Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Alarm on the census

The results of Egypt’s 2017 census expose where government priorities should lie, writes Niveen Wahish


Egypt's population

Classrooms in Egyptian state schools are known for being crowded. While an average classroom could house around 30 pupils in some places around the world, some classrooms in Egypt take 60 students per class or more.

Egypt’s 2017 census results released this week show that this situation could get worse in coming years if the government does not prepare for it. Thirteen million people in Egypt’s population are currently below five years of age, the census showed — a huge number of children for whom the government must provide education and health services, Hala Youssef, a former minister of population, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Egypt’s population has reached around 104 million, according to the census, an estimated 10 million of whom live abroad. The census is carried out every 10 years by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), most recently in 2006.

Egypt's population in figurfes

Since then Egypt’s population has been growing in leaps and bounds. Over the past 10 years 22 million people have been added to the population, whereas the prior decade saw an addition of 13 million only.

Not only are youngsters a huge group in the population, but so are the elderly, leading to a dependency ratio of around 60 per cent, Youssef said. This means that 40 per cent of the population works to support the rest, with the latter including individuals below 15 and above 65.

This means that the number of new-borns has increased and that citizens are living longer, entailing not only increasing resources for youth but also for the elderly who need more healthcare. The only way to curb the growth of the dependency ratio is to limit new-born children, Youssef said.

The government must use these numbers to plan its future needs for services, she added.

The census also revealed some of the features of the population, among them an illiteracy rate of around 26 per cent, representing around 18 million people. While this is still high, Abu Bakr Al-Guindi, the head of CAPMAS, said, it is an improvement on the 2006 census which showed illiteracy at 29 per cent.

Of the illiterate, 5.7 million are aged 10 to 34, the census showed. “This is a shocking number,” said Cairo University professor of economics Heba Al-Leithy. “This is a group born during the Mubarak era,” she said. “The rest of the world is talking about computer literacy, and we still cannot even address reading and writing,” she added.

Neighbouring countries in the region such as Tunisia and Jordan are far ahead of Egypt in literacy rates, Al-Leithy said. “If Egypt is to develop economically, the issue of education must be addressed,” she commented.

The illiteracy rate is especially high in rural areas and among women, Youssef added. The government needs to invest in illiteracy programmes targeted at school dropouts and young women who will one day be responsible for raising children of their own, she said.

The census showed that around 29 million people either did not go to school or dropped out from school.

The census also brought out other striking numbers: that two million families share a bathroom and 40,000 families do not have a bathroom at all. This reflects the extent of poverty in the country, especially after the economic reforms of the past year, said Al-Leithy.

Egypt’s poverty rate has increased in recent years from around 25 per cent to 27.8 per cent. This figure increases to around 50 per cent in some areas of Upper Egypt, Al-Guindi said.

There are few job opportunities in rural areas, especially in Upper Egypt, Al-Leithy said, explaining that this causes migration to large cities like Cairo and Alexandria where there are more economic opportunities. Cairo alone houses around nine million people, followed by Giza with eight million.

Most of these people move into informal housing areas, she added, which can leave much to be desired and cause social problems. “The government must focus on developing opportunities in Upper Egypt to prevent migration,” she said.

Al-Leithy said the government needed to revaluate its priorities in the wake of the census findings. Over the past couple of years, the government has focused on developing infrastructure and mega-projects, but with limited resources it must prioritise investment in areas such as education, she said.

Another figure highlighted by the census was the size of the youth population. Young people in the Arab world are aged between 15 and 34, whereas worldwide they are aged between 15 and 24. This is attributed to economic conditions and the delay of young people in forming families, Al-Guindi explained.

Young people needed jobs, Youssef said, adding that education must serve the needs of the business community to enable them to find such jobs. There needed to be greater investment in education and in quality as well as quantity.

The private sector and NGOs had a role to play in this, Youssef said, explaining that “boosting skills is needed to increase the productive capacity of the economy to promote growth.”

Another important figure in the census was the 100,000 marriages of girls below 18 years of age, the legal age for marriage. While the figure is not very high, Youssef said it was still significant.

She pointed out that marriage before the legal age could mean that subsequent children are not documented. Moreover, girls at such a young age may be school dropouts, which in turn may deprive them of decent jobs. “This is a dangerous indicator for the social and economic future of the country,” Youssef concluded.

The 2014 strategy to prevent underage marriage must be revisited, Youssef added, explaining that the government needed to increase awareness of the dangers of underage marriages through educational, media or cultural channels.

Youssef said that the attention paid to it by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had shown the importance of the census and that more effort would be exerted in the needed areas.

“We have to increase awareness of the importance of educating women,” she said, adding that this must be directed at both men and women since both were crucial to the decision to send girls to school.

Schools also must be close to homes and they must be safe.

Youssef said that efforts should be made to look at the census results and compare them against existing policies to find out how to fill gaps and make projections. The census had shown that there were many problems to be addressed. “The government has done a lot for infrastructure, but it needs to do more for human capital,” she said.

The 2017 census was the first to be carried out electronically, employing some 40,000 workers. The advantage of an electronic census means that the results are ready earlier. Previously they were announced two years after the census was carried out.

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