July 11, 2020

By Asra Haque


With a population of over 220.97 million as of 2020, Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world, and with its relatively smaller landmass as compared to other populous countries, it is also among the most densely populated.

And these numbers are increasing by the year.

As of 2018, Pakistan’s birth rate was calculated at 21.6 births per 1,000 people, contributing to a population growth rate of 2.1%. Meanwhile, the global average birth rate is 18.5 per 1,000 people, contributing to a global population growth rate of 1.05%. This means that Pakistanis are propagating at a much faster pace than the rest of the work, however, what these numbers do not reveal is that far more male children are being born than female children, and not due to natural causes.

The sex ratio of a country refers to the ratio of males to females, normalized to 100. So to say that if a country has a sex ratio of 101 means there are more male births than female births for a population, while a sex ratio of 99 would mean there are fewer male births than female births for a population. A sex ratio of 100 indicates no disparities in a country’s sex demographics. For most countries, the sex ratio lies between 104 and 107.

In Pakistan, men outnumber women in Pakistan. By 2017, Pakistan’s sex ratio was 105. Pakistan’s gender disparity has narrowed to an extent from a sex ration of 108.5, however, this is not due to more girls being born and surviving beyond the age of five, but because more female births are being reported and registered. It is estimated that around 6% to 7% of female births were not accounted for in the 1998 census.

Moreover, despite this improvement, Pakistan has a higher female than male mortality rate under the age of five. Female babies have a natural advantage over male babies to survive past infancy provided they receive the same care as male babies. Female babies are 30% to 50% more likely to die than male babies before the age of five due to neglect. This neglect may take the form of refusal to access healthcare for illnesses, poor nutrition, and lack of preventative care.

Pakistan’s persistently skewed child sex ratios indicate the population’s strong preference for male children. In a 2013 study, Pakistan had the second-highest ratio for the desire for male heirs out of 61 countries. Further, in a 2009 study, it was determined that the desire for male children for couples with only female heirs is far stronger than the desire for female children for couples with only male heirs.

This may explain in part the reason behind Pakistan’s distorted child sex ratio, but it does not explain why this distortion is apparent for children at birth as well. The desire for male children plays a significant role in influencing the birth of more male babies, facilitated through fetal sex detection technology and producing multiple children for at least one male heir. Pakistani women have a relatively high fertility rate of 3.8, despite the progressive yet uneven decline over the years, which is above the global average of 2.5.

This means around four children are born per mother, and this high number is generally attributed to a lack of reproductive autonomy for the woman. The desire for male children prompts couples to continue to have children until they are finally able to produce a male heir. This not only contributes to a bloating population but also poses risks for female children who survive past the age of five who must traverse a deeply patriarchal and oppressive society.

Fetal sex detection also facilitates several gross rights violations – as abortion is outlawed in Pakistan, families are often left with little recourse than to seek to terminate the pregnancy if the fetus is determined to be female through illegal means. Such procedures often cost a mother’s life. If the pregnancy cannot be terminated, then the family can choose to abandon the female infant. According to the Edhi Foundation, most of the children abandoned by the charity are girls. The non-profit also claims that nine out of ten children abandoned or killed are girls.

Pakistan’s cultural and traditional norms have a marked influence on altering demographics for the country. However, lowering fertility rates, birth rates, and population growth in comparison to the decade prior, although may indicate than the preference for male children is still pervasive amongst many, but they also hint at a trend of altering norms in certain pockets of society. With stronger laws geared towards enforcing equality between the sexes, and sustained education and awareness campaigns, it is possible for Pakistan to slowly but surely achieve a sustainable population growth rate with more balanced sex demographics.