Karachi’s Demographic Change and its Social Repercussions

The most important statistics in a population census are related to the social indicators of the age group of between 15 and 24. This is because this age group represents both the present and the future and the invariable conflict that takes place between the two.

In the 1981 Census, 37.54 percent of women and 13.14 percent of men in this age group were married and 66.7 percent men and 62.32 percent women in this age group were literate. If we project the trends established between 1981 and the 1998 Census, then less than 20 percent women and 6 percent men in this age group are married today. In addition, literacy in this age group is over 84 percent, with women having a slight edge over the men, not only in literacy but also in educational attainment trends. So, for the first time in Karachi’s history, this age group that is both our present and future, consists of an overwhelming majority of unmarried and literate adolescents and young people. This in itself is enough to change family structures and gender relations. Statistics, observation and interviews of 100 couples in public spaces and 50 older men and women who have children in their teens and twenties, give us some indication of this change and the reasons for it. All the persons interviewed belong to the lower or lower middle income groups.

According to the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020 Survey, 89 percent of families in Karachi are nuclear. In the 1989 Survey the figure was 54 percent. In the interviews with the older generation there is general agreement that the break-up of the extended or joint family is the most important change that has taken or is taking place in their society. They also feel that this break-up has played a major role in changing values and behaviour patterns. The most important reason given for the break-up of the extended family is that previously, one family earned and the others were dependents. Today, it is no longer possible to survive on one person’s earnings. Given the fact that each family now contains a number of earning members, the patriarchal family structure cannot survive. The member who earns the most resents sharing it with the others and so the family splits.

Working women have also adversely affected the extended family with quarrels and disputes around family honour and traditional values. Much of these disputes are generated as a result of the conservative extended family and/or neighbourhood peer pressure. Interviews also suggest that the break-up of the extended family, in most cases, provides greater freedom to working women.

The majority of the older generation also mentioned the difficulty of finding marriage partners for their children in their own clans and extended families. One of the reasons given for this is that they no longer live in clan based homogenous neighbourhoods. Many clan members have moved up the social ladder and disconnected with the clan and its neighbourhood. With their departure, clan ties have weakened and clan organisations no longer function. Consequently, marriages are increasingly taking place, not only outside the clan but also outside of the neighbourhood. This further fragments the extended family structure. Inter ethnic marriages, which were becoming increasingly common a decade ago, are now rare due to the political situation in Karachi.

Interviews with the young couples and the older generation give interesting reasons (apart from the necessity of women to work) for the greater freedoms that the youth enjoy today, in spite of Karachi’s conflicts and security related issues. Many interviewees lived far away from their father’s place of work. He left early and came back late due to distance and time related factors. As a result, he had almost no hold or interest in family matters. Another reason cited was congestion in the housing unit. In many cases, ten to twelve persons live in a two room house or apartment. This keeps family members away and is tolerated by the mother as it eases the situation in the house. However, this creates enormous problems for young married couples. The cause of congestion is the increase in family size which cannot be accommodated elsewhere due to the unaffordable prices of land and real estate. Among the other reasons given were that since most family members work long hours outside the home, everyone is busy and there is little interaction.

During one of the discussions, it was also mentioned that people were not conscious of the changes that have taken place and as a result are a bit confused. For instance, one person reported how, after much soul searching and violence, he had agreed to let his daughter marry out of his caste, and how he was terrified of what the reaction of his clan would be. However, there was no reaction except for a few “aunties” being sarcastic; his peers did not particularly care. He summed up the situation by saying “The traditions are gone but we do not know it, because we do not discuss these things out of fear.”

Older residents agreed that an increasing number of youth are ‘undisciplined’. One of the reasons given for this is that parents have become more liberal because of a ‘change in the times’. Other reasons given are unemployment and the terrible state of public education and its uselessness. Skills are not available for the jobs being offered by the market and the institutions to provide the skills are almost non-existent. The few that do exist are unaffordable for the lower and even for the lower middle income groups.

The above discussion points to the fact that, if left to itself, we will have a very different society in Karachi in the next decade through a process of conflict and negotiations. For the older and the younger generations involved in this process, it will be a painful experience. To consolidate the changes in a less difficult and painful way, an understanding between tradition and the new social reality is important. This can only happen through the development of an appropriate culture which promotes new societal values that reflect the changing social and physical realities of our city. This means a change in the curriculum of educational institutions and also points to the need for corresponding changes in city planning priorities and programmes, especially those related to entertainment, recreation and cultural activity. How this is to be done and by whom has yet to be discussed. However, one thing is clear that such a discussion has to be informed through independent research into the new urban social reality.

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