A numbers game

Author(s): Sanjay Sharma

Year of Publication: 2014

The 2011 population of census of Nepal reveals important information in a distorted manner as was pointed out by Tej Adhikari and Bhagwati Sedai (‘Census illusions,’ December 5, 2012). The total population of Nepal on census day, 22 June 2011, was 26,494,504, with a meagre population growth rate of 1.35, the lowest in the last 70 years. The first page of the National Population and Housing Census 2011 report reveals this information, and the third page mentions that the sex ratio in 2011 decreased to 94.2 from 99.8 in 2001. This means that while there were 998 males for every 1000 females in 2001, the number of males had decreased to 942 males per 1000 females in 2011.

Overall, there were 12,849,041 males and 13,645,463 females, the latter number being 796,422 more than the former. The biological birth ratio, as suggested by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is 102-104 male births per 100 female births. Interestingly, in a country with a high gender disparity against girls and women, an escalating number of female foeticides, and a lack of proper healthcare for girls, how come the total number of females is distinctly higher than that of males? How is Nepal able to challenge the WHO global birth rate amidst high gender disparity? To argue that parents give birth to more females expecting a son would be fallacious as the number of females till the age of 13 is lower than that of males.

Out of country

The simplest answer to the aforementioned questions is revealed in page three of the 2011 census report. It says that a total of 1,921,494 individuals—1,684,029 males and 237,400 females (with 65 individuals’ gender not stated)—were not in the country at the time of the census enumeration. They were away from their homes in various countries throughout the world and therefore, not counted in the total population of the country. However, because most of these individuals are labour migrants working temporarily in India, Malaysia, and the Gulf states with a work permit for two years maximum, they will return in no time. I will not argue here that it was technically wrong not to count them in the total population, but will focus on the distorted sex ratio.

Now, if you add those 1,684,029 males and 237,400 females to the total population, the figures face a severe alteration. The total number of males now becomes 14,533,070, compared to 13,882,863 females, the latter now being 650,207 less than the former. With this, the sex ratio of the country becomes nearly 104.7—ie, there are 1,047 males for every 1,000 females—and this number is slightly higher than the WHO suggested birth ratio. This figure calls for a variety of interpretations and gives answers to a number of stories on the son-preference attitude highly common amongst many Nepalis. Furthermore, after adding up the absentee population to the total population for both 2011 and 2001, the new number increases the population growth rate to 1.73.

Choosing males

As per a Unicef estimate, there are roughly 700,000 abortions in Nepal each year, and many of these are sex-selective, as sons are preferred. A study conducted by Dr Neelam Adhikari et al between 2003-2007 found out that on average, the birth rate was as high as 114 and went up to a whooping 177 for third and successive live births (106 for first live births and 118 for second births). This suggests that although people have a bias for male children, they wait for at least two live births and give a chance to a girl child. But if both the first and the second child are girls, the chance of their third child being a girl becomes thin, because people clearly want at least one son to ‘pass on their genes, popularly called bansha thamnu in Nepali.

Furthermore, the Nepal Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) 2011 suggests that a boy child has better access to vaccination and medication than a girl child, that the rate of anaemia is higher in females of all ages, and the amount of basic nutrients given to daughters is lower.

It is true that the high number of male out-migration, particularly from the age groups 15-24 and 25-34, is directly affecting the fertility rate. In fact, this is the primary cause behind the fall in the growth rate seen in the 2011 census compared to 2001. However, it is not entirely true that the sex ratio of Nepal has gone down to 94.2, as suggested by the census. Not including labour migrants, a group that is overwhelmingly dominated by young males, only distorts the data. While it is clear that Nepalis still do not prefer having a girl child, the distortion by the census and the understanding of authorities are exposed to a lot of criticism. Nepali policymakers have to work a lot harder than this to end gender disparity.

Sharma is a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, Kathmandu and his twitter handle is @chaupaari

Published on: 7 October 2014 | The Kathmandu Post


Back to list