Yin and Yang: Fertility decline and the rise of women

Tue, 10/30/2012

The ICRW-led Fertility Empowerment Network has just released the latest three installments of its 12-part series of working papers exploring the transformative power of fertility decline around the world. Find out how lower birth rates in China and beyond are positively impacting women’s lives.

A network of academic and applied researchers led by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has released three new working papers in a 12-study series that explores how dramatic fertility declines over the last 40 years have affected women’s lives and gender relations in low- and middle-income countries.

The group, called the Fertility & Empowerment Network, is testing the following important questions: Does demographic change – specifically, having smaller families – alter women’s well-being and the gender norms in a society? Are women in developing countries becoming more empowered – that is, are they able to exercise control over strategic life choices – as they gain greater access to birth control and have fewer children – and if so, how? Have fertility declines helped create more equitable relationships and opportunities for women?

The latest papers provide a range of new evidence regarding the impact of fertility decline on women’s well-being and empowerment. Two of them, A Macro-level Exploration of the Links between Fertility Decline and Gender Equality, Lee-Rife, et al, and Fertility Decline, Women’s Well-being, and Gender Gaps in Well-being in Poor Countries, Yount, et al, look at the effects of fertility decline across a wide range of countries. The third, Fertility Decline and Women’s Empowerment in China, Wu, et al, focuses on China, a country that has experienced one of the most remarkable fertility declines in the last few decades.

Wu et al found that in China women with fewer children do less housework and tend to be more satisfied with their status within family as compared to women with more children, and that these associations have grown more significant over time. In addition, they found that girls who grow up in households with fewer siblings (smaller families) tend to stay in school longer and continue on to improved chances of occupational attainment as compared to girls with more brothers and sisters.

Yount et al’s country-level study indicates that girls – not only women – benefit from fertility decline. The trend is linked to improved school attendance, nutritional status and access to vaccinations against disease. However, the relative gains to girls are not as great as they are for boys. But interestingly, the researchers found that the relative gains for girls’ wellbeing outstrip those of boys when a woman experiences her first birth at a relatively higher age.

Lee-Rife et al also use country-level data to compare the timing of fertility decline with relative gains to women’s labor force participation and educational attainment. Their findings demonstrate that fertility decline often precedes narrowing gendered gaps in these outcomes.

Additional working papers will be released soon, which will add to the complex understanding of if and how women’s lives have benefitted from fertility change in other places around the world, including Iran, Southern India, South Africa and the Philippines.

The first three papers were posted earlier this year on the eve of the May 3-5 annual Population Association of America conference in San Francisco. They can be downloaded here:

Kirsten Stoebenau is gender and population specialist who focuses on women’s reproductive and sexual health.

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