6 billion people and a countertrend

Literate women in India's Kerala help hold population growth nearly

As the world hypothetically tops 6 billion people today, about 4.8 billion of them live in developing countries. India alone reached 1 billion last August and is expected to pass China as the world's most populous nation within 50 years.

Yet in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, something remarkably different is happening. In this place of palm-tree thickets, jasmine scents, and a library in every town, the population growth rate is nearly flat.

Partly Kerala's rate is due to a history of Christian missionary schooling for all castes, and partly to a progressivist communist government that since 1957 has pushed land reform and education as an answer to every ill.

But mainly, say experts, it is a self-conscious awareness of the value and role of women, and their rights within the family - even in rural areas, where women usually have the least power.

Talk to almost any young woman here, single or married, and the answer is the same: "If you have too many kids, you can't spend enough time educating them," says A. Kumari, who will be wedded on Oct. 20. "I don't want a big family."

"I like children but I only want two," says N.P. Asa, a young lawyer whose parents are coconut and nutmeg farmers. "The man I marry will understand this."

Such views explain why Kerala in 1999 has achieved a birth rate that the World Health Organization set for it years ago as a target for 2015.

The contrast with much of India could not be greater. In the feudal northern state of Rajasthan, for example, where village girls are often married at age 14, the birth rate is about six children per family. In Kerala, where women now marry in their 20s, the birth rate is about 2.4. The literacy rate for Rajasthan village girls is less than 10 percent according the United Nations. In Kerala, which educates all classes and castes, about 85 percent of even village girls can read and write, the highest rate in India; it is not unusual to see women laborers reading newspapers on the porch before they head to the fields.

Kerala also has the lowest rates of female infanticide in India, and today women here outnumber men by a factor of roughly 10 to 7.

Kerala women activists point to many problems in the state - rising prostitution, ongoing violence against women, and a general conservatism that limits their mobility. Women, for example, (as in many parts of India) will not freely travel outside after dark.

Yet the "culture of learning" has also led to an anomalous number of "firsts" in India among Kerala women: the first woman Indian Supreme Court justice, the first female head of the stock market, the first state chief engineer, the first surgeon general, the first female international literary figure (Arundhati Roy).

In commercial centers like New Delhi and Bombay, moreover, employers advertise for Kerala women - their skill levels and independence are highly valued. Unusually for India as well, Kerala women are willing to travel to distant cities to work, whether or not they are married.

Change the culture, or deliver the goods?

For years, debates on population control have swung between "cultural" and "delivery" factors. Is it more important to focus on education, infrastructure, and building a social agreement of low growth? Or should emphasis be on contraceptive distribution, family-planning clinics, and word-of-mouth programs?

"In 1974, people were saying 'Development is the best contraceptive,' and even today you have leaders saying that just educating women is enough," says Michael Vlassof, a demographer with the UN Population Fund in New Delhi. "Today we know that strategy by itself works only very slowly. If a woman has to slog through muddy roads all day to get contraceptives, it doesn't matter how much education she has."

In some ways, Kerala is an example of both factors at work. The isolated coastal state has a long history of trade and interaction with African and European cultures and thinking. There is an in-built assumption of progress and openness. The state is 20 percent Muslim, 20 percent Christian, and 60 percent Hindu. Last year a Muslim girl, for the first time, scored the highest of all students on the state high school exam.

"In north India, there is a strong belief in fate, and the passive acceptance of fate, that you don't find here," says Ignatius Gonsalves, bureau chief of the state newspaper Malayala Manoram.

Mr. Gonsalves, whose ancestors were Portuguese missionaries, says in Kerala "People have dreams and believe they can achieve them - it is an atmosphere of progress and cultural diversity. Our last communal riot was in the early 1970s." (Muslim-Hindu riots were common during much of the 1990s, and the past 15 months have seen a rise of Hindu-fundamentalist violence against Christians in India.)

In the 1960s, when the local communist government decided early to make population an issue, partly to create an educated class for economic value, there was an agreement to widely distribute contraceptives. The road system in Kerala was helpful; most people here live on the narrow stretch of land between the coast and the Western Ghat mountains. Most villages, also part of the land reforms of the 1950s, have populations of about 5,000, and unlike smaller villages in other parts of India, have post offices, schools, and other municipal buildings.

Women activists' role

The low-growth program was widely successful, appealing to the state's "rationalist" traditions: If Kerala goes the way of the rest of India, it will be poorer and poorer, and the living standard will fall.

"Look, everyone believes that now," says Gonsalves. "It has been internalized, and today no one has to run around preaching about population."

At about the same time, women activists also took up the challenge. Many women over 50 here have three to five children. But a word-of-mouth campaign, and free health services, changed the dynamics. Today, most women, particularly if their husbands don't use condoms, elect sterilization after the second or third child. Both women and men in Kerala are offered a small sum for being sterilized, though the procedure is voluntary. A forced sterilization program for men in the late 1970s, under the sway of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's son Sanjay, is considered to be one of modern India's darkest hours.

Typical of the Keralite female education is a learning festival held each semester at the women's St. Teresa's College. Women age 15 to 22 would compete for the best performance, art, or essay on subjects such as population growth, women's exploitation, female infanticide, pollution, and resource depletion in India.

"One of our biggest areas of real learning are the youth festivals that take up issues of women, antidrug use, and child labor," says Maggie Artchasery, a quick-witted English instructor at St. Teresa's, which has been one of the most respected women's colleges in Cochin since it was founded in the early 1920s. About 20 percent of St. Teresa's students are tribals or Dalits ("untouchables"), about 20 percent are Christians, and the rest tend to be Hindus of other castes.

"Keralites as a whole tend to be people who cross borders and boundaries and come home with a very wide perspective," says Ms. Artchasery. "We open up and go around the world, and bring home the lessons we've learned. It's one of the reasons the women here are more aware."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.