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A Statistical Sketch of Iran's Rural population

Iqtisad-e Keshavarzi va Towse'eh,
Journal of Agricultural Economic Studies (Quarterly)
Special issue on population and labor force
Winter 1995,
By: Dr. S. R. Moieni


The rural population of Iran had an average growth rate of 1.7 percent per annum between the years 1335 to 1370 (1956-1991), a rate lower than the population growth.

The share of rural population is constantly decreasing in relation to the urban population and this is mainly due to changes in the urban and rural areas and migrations from villages to cities.


In recent years, the study of rural population, mainly in the developing countries, has assumed importance for many reasons. International population research organizations have chosen rural populations of the developing countries as the main target for birth control and family health programs. In Iran, enhancement of living standards for rural populations and improvement of their environment are highlighted in government programs. Similarly, this has been the concern of international organizations.

Since many centuries ago, rural people have undertaken the provision of food for the entire country, and presently (even in the industrialized countries where only a small percentage of the population is engaged in agricultural activities) the rural population is the main undertaker of this weighty task.

The rural population of the country and its annual growth:

The rural population of the country had an average growth of 1.7 percent per annum over 35 years during 1335-1370 (1956-1991). This rate of growth is not enough for the population to double in 35 years; at such a growth rate it requires at least a period of 39.5 years for the population to double.

The growth rate of the rural population has been less than that of the total population of the country. This difference is due to the fast growth rate of the urban population.

Though the rural population increased during 1355- 1370 and reached from nearly 13 million to 24 million, it constantly decreased in relation to the urban population (table No. 1) . The lower growth rate of the rural population compared to that of the total population of the country, and also the fall in the rate of people living in rural areas compared with urban growth rates may lead a demographer, who is not well versed in Iran's demographic issues, to think that fertility in rural areas is lower than in the urban areas, or that the death rate is very high in rural areas.

None of these ideas are correct. In fact, the fertility rate among rural women is higher than that of urban women. The age structure of an extremely young rural population in Iran, which will be referred to later on, is a clear indication of this. Studies which reveal differences in fertility indicators in urban and rural areas provide further proof.

The country's population, apart from the changes in rural and urban districts, continues to grow in its own particular way. However, the lower growth rate of the rural population and the fall in the share of people living in rural ares are related to various factors, mainly the problems arising from respective definitions.

The impact of definitions and concepts on the population growth:

Before 1365 (1986), an area with a population under 5,000 people was considered a village (except for a provincial capital). Based on this definition, a village whose population exceeded 5,000 was known as a city. Once a village is established as a city, the required changes in statistical data should take effect.

Such statistical changes should be worked out by deducting the population of such areas from rural populations on the one hand and by adding the same number to the urban population on the other. In other words, the population of a village established as a city is no longer considered a rural population and it is counted as urban. The reverse has never been the case; that is to say, no city has ever been recognized as a village even if an urban population has decreased.

According to a definition of the city, i.e. an area with a municipality, which dates back to 1365 (1986), whenever a municipality is established in a village in consideration of its requirements, that area would be recognized as a city. In this case, too, the population of such an area is deducted from the rural population and added to the urban population of the country.

As a result of such a definition, these changes should reduce the pace of the rural population growth and tend to expedite the rising number of the urban population and it will have impact on the average growth of the country's population.

Table No. 1

The population of the country, annual growth rate and percentage of the rural population

year The country's annual population growth   The rural annual population growth   The urban annual pop.   The rural pop.
  million percent million percent million percent percentage
1956 18.9 --- 11.0 --- 5.9 ---- 68.6
1966 25.8 2.8 16.0 1.6 9.8 5.1 60.6
1976 33.7 3.0 17.8 1.5 15.9 4.9 51.6
1986 49.4 3.9 11.6 1.1 26.8 5.4 25.7
1991 55.8 2.4 12.0 1.1 31.8 3.4 21.0

Migration and its directions:

Migration is a factor that explains the lower growth rate of the rural population in relation to that of the urban population . In terms of numbers and ratio, foreign migration seem insignificant in comparison with domestic migration. The main factor which causes the domestic population imbalance is the movement of people between cities and villages.

