gendered patterns of migration, which in effect speak to gender inequality but of a less grave form than that of distorted sex ratios resulting from a son preference. Labour migratory patterns can also generate countries with female surpluses. For instance, in Hong Kong and Macao many men have left to seek work in mainland China, parallel to an influx of women from, for instance, the Philippines and Indonesia.

However, in the case of India and China, evidence suggests that strong son preference is the main driver of the male surplus. Sons are preferred for reasons such as their (perceived) higher capability to financially support parents; being able to continue the family line and be the recipients of inheritances (in patrilineal societies); and, in the case of India, the dowry system creates a significant financial burden of bearing and rearing daughters. The World Bank data quoted above estimates that India has 48 million more men than women, but let us take a closer look at India to see what existing survey and census data can tell us about the nuances, variations and sources of its male surplus.

sex ratio, maternal health, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, India

In India, sex ratios (men: women) are measured both for the whole population and for children aged 0-6 years. <11> Looking at the sex ratio for each district’s total population, variations across India are enormous, ranging from well below 90 to over 180 (men per 100 women). Interesting trends can be noted over time. While the overall sex ratio in the total population has decreased somewhat (from 108 in 1991 to 106 in 2011), the range between those districts with the lowest ratios compared to those with the highest has increased markedly. <12> Distorted sex ratios in the total population of a region result mainly from gender inequality in the form of a strong son preference. However, as mentioned above, it is also the result of migration, especially rural-to-urban flows of young men. For instance, in the Union Territory of Daman and Diu, the very uneven sex ratio is to a large extent a consequence of migratory labour. Sex ratios in general can, therefore, also tell us about gender roles and opportunities in changing economical environments. These imbalanced sex ratios thus speak to gender stereotypical roles being the result of gender distributions of labour or gendered patterns of migration. This can, for example, be seen in the overrepresentation of young men in urban areas. Interestingly, there are studies that show that women in areas where many men have left to seek work elsewhere (e.g., Uttarakhand) actually become more empowered politically (in panchayats) and redefine their social roles. <13>

While the overall sex ratio in a district’s population incorporates many aspects of gender inequality (gender-segregated labor market, son preference, etc.) but also components not clearly linked to gender inequality (including some aspects of migration), a more straightforward measure to interpret as an indication that men are valued higher is the sex distribution at birth or early childhood. As argued by Hudson and den Boer, <14> distortions in these numbers can be perceived to be a clear indication of exaggerated gender inequality, as they capture a common practice to either allow the male child to live and not the girl child (due to sex-selective abortion, or active or passive infanticide) or consistently prioritise the male child in terms of nutrition and healthcare. Since such practices are almost universally the result of a son preference, it indicates that the value and status of females are deemed substantially lower than that of males.

As India does not collect data on sex ratios at birth (but for the category of children 0-6 years), we cannot provide a precise figure. However, selective abortions are estimated to account for at least 500,000 missing female births each year in India. <15> Combined with other existing data <16> it can be derived that India without doubt deviates from the global norm: the number of boys born is significantly higher than expected and it is not balanced out during early childhood. The census data suggests that increased levels of education and wealth over time have not closed the gap; on the contrary, from 1991 to 2001 it increased and between 2001 and 2011 it remained at about the same level. Survey data supports this conclusion, as it shows that the son preference is not reduced by higher education or income, as high education and income levels in fact correlate with a low ratio of girls born. One explanation is that sex-selective abortions and induced miscarriages in late pregnancy are relatively costly. <17> Among young children, there is also higher than expected mortality among girls compared to boys. However, in this case the relationship with income is reversed so that girls born in poor households have higher mortality than boys, but there is no gender difference in mortality in wealthier households. <18>

The security implications of distorted sex ratios

A strong son preference resulting in male surpluses could indicate two processes/phenomena that are important to consider in terms of security implications. As noted above, research suggests that gender inequality, for instance in the form of skewed sex ratios, is a manifestation of a broader societal norm where different groups in society are valued differently and that groups that are valued lower are excluded and discriminated. We should therefore expect to see overlap — if women are valued less than men, it is also likely that other “out-groups” in society, such as ethnic minorities and political opposition, are devalued. <19> Evidence indeed suggests that such norms of intolerance correlate; for example, attitudinal survey-based studies show a correlation between sexist and racist attitudes. <20>  Such societies are more likely to see the "superior" group dominate over other "inferior" groups. It is postulated that societies with a very high level of male-dominance in politics tend to be dominated by hyper-masculine political cultures.

An excess male population provides resources that are easy targets in mobilising for violence: young men are the primary target group for recruitment as soldiers, and they are more receptive to hyper-masculine language.

