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Sex ratio and politics

January 09, 2018

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THERE are 95.2 females of all ages per 100 males in the country, according to the provisional results of 2017 census. This number, called the sex ratio, is traditionally calculated as the number of males per 100 females. But I prefer to calculate it the other way around as this way it represents more clearly the deficit of females in the population instead of showing the same as male surplus. I believe that gender justice imperatives are served better by exposing the glass half-empty.

The female population exceeds that of males in most countries and regions. In Europe, there are 107 females per 100 males. The number stands at 102 for latin and north America. The same is the case for Japan, Singapore and Australia.

But being rich is not the only reason behind having more women than men. The matriarchal societies of Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar match the European percentages. The number for the continent of Africa also crosses the one-hundred mark and even its poorest sub-Saharan region is no exception.

The only continent with a female population deficit is Asia, with China, India and Pakistan being the three biggest contributors to the deficit. (Their share in world’s population, according to UN data for 2015, is 39.2 per cent.) In fact, the sex ratio for the world sans these three countries stands good at 101.4. Had the sex ratio for these three countries been equal to the average for the rest of the world, there would have been 116 million more women breathing on earth.

The only continent with a female population deficit is Asia, with Pakistan among the three biggest contributors.

There can be little disagreement that a host of discriminatory practices contribute towards higher female mortality rates, if not constituting it in entirety. The non-exhaustive list of these practices includes preconception sex selection, female foeticide, a preference for sons, honour crimes and poor maternal health, as well as obstacles to women’s mobility and the lack of old-age care.

Some of these, like female foeticide and honour killing, directly reduce the number of females but the other ‘non-fatal’ practices also indirectly contribute to the factors that ultimately result in higher female mortality — for example, the practice of preferring sons, one expression of which is that young sons are preferred over daughters in the distribution of food within families, which results in poor health and contributes towards higher mortality in adolescent girls. Similarly, factors like the quality of healthcare infrastructure may not seem to have a gender bias but females’ access to this, in every sense of the word, remains poorer than that of men.

I would thus not hesitate in saying that the sex ratio in our specific context predominantly represents the collective impact of all the discriminatory practices in terms of female lives. This makes it one of the most important ones to watch out for in a population census.

Starting from a dismal sex ratio of 85.9 females per 100 males in the 1951 census, Pakistan has now improved the figure by 9.3 percentage points. But the census-wise breakdown of this overall improvement reveals an intriguing story that could offer us some important lessons.

The sex ratio inched forward in the first two decades of the country’s life to reach 87.5 in the 1972 census — it experienced an annual increase of just 0.09pc during the period 1951-72. In the next decade, however, the pace of increase surprisingly jumped over four-fold. The 1981 census put the sex ratio at 90.5 showing a solid annual rise of 0.37 points during the nine-year period between 1972-81.

The phenomenal rise was a gender revolution as we covered the distance of almost half a century in just nine years. Had we continued with the same pace, the sex ratio in Pakistan would have touched 102 in year 2013. What had caused that silent revolution? There is hardly any literature available on the subject. Since the change was exceptionally huge, we have to search for clues in major happenings during the period.

The 1970s in Pakistan are characterised by the introduction of popular politics that aroused ambitions and invited the participation in politics of the downtrodden classes for the first time. The country finally got a taste of democracy and the leftist narrative of class justice dominated the discourse. If we use present-day measures to assess women’s participation in politics, such as the number of female parliamentarians, the ’70s may not look any different. But women certainly were not untouched by mass politicisation. In fact, the country witnessed a surge in female leaders at the village and neighbourhood levels.

The other widescale changes in the 1970s were in the field of economy. Agriculture, the mainstay of the majority then and now, went through what is called the ‘green revolution’ during this period. This entailed farm mechanisation, the introduction of input-intensive hybrid seeds, and the sector’s move from subsistence to market orientation. This was not just about how farmers grew crops before and after; the changes had a deep impact on the ways in which our rural societies operate and behave. Did these changes help improve female numbers?

If yes, then why did the sex ratio started falling again after the 1970s, despite agriculture continuing to move forward on the same path. The next census was conducted 17 years later in 1998 and it put the sex ratio at 92.2. The annual average increase came down to 0.11 for the period of 1981-98, which was only marginally better than the one witnessed in the period preceding the 1972 census.

The fall from grace can only be explained by the changes in politics. We all know that during the 1980s, the tide of popular politics was reversed, the political process was subverted and choked, and women were pro-actively pushed back in political and social spheres.

The latest census shows an annual average improvement of 0.17 percentage points in the sex ratio during the period 1998-2017, which is better than the previous period. But going at this pace, the country can only get to the respectable mark of 102 females per 100 males in the year 2058, and there can be little doubt that a faster track passes through the political arena.

The writer is an independent researcher with an interest in elections and governance.

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2018