Women's Status and Demographic Behavior

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Research on many aspects of population change in the contemporary world has highlighted the significance of relationships between women's status and demographic behavior. In particular, knowledge of these relationships has been important in understanding demographic transition, increasing the complexity of the classical depiction in which fertility decline is seen as a natural outcome of mortality decline and economic development. Especially in conditions where economic growth is slow or stagnant, considerations of women's status and autonomy have yielded key insights into trends in health and fertility.

Conceptual and Methodological Issues

Kingsley Davis, an influential theorist of social and demographic change, has argued that in contemporary high-fertility societies the status of women is an important factor influencing demographic change, whereas in Western societies that have experienced demographic transition gender equality might well have been a consequence (although incidental) of low fertility. The principal cultural anchor for persistently high levels of fertility, according to Davis, is a complex of institutional factors with their accompanying attitudes and norms that determine women's status. The most important of these factors are patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal marriage and kinship systems in which the filial bond dominates the marital bond in family organization and kinship and family are the principal bases of social organization; a young age at marriage and higher proportions married, and thus early exposure to intercourse; and taboos on the free mixing of the sexes and consequent poor interspousal communication, particularly with regard to sexual behavior, resulting in relatively little use of contraception.

The most important effect of such institutional patterns is the subordination of women: their seclusion; lack of autonomy in making decisions, including decisions pertaining to their fertility; and the denial to them of opportunities for formal education and economic independence, opportunities that can enhance their ability to interact with the world out-side the home, with attendant gains in knowledge and self-confidence.

By and large demographers agree that strongly patriarchal systems in which women have a high degree of economic dependence on men and experience social subordination through patrilocal exogamy are associated with high fertility. They are less agreed on the direction of the underlying cause-effect relationships, if any exist, and how such relationships might vary in different cultural contexts.

Women's status can be seen as being embedded in a gender system–the complex of roles, rights, and statuses that surround being male and female in a particular society or culture. Gender systems embody institutionalized inequality in power, autonomy, and well-being between male and female members, typically to the disadvantage of females. They are reinforced by state, community, family, and kin and perpetuated by socializing new generations into behaving in accordance with the dominant gender norms. In this manner, gender systems affect individual behavior, including behavior bearing on fertility.

Women's Status and Demographic Outcomes

Empirical investigations of the relationship between women's status and demographic outcomes, however, have mostly taken a narrower approach, focusing on a few variables that plausibly are linked to women's status. The most significant of these variables are:

  • the perceived advantages of high fertility resulting from the denial to women of other sources of cultural and economic worth;
  • son preference, both as a security measure, reflecting women's concern to protect themselves against the risks inherent in their low status and economic dependence on husband, and as a religious or social duty toward the husband's lineage;
  • female education, which confers self-esteem and self-confidence, access to new information, and a greater propensity to adopt innovative behavior;
  • women's autonomy, indicated by mobility outside the home and participation in decision making in the household;
  • women's economic worth, indicated by ownership of property and participation in the labor force;
  • women's health-care-seeking behavior for themselves and their children; and
  • marriage and kinship systems (age at marriage, social support systems, etc.).

The fertility-related variables generally considered in these studies are age at marriage, use of modern contraception, age at termination of childbearing, attitudes toward birth control, and number of children (and number of sons and daughters separately) desired; an indicator of child health and mortality is female disadvantage in survival.

Social demographic analysis has found strong links between women's status and their demographic behavior. Discrimination against women appears to be the root cause of much of the high fertility and female disadvantage in survival, with regional variations reflecting differences in cultural systems. (Dis-advantage in survival is sometimes manifest in higher female than male age-specific mortality rates; more commonly, it is seen in female survival rates that are higher than male survival rates but by less than would be expected in the absence of gender discrimination.)

Conventional demographic survey research on this topic often produces ambiguous results, perhaps because of weaknesses in the proxy variables typically used in the analysis or because gender inequality cannot be adequately captured by a single quantitative indicator. Broad generalizations on cause-effect relationships have also been confounded by the different levels at which influences work: On the one hand, the sphere of individual actions affecting fertility and child mortality, and on the other, the macro level at which cultural configurations of women's status are generally conceptualized. More recent studies have attempted to work with direct indicators of women's autonomy (freedom of movement, participation in household decision-making), their empowerment (sense of self, ability to negotiate with agents outside the domestic sphere), and their control over material resources (economic security, property rights, inheritance rights).

Illustrative Findings

Illustrative findings on this topic frequently come from studies in South Asia, a region characterized by women's low status and moderate or high fertility. The findings point to women's economic activity, education, and mobility/autonomy as factors affecting fertility, although these variables may well behave differently in different circumstances.

The link between female labor force participation and child survival is well established. Women who engage in economic activity tend to provide better chances for the survival of their female offspring than do women with no wage income. The precise reason working women seek as prompt health care for daughters as for sons remains unclear. Possible explanations may lie in the effect of particular agricultural regimes, such as southern Indian and Southeast Asian rice cultivation, in enhancing women's economic worth; women's culturally sanctioned greater economic independence, as in Africa; or their greater mobility and sense of self-worth. Very likely, there is a combination of several factors.

There is no conclusive evidence that gender bias in child survival is lower among poor households. Nevertheless, landless households are believed to show less discrimination against girls.

The relative female disadvantage in infant survival appears to be greater in cultures that value female seclusion, accentuate women's economic and social dependence on men, or place a higher comparative value on sons than on daughters. The disadvantage increases with socioeconomic status as defined by caste, income, and maternal education. Gender discrimination works both through less attention given to health care for girls and, more recently, through resort to sex-selective abortion (practiced in China, South Korea, and Vietnam as well as in South Asia). Improved educational levels help women gain the independence and autonomy needed to ensure better nutrition and medical care for their children, enhancing overall child survival, but do not necessarily narrow the relative female disadvantage in regard to infant survival.

Paradoxically, education (a covariable with class and therefore improved status) may contribute to the intensification of patriarchal norms such as women's seclusion and reduced autonomy in fertility decisions in these cultures. In the long run education is probably the most potent engine of both demographic change and women's overall well-being. In this respect it would be superior to labor force participation, which among poor women entails the double burden of work outside and inside the home to the detriment of their own health. In the short run, however, education may not always be an unmixed blessing. To yield its effects in reducing fertility and lessening gender discrimination education means more than just literacy; it calls for formal schooling up to the secondary level, and for women as well as men.

Other Modernizing Influences

Demographic behavior does not respond only to broad trends in economic development and social stratification: There are other modernizing influences at work. These influences are, most notably, access to newer contraceptive technologies; diffusion of modern ideas through the mass media, especially the electronic media, and the health and educational systems; the wider availability of health services and their public information component; and the forces that lead to family nucleation among urban dwellers. Such factors have the potential to alter aspirations for self and family, in turn affecting both women's status and demographic outcomes.

The alacrity with which contraception is often resorted to, even–sometimes especially–by illiterate women when high-quality family planning services are sensitively offered, suggests that these services might have equivalent effects to female education on fertility and child survival.

The field of women's health, by bringing in other disciplinary perspectives, has contributed new insights into how gender inequalities actually affect women's fertility decisions. Research has highlighted the value of smaller-scale, qualitative methods of investigation in understanding the layers of meaning that fertility and its regulation have for women and the complex strategies that women devise to achieve some measure of control over their own bodies even when constrained by the unequal power structures that operate in both the domestic and public domains.

See also: Education; Feminist Perspectives on Population Issues; Fertility Transition, Socioeconomic Determinants of; Gender Preferences for Children.


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Radhika Ramasubban

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Women's Status and Demographic Behavior