Hence, where socially constructed gender roles are more equal, it is expected that respect for others in the private sphere will carry over into society at large. The cost of using violence would increase substantially and other methods of addressing grievances would become more institutionalised. Thus, societies with higher levels of gender equality are likely to have elites that are better at handling grievances by different groups. <21> This suggestion is not only supported by studying the link between gender inequality and violent conflict across different countries: Melander notes that the relationship between gender inequality and internal conflict is found also at other levels of analysis than at the country-level. <22> As found by Asal et al., groups that proscribe a gender-inclusive ideology are less likely to pursue their objectives using violent means. <23> At the individual level it has been found that gender-equal attitudes are correlated with advocating peaceful conflict resolution; in fact, it appears that such attitudes carry more explanatory power than biological sex. <24>

The other explanation relates to the resources available to rebel, riot and wage war. An excess male population provides resources that are easy targets in mobilising for violence, as young men are the primary target group targeted to recruit as soldiers. <25> Their susceptibility is further underscored by their receptiveness to hyper-masculine language. However, current consensus in civil war research is that armed conflict involves organised groups rather than individuals confronting each other at random. That said, the extent of gender inequality could make it easier to mobilise men.  For example, Urdal finds that youth bulges are related to an increased risk of conflict. <26> Hudson et al. <27> expand this argument by looking closer at bulges resulting from very uneven sex ratios which, in turn, stem from serious forms of gender inequality. The authors claim that such a male surplus can result in a large number of dissatisfied, i.e., aggressive, men. According to this explanation, mobilisation for war is made easier for two reasons. First, the societies in which these men live have a hyper-masculinity-based culture that normatively encourage violence as means of resolving conflict. Second, many of these men become excluded from society, since social acceptance requires marriage,<28> which in turn is linked to having a higher likelihood of gathering and organising into groups, or "gangs." <29> Thus, gender inequality creates a larger number of men with low opportunity costs (being unmarried and unemployed), these men are more susceptible to gender-based language in recruitment, and the men are already connected in groups through which they can be more easily mobilised.

An important aspect of gender inequality, especially in several Asian countries, is distorted sex ratios. In this paper we have focused on the serious security implications that can result from such ratios. Notably, a consequence of a large surplus of men, regardless if due to inequality, migration or both, is that a large number of men are unable to fulfill the expected social male roles of husband, father and breadwinner, instead remaining unmarried and unemployed due to an excess of men in the labour market. Research findings are quite strong with respect to this being linked to men, on average, being more likely to become involved in various types of anti-social behaviour, including criminality, gang violence and political violence. In the context of armed conflict, they also form a base for mobilisation, having little to lose from engaging in violence. Since male surpluses in some countries result from gender unequal norms, there is also often overlap with other types of gender inequality in these societies. Hence, a male surplus may also be linked to women having less economic independence and influence and have less say in decision-making both in the public and private sphere. As mentioned previously, less female representation is also linked to more violent approaches to "resolving" conflicts and addressing popular grievances. This will certainly have consequences for the way India, China and other Asian states with skewed gender ratios and representations in society deal with domestic political upheaval — the chances of which are ripe in a region that faces increasingly pressing internal challenges, such as economic inequality, unemployment worries and significant climate change risks, as well as increased instances of radicalisation and extremist behavior. In short, not only is it more likely that domestic grievances could result in violence, their 'resolution,' too, is more likely to tend towards tools that are violence-based. What makes the situation further complicated is what a tendency towards violence when dealing with conflict means for inter-state relations in a politically sensitive geography as Asia.

A more volatile landscape and adverse repercussions for conflict governance is particularly worrisome given that the effects of current skewed birth numbers in India, China and elsewhere will be felt for generations to come. However, the trend is not irreversible. As evidenced by South Korea, where a public-awareness campaign was initiated in the mid-1990s, a society can move from large distortions to normal birth ratios in a few years. <30> Policy interventions can hence make a great difference even in the short term. While a change in the outcome may not reflect that a normative shift has taken place, such policies may in the long term also change people's attitudes and trickle down to other aspects of more equal gender relations. Recent data from India and China suggests that these two countries may have started to move in a more positive direction. The latest census reports in India indicate that the ratios are perhaps stabilising and several laws and schemes have focused on curbing infanticide. Most recently, the Prime Minister launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (Save girl child, educate girl) campaign to reverse the distorted sex ratio, focusing foremost on the 100 districts deemed the most critical. <31> In China, the regime has recently abolished the One Child Policy, partly to handle an ageing population, but also acknowledging that it helped create distorted sex ratios. While these schemes are important steps in the right direction, it is of utmost importance for these and other governments to work to improve gender equality on a much broader scale, including increasing female political representation and empowerment, and curbing gender-based violence. If not, there is a risk that the surplus of men in the younger population bands in the coming decades will continue to crowd out women's interests and influence in decision-making, including that related to resolving violent conflict.

This article was originally published in Raisina Files: Debating the World in the Asian Century.


<1> Mary Caprioli, "Gendered Conflict," Journal of Peace Research 37 (2000); and Mary Caprioli and Mark A. Boyer, "Gender, Violence, and International Crisis," Journal of Conflict Resolution 45 (2001).