These movements have four directions: migration from a city to another city, from a village to a city, from a city to a village, and from one village to Another. During 1365- 1370 (1986 - 1991), these movements worked to the advantage of the urban areas in real terms. In 1365 (1986), over five million people and in 1370 (1991), more than six million city dwellers were born either in other cities or in other villages. Rural migrants who settled in urban populations were 3.8 million in 1365 (1986) and 5.1 million in (1370) 1991.

The age - gender structure of the country's rural population:

In view of the comparative gender structure, except for the census of 1365 (1986) which shows a balance between rural males and females of the three main age groups -- i.e. 0-14, 15-64, and 65 years and over M-^W there are discrepancies in the gender ratio of the respective age groups in other censuses.

Different analysis of the substance of the age - gender statistical data prove that the data concerning rural areas are less reliable in comparison with the respective data collected from the urban areas in various censuses. The main reasons for this are illiteracy, lack of knowledge and ignorance among the villagers concerning their true age.

In 1370 (1991), the gender ratio of 65+ age group reached 137. In other words, for every 100 females 65 years and over there were 137 males in the same age group . There is no justification for the probability that during 1365-1370 (1988-1991) the death-rate among 65+ females would have overtaken that of the males, and so the number of the former could not have fallen for such a reason. Therefore, the rising number of males in relation to the females could have been caused by other factors such as higher literacy of male villagers, declaring their age more precisely, and cultural factors such as unwillingness of some villagers to declare the identities of elder women.

Abundance of young people is among other statistical features of the rural population. In demographic studies, when the ratio of those in the under 15 age group is high (near 40 percent and more), the population is then considered to be young, as regards its age structure. The youngness of a population is an indication of high fertility.

In an age structure of this kind, the share of 65+ age group in the population is minor. Since 1355 (1976), this ratio has been less than 4 percent of the total population in rural areas, and during the period between two censuses before 1355 (1976), this ratio hardly exceeded 4 percent. During 1345-1365 (1966-1986), the ratio of this age group hovered around 48 percent. Except for a little decrease observed in the ratio of the age-group of those under 15 in 1370 (1991), the ratio of other age gropes do not indicate any changes in the age structure of the country's rural population. Only a continuation of the decrease in the share of those under 15 in 1365 (1986) could be taken as an indication of major changes in the structure of the country's rural population in the future. (table No. 2)

Table No. 2

Percentage distribution of the country's rural population in three large age - groups

year total 0-14 years of age 15-64 years of age 65years and over
1956 (1335) 100.0 43.1 52.7 4.2
1966 (1345) 100.0 47.4 48.5 4.1
1976 (1355) 100.0 47.7 48.6 3.7
1986 (1365) 100.0 48.6 48.2 3.2
1991 (1370) 100.0 46.9 49.4 3.7

Education in rural areas: One of the crucial issues faced by national planners, especially in the rural areas, is literacy. Illiteracy and inadequate literacy, cause many problems. The question of literacy will be discussed here from different statistical angles. One relevant indicator is the ratio of literate people in each household.

These ratios show the percentage of the households which hold at least one literate person. The percentage of households in which there are no literate persons is thus specified. Another indicator for evaluation of the changes in literacy is school coverage which shows the ratio of people in a particular age-group who go to school. Thus, people of the respective age group who do not go to school are not under the coverage of the education system.

The last indicator is the literacy rate which specifies the ratio of literate people in a society or shows the ratio of literate persons in the concerned age group.

In the period 1335-1370 (1956-1991), first, the negative points and then many positive points are observed in the pre-mentioned indicators.

