Remobilizing the gender and fertility connection

Publication Subtitle

The case for examining the impact of fertility control and fertility declines on gender equality

Publication year


Publication Author

Anju Malhotra

Increasingly, research and policy attention is turning to the consequences of fertility declines in a large number of countries, with issues on the agenda including aging, age structures, economic growth rates, children’s well-being and their access to investments and resources. However, there has been little research on the impact of demographic change on gender relations. The question—can fertility declines and fertility control transform gender systems and empower women—has not been coherently posed, conceptualized or tested for developing countries. It may well be one of the most important questions of our times, fundamentally affecting the lives, options, challenges, and concerns of women and men over the next several decades.

In this paper, I argue that attention to the gender implications of declining fertility levels needs to be on the population agenda as these may signify some of the most profound and transformative shifts shaping developing societies in recent history. Drawing from various disciplines, I describe the pathways through which we might expect fertility decline and control to act as a lever for more equal gender relations. I then propose four conditions that are likely to determine the extent to which gender systems may be changed: childbearing is valued less and therefore motivation to subjugate women has decreased; sexuality is distinguished from procreation; women allocate less time to childbearing and childrearing; and, contraception provides women opportunity to balance reproductive and non-reproductive goals. Finally, I provide a conceptual framework to guide future research on this topic.

This research is part of the Fertility & Empowerment Network Working Paper Series, which is examining whether and to what extent increasingly smaller family sizes in lower and middle income countries have empowered women or resulted in fundamental transformations in inequitable gender systems.