<2> Mary Caprioli, "Primed for Violence: The Role of Gender Inequality in Predicting Internal Conflict," International Studies Quarterly 49 (2005); and Erik Melander "Gender Equality and Intrastate Armed Conflict," International Studies Quarterly 49 (2005).

<3> Erik Melander, "Political Gender Equality and State Human Rights Abuse," Journal of Peace Research 42 (2005).

<4> Jacqueline H.R. Demeritt, Angela D. Nichols, and Eliza G. Kelly, "Female Participation and Civil War Relapse," Civil Wars 16 (2014).

<5> For an overview, see Erika Forsberg and Louise Olsson, "Gender Inequality and Internal Conflict," Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics (Oxford University Press, 2016.

<6> See, for instance, Monica Das Gupta and P.N. Mari Bhat, "Fertility Decline and Increased Manifestation of Sex Bias in India," Population Studies 51 (1997); Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea den Boer, "A Surplus of Men, A Deficit of Peace: Security and Sex Ratios in Asia's Largest States," International Security 26 (2002); Prabhat Jha et al., "Trends in Selective Abortions of Girls in India: Analysis of Nationally Representative Birth Histories from 1990 to 2005 and Census Data from 1991 to 2011," The Lancet 377 (2011); and Prabhat Jha et al., "Low Male-to-Female Sex Ratio of Children Born in India: National Survey of 1,1 Million Households," The Lancet 367 (2006).

<7> Caprioli, "Gendered Conflict," 55.

<8> Antonio B. Carvalho et al., "An Experimental Demonstration of Fisher's Principle: Evolution of Sexual Proportion by Natural Selection," Genetics 148 (1998).

<9> World Bank, World Development Indicators,

<10> Therese Hesketh and Zhu Wei Xing, "Abnormal Sex Ratios in Human Populations: Causes and Consequences," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103 (2006).

<11> Comprehensive data regarding the sex ratio at birth is currently not collected.

<12> Census of India, 1991, 2001, and 2011, Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner,

<13> Niraja Gopal Jayal, "Left Behind? Women, Politics, and Development in India," The Brown Journal of World Affairs 14 (2008).

<14> Hudson and den Boer, "A Surplus of Men"; see also Mamta Murthi, Anne-Catherine Guio, and Jean Dreze, "Mortality, Fertility, and Gender Bias in India: A District-Level Analysis," Population and Development Review 21 (1995); and Philip Oldenburg, "Sex Ratio, Son Preference and Violence in India: A Research Note," Economic and Political Weekly 27 (1992).

<15> Jha et al., "Low Male-to-Female Sex Ratio."

<16> Based on the overall sex ratio for all children aged 0-6 years, but also survey data and indicative data on births from some hospitals.

<17> Jha et al., "Trends in Selective Abortions."

<18> International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), and ORC Macro, National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), 2005-06: India. (Mumbai: IIPS, (2007).

<19> Caprioli, "Gendered Conflict; and Caprioli, Primed for Violence."

<20> See, for instance, Nancy M. Henley and Fred Pincus, "Interrelationship of Sexist, Racist, and Antihomosexual Attitudes," Psychological Reports 42 (1978).

<21> Caprioli, "Gendered Conflict"; Caprioli, "Primed for Violence"; Melander, "Gender Equality and Intrastate Armed Conflict"; and Melander, "Political Gender Equality and State Human Rights Abuse."

<22> Erik Melander, "Gender and Civil War," In What Do We Know About Civil Wars?, ed. David Mason and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell (Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

<23> Victor Asal, Richard Legault, Ora Szekely, and Jonathan Wilkenfeld, "Gender Ideologies and Forms of Contentious Mobilization in the Middle East," Journal of Peace Research 50 (2013).

<24> Pamela Johnston Conover and Virginia Sapiro, "Gender, Feminist Consciousness, and War," American Journal of Political Science 37 (1993); and Mark Tessler and Ina Warriner, "Gender, Feminism, and Attitudes toward International Conflict: Exploring Relationships with Survey Data from the Middle East," World Politics 49 (1997).

<25> This also relates to mobilisation for gangs and crime. See, for instance, Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera, "Crime, Gender, and Society in India: Insights from Homicide Data," Population and Development Review 26 (2000).

<26> Henrik Urdal, "Population, Resources, and Political Violence: A Subnational Study of India, 1956-2002," Journal of Conflict Resolution 52(2008).

<27> Valerie M. Hudson, Mary Caprioli, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Rose McDermott, and Chad F. Emmett, "The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States," International Security 33(2008/2009).

<28> Therese Hesketh, Li Lu, and Zhu Wei Xing "The consequences of son preference and sex-selective abortion in China and other Asian countries," Canadian Medical Association Journal 183 (2011).

<29> Hudson et. al., "The Heart of the Matter."

<30> Hesketh and Xing, "Abnormal Sex Ratios."

<31> Rakesh Dubbudu, "The 'Beti' issue – Declining CSR (Child Sex Ratio) in India," Factly, June 29, 2015 Retrieved from

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