ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan launched a national census on Wednesday, the country's first in 19 years. However, societal conservatism and a lack of female census takers could result in Pakistan's female population being under-represented.
Asif Bajwa, the country's chief census officer, told reporters in the capital Islamabad that tens of thousands of civilian data collectors will be working door-to-door, supported by 200,000 soldiers. The project will be conducted in two phases and aims to be finished by May 15, Bajwa said.
He appealed to all citizens to cooperate with the data collection staffers, warning that providing false or incorrect information could result in fines or even jail terms of up to six months.
But very few of the census workers are female, a fact which could seriously distort the numbers and result in the sort of false information that Bajwa is trying to avoid. In conservative Pakistani society, women at home may refuse to open the door to a male census worker. And in rural areas, it may be considered taboo to discuss or officially register female family members.
In Punjab province, the most populous province in the country, there are no female census takers. Arif Anwar Baluch, the chief census commissioner for the province, said it was an administrative decision that women are not appropriate for the long hours of the job.
"You tell me, if a woman who has kids, who has got work to do at home and she goes out for 14 to 15 hours a day, that is really very hard for her," he said. "It is a tough duty for women to do."
Baluch argues that the absence of female census takers will not affect the accuracy of the data. In rural areas, he said, the census workers will be able to tap into local community figures for a full picture of all residents.
"We have local schoolteachers who in most cases know verbally who is living where and how many people are living in a family," he said.
However one of the training manuals issued to census workers by the country's Bureau of Statistics acknowledges that the current data is probably distorted along gender lines. The manual states that data on women's social activities and education is not collected accurately and that registration of women and girls in some areas is simply ignored by male family members. As a result, the manual states, the basic numbers on Pakistan's male/female gender ratio are probably inaccurate.
According to Asian Development Bank, women make 48 percent of the total Pakistani population.
Writer and social commenter Sarwar Bari, pointed out the gender issue in an article in a local newspaper. He lamented that "the orthodoxy successfully won another battle" on the issue of female census workers.
The survey will also count Afghan refugees, diplomats and, for the first time, transgender people.
"We have to count each and every person who is sharing the resources of my country," Bajwa said.
Pakistan hosts 1.5 million registered, and nearly one million more unregistered Afghan refugees, who have fled their war-torn homeland.
Islamabad last conducted a census in 1998, which recorded a national population of approximately 180 million. Analysts believe the number has since risen past 200 million.
Associated Press writer Zaheer Babar in Lahore, Pakistan contributed to this report.