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Female Empowerment Leads to Fewer Births

By Cameron BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 1992


BATASHI, a woman in her 30s wearing gold jewelry and a bright blue sari, stands in front of her tidy cement and packed-mud home in a village called Nabogram. She and millions of women like her in the developing world are helping to answer a question that is central to the effort to slow global population growth: Is it enough to hand a poor woman a contraceptive?

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Batashi's village, about two hours outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, is perched on earthen ridges that divide rice paddies and keep people above the flood plain during the rainy season. Most people work tiny plots of land they don't own. But Batashi's economic situation is better than average because of small loans and other assistance she has received from a private development agency called BRAC, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.

She now owns three cows, tethered in a nearby shed, that produce 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of milk every day. She also owns three bicycle rickshaws, one pulled by her husband and the other two rented to men who earn their living by pulling them.

Do the cows and the rickshaws have any bearing on Batashi's decision to use family-planning services? "Yes, family planning is easier for me," she says. Economic opportunity "gives me freedom and ... gives me power." Batashi has two sons and a daughter. "This is enough," she says, "because I want these three to be educated persons. I don't want my children to be rickshaw pullers."

Batashi's case illustrates why many population analysts now believe that "parallel efforts" and "holistic approaches" to overpopulation - that is, combining the delivery of family-planning services with programs that improve women's standing in society - are critical to slowing birthrates.

"What's clear," says Sharon Camp, senior vice president of the Population Crisis Committee in Washington, "is that if you can do good family planning and secure improvements in the status of women - legal, economic, social, and political - those things interact so powerfully that you can get declines in birthrates at breathtaking speeds. That's probably the solution to the world's population problem."

Even so, family-planning bureaucracies in many developing countries have been slow to expand beyond the traditional approach to family planning - providing contraceptives and advice on using them.

"From a program standpoint, the woman is a target to achieve demographic ends," says Saroj Pachauri, a program officer at the Ford Foundation in New Delhi. "It's not her concerns that are paramount."

Population experts have long understood the importance of "female empowerment" - a catchall term that covers women-centered health care, improvements in social and legal status, access to education and jobs, and a fairer distribution of responsibility for children between mothers and fathers.

But during the past 10 years, a growing body of evidence has verified the correlation between empowerment and reducing family size.

One of the best examples in the world is nearby in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where the fertility rate - on average, 2.3 children per woman - is one of the lowest in the developing world. One reason is a female literacy rate of 66 percent, several times the average in India's northern states, according to a United Nations report.

The other reason is the status of women. According to tradition, women inherit land in Kerala, and families pay a "bride price" to the parents of the bride, symbols, the UN Population Fund says, that women are considered an asset and not a liability. Education changes outlook

There is plenty of evidence to show that eight or more years of education for women, because it encourages later marriages and broadens a woman's outlook, results in fewer births. "With education and economic opportunities, women begin to define themselves as citizens, not just family members," says Judith Bruce, a senior associate at the Population Council, a private research group in New York. "Interacting in a wider set of relationships means having access to more objective information [on the costs a nd benefits of having more children]. It means more equality in the marital relationship."