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Women and population census

Women and population census

By Sarwar Bari

Congratulations! Finally due to the persistence of the Supreme Court, population census has kick started today at 8am. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) website as many as 180,461 enumerators will be in the field, performing one of the most crucial duties of their life. Besides, Pakistan Military has decided to deploy 200,000 Jawans. One Jawan will accompany each enumerator. Like the conduct of general elections, administering census is equally a herculean task. Like counting of each ballot, enlisting of each citizen is must. One could find some gaps in such a huge exercise easily. But, blatant violation of its own policy must not be allowed. This short essay is about that.

The PBS website is a trove of information and pleasantly, it is a great example of transparency too. For instance, one can even find names of all enumerators, their supervisors and their cell numbers etc. Even training manuals are available on the website.

As we just celebrated International Women’s Day, it is important to keep the women’s issues alive beyond that. The Manual of Instructions (Form 2) of the PBS website, link is given below: acknowledges in paragraph 7 that ‘in previous census in some areas the recording of girls and women was ignored. It also states that due to this, gender ratio got affected. Therefore, it is imperative that during the current census exercise, women’s data is collected professionally and according to the given instructions.’

The section 3 of the manual – Gender Census deals with the issue comprehensively. Reading of this section causes huge confidence in the census exercise as an elaborate Gender Strategy has been formulated and the structures designed. For instance, seeking of opinion of gender experts in the preparation of questionnaires, holding of gender sensitisation workshops, setting up of Gender Cells in Islamabad and provincial capitals, deciding the preparation of gender reports, running of gender sensitisation campaign for public, setting up of Special Gender Reports and establishment of Expert Group on Gender etc. Perhaps due to the input of gender experts, it has also been acknowledged in the manual that very often men don’t report exact information about their women due to tyranny of cultural taboos and very often they are absent from homes during the census hours. Hence, the manual promises that a large number of women shall be appointed as supervisors and enumerators in the exercise.

For the last two decades, we have been relying heavily on 1998 census for our analyses and planning. Now we are told that women’s data was faulty or incomplete. No wonder, in the land of the pure both the experts and the ordinary folks take the government information with a pinch of salt. Knowing very well that very often there is huge difference between public policy/law and their implementation, I was almost going to believe what is being stated on the PBS website. Only a couple of days back, everyone including myself has said that despite passage of so many pro-women Acts not a single clause of these laws has been implemented. Therefore, I decided to cross check the claims made by the PBS.

I phoned the Census Commissioner Punjab and asked him how many female enumerators have been included in the Punjab Census Team. None, he said. Of course it must have been a policy decision and therefore he is not responsible for that. But he vehemently defended the decision. The funniest part of his response was – conducting of census would be very hard as the weather would be soon hot. Therefore women couldn’t perform this role. Interestingly, the manual loudly declares – ‘the women are equal; hence they could perform any task.’ I have been trying to contact Mr. Asif Bajwa, Chief Census Commissioner but failing to talk to him. In the meantime, I have glanced through the list of enumerators. On Islamabad list, I couldn’t find a single female name. Then checked the Lahore list. Since cell numbers are also given on the lists, I phoned some. One of them said he has withdrawn his name. Another said no women were present in the training as they have been withdrawn from the census. He also said that female teachers of his school have not been appointed as enumerators.

On March 10, I talked with half of dozen of PBS high officials including member census/survey, joint census commissioner and a deputy director. I asked them how many female enumerators have been appointed. NONE, everyone said. But, they defended violation of the gender policy like this – how come a single woman could go from house to house while being accompanied by a Jawan – Na Mahrum? I reminded them the polio inoculation campaigns when armed man would accompany females too. At that, they said there was no parallel between the two. When I quoted the PBS gender policy (stated in the above-mentioned manual) they shifted the blame to provincial governments, Deputy Commissioners and Assistant Commissioners for not appointing the female enumerators. Their defense was hilarious – I told William, my colleague and known playwright that you have enough material to write a play on census. The fact of the matter is that once again PMLN government is bent upon causing huge disservice to the nation.

Now lets peel the PBS officials’ onion. First, It clearly establishes the fact that one of the most important state institutions is reinforcing gender segregation in the country and violating its own stated policy. Second, it doesn’t trust the women of this country as it denies them to collect information of their sisters. Third, as a result, the country will have incomplete information about its women i.e. population, ages, mortality rate, literacy rate, participation rate in labour force etc. Fourth, for the next 10 years, our development planning will remain flawed due to faulty census, and fifth, the wastage of PKR 18billion.

Why am I disturbed about the above? Because this is the highest form of cheating with the country and particularly with its women. If women could become presiding officers, if women could join traffic police, if women could become pilots and if they could administer polio inoculation time and again and if they could perform better than their male counterparts then why can’t they act as enumerators? A logical conclusion – gender perspective would have changed radically in the country should women have allowed to perform this herculean task for two long months. The orthodoxy successfully won another battle.

The PBS proudly shares through its website the formation of gender expert group that consists of gender experts, university scholars, representatives of civil society and international bodies. Who are they and where are they? Why are they looking the other way while PBS is violating a policy that was developed through their valuable input?

The PBS must act upon its gender policy in letter and spirit. This is the only way forward to count each woman of Pakistan and to have a flawless data for future planning. If PBS fails us then the women activists of our country must reach out to the Supreme Court of Pakistan for the elimination of this imminent colossal hazard. One of the major reasons of Pakistan’s bad image is – treatment of the women. Here is nothing for women to celebrate, congratulations for whom?

The Express Tribune


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