The study of illiteracy in the rural population shows that the extent of illiteracy rises in higher age-groups. Illiteracy is caused by inefficient educational coverage. A historical study of illiteracy shows that in earlier periods, the educational system used to be less efficient. As a result of a weak educational system in 1335 (1956), there was not a single literate person in over 82 percent of rural households. This ratio has changed in the course of time. However, despite the efforts made by different organizations, in 1370 (1991), still 15.2 percent of the country's rural households lacked the advantage of having even a single literate person among them. (Table No. 3)

Table No.3

The ratio of the country's rural households holding at least one literate person

Year Total At least one literate person Without a literate person
1965 (1335) 100.0 17.3 82.7
1966 (1345) ------- ----- -----
1976 (1355) 100.0 58.2 41.8
1986 (1365) 100.0 74.8 25.2
1991 (1370) 100.0 84.8 15.2

The present literacy rates are the result of inefficient educational programs of the past decades. The reason why half the population of those 15 and over in rural areas was illiterate in 1370 (1991), is the insufficient educational coverage of the school-age rural population from 1361 (1982) and particularly the period before that date.

There are positive points to be found in the changing literacy trend as well. The slow increase in the literacy rate of the population of those 15 and over during 1335-1355 (1956-1976) is an indication of inefficiency of the respective programs. But then its accelerated growth during 1355 -1370 (1976 - 1991), is indicative of successful educational programs of recent years in this respect. (Table No. 4)

Statistical studies concerning rural literacy indicate successful educational programs carried out in recent years.

Table No. 4

Literacy rate of the rural population of those 6 and over and of 15 and over

Year Men and women Men Women The 15 + population
1956 (1335) 6.0 5.0    
1966 (1345) 15.1 9.5    
1976 (1355) 30.5 43.6 17.3 16.8
1969 (1365) 48.0 59.9 36.3 43.6
1991 (1370) 63.7 72.6 54.2 50.3

the population of those 7 and over

Table No. 5

School coverage of the country's rural population in three age-groups

Year 6-9 years of age 10-14 years of age 15-19 years of age
1956 (1335)   12.1 8.7
1966 (1345) 30.1 28.7 7.3
1976 (1355) 58.3 50.3 15.4
1969 (1365) 72.4 61.4 20.3
1991 (1370) 88.4 77.2 34.8

7-9 years of age

The significance of this success lies in the fact that the speedy growth of literacy rate in recent years has occurred the rapid rise in the population of school-age children. An all-inclusive school system covering nearly 100 percent of the school-age population will remove illiteracy totally in a few decades.

The fact that over 11 per cent of the rural children were not under school coverage in 1370 (1991), is a warning that some degree of illiteracy will remain in existence in the future. (see Table 5) Employment, unemployment and distribution of the rural working population in three major fields of activity (sectors):

In the rural districts of the country , the number of employed people reached from 4.1 million in 1335 (1956 ), to 5.4 million in 1370 (1991). The working segment of the population increased steadily in this period.

Therefore, the number of the working men increased gradually in the course of time, whereas the number of employed rural women, which went upward until 1355 (1976), slumped in 1365 (1986). The slump was not compensated even 15 years later in 1370 (1991) it has not yet reached its previous 1355 (1976) level . In other words, the share of the rural working women in helping the household income has decreased since 1355 (1976). (Table 6)

Table No. 6

Employed rural population by gender (1000 persons)

Year Men and Women Men Women
1956 (1335) 4100 3713 387
1966 (1345) 4248 3645 603
1976 (1355) 46816 3934 752
1986 (1365) 5013 4558 455
1991 (1370) 5404 4930 477

Those 6 years of age and over

In work force studies, the total for the number of employed people and those who are unemployed but are searching for a job, is known as the work force population. The ratio of the employed to the total work force is known as the rate of employment, and the ratio of the jobless people, who are looking for a job, to the same population is considered as the rate of unemployment.

Accordingly, the unemployment rate of the rural population fluctuated from nearly 12 percent to a little above 14 percent during 1345 - 1370 (1966 - 1991). The fluctuations in the unemployment rate of men was far less than that of women during the same period. The gradual decrease in the unemployment rate of men is indicative of their greater opportunity in the labor market.

