Pakistan’s missing women

pakistani-womenBy Hina Shaikh

The headline of Pakistan’s 2017 population census is that population growth has happened at a much faster rate than expected. But another big takeaway is the problem of Pakistan’s “missing women”. According to the census, there are five million more men than women in Pakistan. Men are 51 percent of the population while women are 49 percent. The sex ratio – 105 men for every 100 women – has not adjusted to the demographic norm: a higher ratio of women compared to men in the entire population largely due to women’s longer life expectancy.

To bring attention to the fairly simple but powerful statistical phenomenon of “missing women”, the Nobel prize-winning welfare economist Amartya Sen, used the sex ratio to calculate the number of missing women in Asian and North Africa. His analysis revealed that the proportion of women was lower than what one would expect if the birth and death rates of females were the same as that of men.

Pakistan’s census findings need to be better understood to enable adequate policy responses to the “missing women” problem. The inverse sex ratio is both endemic and cyclical, mostly perpetuated by patriarchal mindsets manifesting in widespread gender-based inequalities and violence. Clearly these issues remain insufficiently addressed by current policies, programs, and legislation.

A closer look at Pakistan and sex ratios

Looking at overall population, all six censuses conducted in Pakistan since 1951 indicate that men have consistently outnumbered women. The most recent results confirm a sex ratio of 105 even as female life expectancy at birth stands at 67, compared to 65 for men.

While an improvement from the figure reported in the 1998 census (108), the world’s average sex ratio is much lower (101). The current sex ratio is also much higher than those of many middle and lower-income regions such as South Asia (103) and Sub-Saharan Africa (99.8). Only two other countries in the world have inverse sex ratios: India and China.

Among the provinces, the highest sex ratio is in Balochistan (110) and the Islamabad Capital Territory (111). Punjab (103) witnesses the largest improvement in this regard. Some of the reasons cited for the gender imbalance include a lack of transparency in more socially conservative areas such as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and Balochistan, where data on female members of households is not openly shared. This means that many women may have been uncounted.

What explains the gap?

Apparently, no female enumerators were hired even in the most conservative regions where the census was conducted. This must have not only affected estimates of the sex ratio, but also violated the instructions of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), which stipulate that women would be appointed as enumerators and supervisors for the census.

Social scientists are also beginning to detect a trend of sex-selective practices at birth in Pakistan. This is not to say that the practice of sex selection is widespread, although female infanticide, despite having declined in recent years, remains common. A deep-rooted preference for sons over daughters is pervasive in Pakistan, as is in India (though not with the same intensity).

Maternal mortality drives up women’s death rates. According to the United Nations Population Fund, for every 100,000 women 178 die from complications with childbirth in Pakistan because of poor access to health facilities.

The gender imbalance also remains higher in cities than in rural areas. A higher urban sex ratio shows an intense migration of men to cities in search of employment. Because their families are left behind in rural villages, men also make up a disproportionately large share of the urban census count.

The link between poverty and female-to-male ratio appears weak as many of the poorest regions of the world have a sex ratio that favors women. This is substantiated by the fact that improvements in sex ratio pale in comparison to the 5-fold increase in Pakistan’s GDP since the 1998 census.

Finding the “missing” women

Female labor force participation has a strong positive effect on sex ratios as women are considered to have more economic value once employed, giving parents less reason to prefer sons to daughters. Bangladesh has improved women’s stature simply by encouraging more women to be economically active, which has pushed women’s desire for education. Currently, female participation in Bangladesh stands at 43.1 compared to 22 percent for Pakistan.

Lowering fertility rates by means such as improving access to contraceptives will not only check population growth but also encourage women to become economically active and enroll in schools. Several studies document this link.[1] High fertility rates and larger household sizes also place more burden on women to do unpaid family work, and leaves less time for them to go to school or a workplace.

Many interventions targeting girls’ education remain essential for their economic and wider empowerment. Investment in girls’ education is perceived to have lower returns than boys’ education despite empirical evidence showing the opposite. Provincial governments have launched conditional cash transfer and stipend schemes across different levels of schooling to encourage female enrollment.

Recently, Pakistan passed several important pieces of legislation to improve women’s equality, including anti-sexual harassment (the first country in South Asia to pass such legislation in 2010) and domestic violence laws. In fact, it is one of the few developing countries that has legislation addressing sexual harassment in employment, education, as well as in public places.

However, while legislation is a necessary first step, Achieving a sex ratio in line with demographic norms will require an undoing of patriarchal structures that discriminate against women. Pakistan ranks 143 out of 144 on the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Index. According to the first international experts’ poll on how cities with over 10 million people fare on offering women safety (from sexual violence, harmful cultural practices, and unequal access to healthcare, finance, and education), Karachi fares the second worst. Violence against women and girls remains frequent. In 2016, hundreds were killed in the name of honor according to the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. A change in social attitudes that perpetuate patriarchal mind-sets and behavior is imperative.

Hina Shaikh is a Pakistan country economist at the International Growth Centre.


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