By Francisco J. Beltrán Tapia (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)
This blog is part of our EHS Annual Conference 2020 Blog Series.
Gender discrimination – in the form of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide and the mortal neglect of young girls – constitutes a pervasive feature of many contemporary developing countries, especially in South and East Asia. Son preference stems from economic and cultural factors that have long influenced the perceived relative value of women in these regions and resulted in millions of ‘missing girls’.
But were there ‘missing girls’ in historical Europe? Although the conventional narrative argues that there is little evidence for this kind of behaviour (here), my research shows that this issue was much more important than previously thought, especially (but not exclusively) in Southern and Eastern Europe.
It should be noted first that historical sex ratios cannot be compared directly to modern ones. The biological survival advantage of girls was more visible in the high-mortality environments that characterised pre-industrial Europe. Subsequently, boys suffered higher mortality rates both in utero and during infancy and early childhood. Historical infant and child sex ratios were therefore relatively low, even in the presence of gender-discriminatory practices.
This is illustrated in Figure 1 below, which plots the relationship between child sex ratios (the number of boys per 100 girls) and infant mortality rates using information from European countries between 1750 and 2001. In particular, in societies where infant mortality rates were around 250 deaths (per 1,000 live births), a gender-neutral child sex ratio should have been slightly below parity (around 99.5 boys per 100 girls).
Figure 1: Infant mortality rates and child sex ratios in Europe, 1750-2001
Compared with this benchmark, infant and child sex ratios were abnormally high in some European regions (see Map 1 below), suggesting that some sort of gender discrimination was unduly increasing female mortality rates at those ages.
Interestingly, the observed differences in sex ratios are also visible throughout childhood. In fact, the evolution of sex ratios by age shows stark disparities across countries. Figure 2 shows how the number of boys per 100 girls changes as children grew older for a sample of countries, both in levels and in the observed trends.
In Bulgaria, Greece and France, for example, sex ratios increased with age, providing evidence that gender discrimination continued to increase female mortality rates as girls grew older. Importantly, the unbalanced sex ratios observed in some regions are not due to random noise, female under-registration or sex-specific migratory flows.
Likewise, although geography, climate and population density contributed to shaping infant and child sex ratios due to their impact on the disease environment, these factors cannot explain away the patterns of gender discrimination reported here.
Map 1: Child sex ratios in Europe, c.1880
Figure 2: Sex ratios by age in a sample of countries, c.1880
This evidence indicates that discriminatory practices with lethal consequences for girls constituted a veiled feature of our European past. But the actual nature of discrimination remains unclear and surely varies by region.
Excess female mortality was then not necessarily the result of ill treatment of young girls, but could have been just based on an unequal allocation of resources within the household, a circumstance that probably cumulated as infants grew older.
In contexts where infant and child mortality rates are high, a slight discrimination in the way that young girls were fed or treated when ill, as well as in the amount of work with which they were entrusted, was likely to have resulted in more girls dying from the combined effect of undernutrition and illness.
Although female infanticide or other extreme versions of mistreatment of young girls may not have been a systematic feature of historical Europe, this line of research would point to more passive, but pervasive, forms of gender discrimination that also resulted in a significant fraction of missing girls.