Though the absolute number of working women is far less than that of men, the unemployment rate for women has been high since 1355 (1976). That is to say, rural women have enjoyed far less opportunities for work in the labor market; in other words, rural women have brought greater pressure on the labor market. (Table No. 7)

Table No. 7

Employment and unemployment rates of rural population by gender

unemployment rate

year Employment rate men and women men Women
1966 (1345) 88.2 11.8 11.8 0.4
1976 (1355) 85.8 14.1 12.5 21.6
1986 (1365) 87.1 12.8 12.0 20.2
1991 (1370) 87.9 12.1 10.2 28.3

Based on an employment pattern which is prevailing in developing countries, most people who live in the villages are engaged in agriculture. Though the share of the working people in the agricultural sector in rural areas has shown a downward trend in the course of time, over half of the rural populations are still working in the agricultural sector.

The decrease in the number of working people in the agricultural sector has been to the benefit of two sectors: industry and services. The growing number of the rural working people in the services sector has been significant. The industrial sector has attracted a great part of the working people since 1355 (1976), though it slumped in 1365 (1986).

The rural industrial sector has especially laid off a major part of working women since 1355 (1976). The fall in the absolute number of working women in 1365 (1986), which was mentioned before, was greatly due to the layoffs of the rural working women in the industrial sector. (Table No. 8)

Distribution of employed rural population by sector

Major fields of activity (sectors)   1335 1345 1355 1365 1370
  Men and women 75.8 69.9 58.9 58.0 51.9
Agriculture Men 80.0 76.8 64.6 56.9 58.8
  Women 35.0 32.1 28.9 54.2 31.6
  Men and women 12.6 19.1 30.9 20.8 22.5
Industry Men 8.4 12.1 24.2 19.0 20.4
  Women 52.9 61.4 66.3 34.4 44.7
  Men and women 11.6 11.0 10.0 21.2 25.6
Services Men 11.6 11.7 11.2 24.1 25.8
  Women 12.1 6.5 4.8 11.4 23.7

The role of rural women as head of households is also worth mentioning.Over 230,000 households had female heads during 1355-70 (1976-1991). Considering 3.4 million rural households in 1355 (1976) and 4.2 million in 1991 (1370), the ratio of households with female heads were 7 percent and 5.6 percent respectively. The ratio of women as household heads increase in higher age groups. Nearly one-fourth of those 65 years and over, lived in single person households in 1355 (1976).

The study of the rural population of Iran on the basis of statistical data has a much greater scope than this statistical extract. The variety of statistical data and those derived from censuses, in particular, makes possible the study of the country's rural population from various angles.

Briefly, in a statistical sketch of the rural population of Iran, the following points are important: Definitions have different impacts on the physical area of every population. As a result , the growth rate of the rural population despite its high fertility rate, seems to be lower than that of the urban population.

Outward migrations are also among the factors which decrease the ratio of the rural to the urban population. The age-structure of the rural population is an extremely young structure of its kind. The rate of literacy, unlike past decades, has had an accelerated growth over recent years.

In order to eliminate illiteracy, an all-inclusive schooling system is a must. Though the absolute number of the employed and unemployed women (who are in search of work) is far less than that of the men, yet the unemployment rate of rural woman is considerable. The industrial sector laid off a great number of the rural working women shortly before the recent decade.

Providing job opportunities for rural women who are looking for jobs is a must. The ratio of elderly women who as a result of either migration of other household members or the loss of their husbands, are living alone in the villages is worthy of attention. And lastly, various welfare programs in villages would reduce the trend of migration to the cities.


1) Current population census (1370), the results of the country's general census, published in 1372 (1993), Tehran, Plan and Budget Organization, Iran Statistics Center.

2) Detailed results of the country's general population and housing census of 1365 (1986), published 1367, Tehran - Plan and Budget Organization, Iran Statistics Center.

3) General population and housing census of 1355 (1976), No. 186. published 1359 (1980), Tehran, Plan and Budget Organization, Iran Statistics Center.

4) General population and housing census of 1345 (1965), Vol. 168, published 1346 (1966), Tehran, Plan and Budget Organization, Iran Statistics Center.

5) Summary report of the country's general census of 1335 (1956), Vol. 2, Tehran, The Ministry of Interior, general statistics.

6) United Nation's Annual Report, 1991.