What the ’81 census reveals

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE situation of women in Pakistan as it emerges from the findings of the 1981 census is still rather bleak. True, the sex ratio, female literacy rate and female labour participation level have registered some improvement over what was recorded in the previous census in 1972. But progress has been so slow in terms of percentages, and the population growth rate so high, that in absolute numbers there are more illiterate women and more women out of the labour force today than there were in 1972. When compared with other countries the position of women in Pakistan emerges as even more dismal.

The sex ratio stood at 111 in 1981 In other words, there were 111 males per 100 females. This was slightly better than the ratio of 115 in 1972. But Pakistan’s ratio still falls outside what demographers regard as the normal range — 90 to 105. It compares most unfavourably with other regions of the Third World such as Asia where it is 104, Latin America 100 and Africa 99. This confirms that girls and women are victims of sexual discrimination on a large scale in respect of nutrition and health care. Hence, higher mortality among them.


Another important feature of the census findings is the population growth rate. This stood at 3.1 per cent in 1972-81 and the household size went up from 6.4 in 1972 to 6.7 per cent in 1981. This phenomenally high growth rate, perhaps the highest in the world, has far reaching implications for the economic and social development of the country. But for women it has a more immediate and direct bearing. It means that there are many more women now giving birth to a bigger number of children. One really does not have to elaborate a woman’s health can be ruined by frequent pregnancies and the strain of bringing up a number of children born in quick succession. The social and economic impact of a large family is also felt by the woman first and more acutely.

But most revealing are the statistics on female literacy and employment. The disparity between men and women continues to be considerable. Only 16 per cent of the women are literate as compared with 35 per cent men.

The gender gap is wider in the rural areas where the female literacy rate is 7 per cent against 26 per cent for men. In the urban areas the difference is less: 55 per cent for men and 37 per cent for women. It would appear to be surprising but the fact is that even today there are families in Pakistan opposed to female education. This is registered not in the literacy ratios alone. The figures for educational attainment are equally revealing. Of those who have attended primary schools only about 30 per’cent are women (1.8 million out of a total of 5.9 million). This disparity grows with the level of education. Thus out of 141,000 MA/MSc in the country only 35,000 are women (25 per cent). Of the 37,000 LLBs only 1000 are women (3 per cent).


Where social prejudices do not operate so powerfully, women have done remarkably better than men. Thus the Muslims were asked about their “ability to read the Holy Quran” and 38 per cent of the Muslim population expressed its ability to read the Holy Book. But there are more women than men who are able to read the Quran — given as 41.4 per cent and 35.8 per cent respectively.


Perhaps the most appalling are the labour participation rates for women in Pakistan. These give a highly distorted picture because of the definition of the term “economically active” which does not include housework and unpaid agricultural work. A large majority of our women are engaged in these two sectors but their labour goes unaccounted for. The official data is important because all plans and policies directed towards women are based on these figures. Only 2.1 per cent of all women are members of the civilian labour force — 2 per cent in the rural areas and 2.4 per cent in the urban areas. The female labour participation rate in Malaysia is 36.6 per cent, 37.7 per cent in Indonesia and 48.8 per cent in Thailand.

The unemployment rate is given as the percentage of persons unemployed (that is, not working but looking for work) to labour force (total persons employed and unemployed). Although these figures could be distorted too since they do not account for underemployment, they are revealing in that they bring out the disparity between the employment opportunities available for men and women. The overall unemployment is given as 3.1 per cent, but it is 2.3 per cent for men and 5.2 per cent for women. The unemployment rate is even higher for women in the urban areas where it is 8.2 per cent.


The census findings reveal that some progress has been registered in the field of female education and employment in the nine years between 1972 and 1981. But the country has failed miserably in checking the population explosion. Hence the miniscule progress recorded has in reality been neutralised by the population growth rate. As such the condition of women in Pakistan continues to be as dismal as ever. What the statistics fail to reveal, at least at this stage, is the deteriorating social environment for women which, if it continues unchecked, will in the long run make a profound impact on female education, employment and population growth rate.The 1991 census will be important in that context.

Source: Dawn 20 January 1984