Why Punjab, Not Kerala Or Gujarat, Has A ‘Missing’ Women Problem

Data debunks false claims about ‘missing women’, the real problem lies elsewhere

Over 1.1 million Indian females were reported missing between 2017 and 2021 at an average rate of 182 females per 100,000 population, shows a Behanbox analysis of the National Crime Records Bureau data. Of these, more than 264,000 were minors and over 884,000 were adult women aged 18 and above. Only a little over two-thirds (67%) were traced or recovered, data show. 

A country-wide look at the data shows a prevalence of high rates of disappearance across most states and union territories. The burden of women reported missing is higher than the national average (182) in 11 states and four union territories. Among the states Madhya Pradesh (405), and among union territories Delhi (480) recorded the highest prevalence of these cases between 2017 and 2021. 

The issue of India’s women reported missing is at the centre of a heated debate rising out of the claims made in the early teaser of the recently released film, The Kerala Story. It claimed that 32,000 Hindu and Christian women have gone missing in Kerala since 2009, that they had converted to Islam and many were recruited by ISIS. After a fact check by Alt News disproved this claim, the filmmakers dropped the number to three, but only in their teaser.

Soon after the film’s release, media reports (see here and here) citing NCRB data claimed that 40,000 women have been reported missing in Gujarat between 2016 and 2020. The Gujarat police, however, called these numbers  ‘misleading’ and tweeted that “94.90% of the missing women have been traced by Gujarat Police and they have been united with their families”. 

But the number of women recovered cannot conclusively be said to be from those reported missing between 2016 and 2020. The trace percentage or numbers of women traced are cumulative figures and include women who could have been reported missing in the preceding years. 

Reports often use the term ‘missing women’ instead of ‘women reported missing’ without realising that the two are entirely different. The term missing women was coined by economist Amartya Sen to refer to the number of women missing at birth. These women would have been alive in the absence of sex discriminatory practices such as infanticide, or excessive female mortality due to neglect or poor treatment. 

Behanbox had earlier reported on the number of India’s missing women owing to the worsening sex ratios of certain states and union territories in the country.  

However, our analysis of data on women reported missing show that the states and union territories where the numbers are actually worrisome are Chandigarh (411), Chhattisgarh (355), West Bengal (319), Maharashtra (299), Telangana (291), Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu (287), Tripura (279), Haryana (256), Odisha (234), Sikkim (213), Rajasthan (209), Kerala (196), and Andaman and Nicobar Islands (191). 

‘Missing’ Or Left By Choice

We spoke to the police and social activists to understand the circumstances under which women are categorised as “missing”. Generally, a missing person’s report must be filed as a Zero First Information Report under section 154 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, as per Supreme Court guidelines

K Shilpavalli, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Madhapur Zone, Hyderabad Police said that while it is difficult to determine the exact numbers, in her commissionerate most women reported missing complaints are made by their own families. “These cases are usually due to family disputes, wanting to escape a coerced marriage, and wanting a better life or career among other reasons. They may be cases of elopement or even trafficking, but it is certainly not true to say that all women reported missing are trafficked. While we do not want to undermine its existence, not all missing persons cases are that of trafficking,” she told Behanbox.

But if there is any indication of trafficking or if the case involves a minor, the police are duty-bound to move fast, she said.

In the case of minor girls, such incidents are almost always treated as suspected kidnapping but the real reasons could be multifold, says Manjula Pradeep, a Gujarat-based Dalit activist and human rights lawyer. 

In the case of minors, all missing cases are treated as kidnapping and we file a report under section 363 of the Indian Penal Code, clarified Shilpavalli.

“These complaints are most likely to be filed by parents who know that their daughters have willingly decided to leave their homes. This could be because they want to escape conservatism at home, or their gender identity or sexual preference causes familial conflict, or they want to consensually marry or live with their partners,” said Pradeep.

But the NCRB data for women reported missing are inadequate and conservative, claimed Pradeep. “A major reason is that missing cases are underreported due to the stigma associated with a woman’s choice to leave her natal home against the wishes of her parents,” she said. 

Pradeep said she has witnessed many cases where if a family from a poor or marginalised background goes to file a complaint about a daughter being abducted or raped, the police often only file a missing persons complaint. It becomes imperative, then, to demand disaggregated data on women reported missing along the lines of caste and religion for a better understanding of the problem, she added. 

“Missing persons  data often fails to account for women who have been abandoned by families for having disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities. They are often left to wander in public spaces and are highly vulnerable to sexual assault and violence. These are women who should be considered missing given that they cannot find their way back home or receive help from the police given their disability,” she said.

The trace rate

The NCRB data also include a trace or recovery percentage which refers to the proportion of men and women traced after they were reported missing. These state- and UT-wise figures are not disaggregated by years. But data reveal that only 18 of the 37 states and UTs have managed to consistently trace more than 50% of women reported missing between 2017 and 2021. In Punjab and Chandigarh only less than a quarter of the total number of women reported missing have been traced in the past five years. Among other states and union territories that have performed poorly in tracing women reported missing are Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Delhi, Odisha, West Bengal, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the recovery percentage is reported to be less than 50%. 

Experts have found this surprising given Punjab’s economic affluence. But this can perhaps be traced to the state’s poor sex ratio (929 females per 1,000 males per latest  round of National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5)  ), said Pradeep. “This itself is a sign of the sexist and patriarchal norms that prevail in the state. Given the stigma attached to women leaving homes out of their own volition, parents often file missing persons complaints to save face in the society. But they don’t always follow through. This leads to a lax attitude among the police as well,” she said. 

It is important to critically examine the recovery percentage data for states, said Pradeep. “In our society, women’s sexuality and agency are controlled by their families. If women were to leave home or go missing for these reasons, their families would never take them back. So what happens to them when they are recovered: does the police follow up [on if they have been accepted by their families or need support] after they return home?” she added.

DCP Shilpavalli outlines the police procedure after missing persons are traced: “We take a statement from them and if this indicates a family dispute and that they do not wish to return to their families, we leave them be. The case is then closed and the person reported as traced. In the case of minors, all missing cases are treated as kidnappings and we file a report under Section 363. Once traced we ascertain the reasons and person involved in the kidnap. Some of the cases  end up as POCSO (Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences) case.”

  • Eisha Hussain is a multimedia reporter at Behanbox. Her work has covered issues around gender and sexuality, displaced communities from conflict zones, and protest cultures.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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