Women's Education and Fertility Rates in Developing Countries, With Special Reference to Bangladesh

- Wardatul Akmam
Lecturer in Sociology, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh;

Ph.D. Student, University of Tsukuba, Japan

E-mail: akmam@jsrsai.envr.tsukuba.ac.jp
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 138-143.

In developing countries, overpopulation is considered to be one of the most basic causes of underdevelopment. Third world countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are now dealing with this acute problem, which tends to nullify most of the efforts to encourage development. Given this situation, the governments of these nations, along with non-government organizations and world bodies, are trying to address this problem by conducting research on the determinants of fertility in the third world countries. Fertility rates in these countries remain very high. In this paper, I point out some of the issues that are raised when one conducts research on women's education and fertility. However, before starting to discuss the relationship between women's education and fertility, I reflect briefly on the main recognized determinants of fertility. I then discuss the various intervening variables through which education of women affects fertility. Prior to drawing my conclusions, I consider the relationship between women's education and fertility that has been found in studies conducted in Bangladesh-- a country where overpopulation has been declared to be the 乪Number One Problem'.

Determinants of Fertility in Developing Countries

Following Easterlin's model, Bulatao and Lee [(1) Pp: 757-8] have viewed fertility as being determined by the supply of children, the demand for children and the material and non-material costs of fertility regulation. The supply of children is determined by natural fertility and the rate of survival of children. The former is considered to be a product of post-partum abstinence (the waiting time before resuming sexual relations and conceiving), spontaneous intrauterine mortality, age of permanent infertility, age at first marriage (or the beginning of intercourse exposure) and rates of marital disruption. The survival rates of children, on the other hand, depend on factors such as "mother's age and parity; both parents' socioeconomic status, including education and income; the adequacy of drinking water; the availability of health care and the control of disease; nutrition; and a host of other factors" [(1) P: 764].

Demand for children is affected by four principal classes of factors: "direct economic costs and benefits of children" [(1) P: 766] costs with regard to time, income and wealth, preferences and norms. Modernization has implications for all the factors mentioned above. With modernization, the costs (economic and time) of children increase, the benefits decrease and preferences and norms change. Money tends to be used for the purchase of consumer goods rather than for having and raising more children.

Other important factors that determine fertility are the material and non-material costs of regulation. Monetary costs, according to the researchers cited above, do not appear to be a significant barrier to contraceptive use, rather, access to information about contraception and the psychological costs associated with access are more important. Moreover, there is also the fear of incurring health costs (especially in case of abortion). Besides these, Bulatao and Lee [(1) P: 775] mention the importance of communication between husband and wife regarding contraception. They see this as a determinant of fertility and view it as a psychological cost.

Among the various sociocultural factors that affect demand, supply and costs of regulation are the nature of marriage and more generally the "patterns of sexual unions . . . their stability; their composition, including whether they are polygynous or monogamous and whether families are extended or nuclear; and their formation and dissolution" [(1) P: 777]. Education (in particular that of women) and residence (rural or urban) are two additional socioeconomic factors that affect fertility. However, these two factors operate through several channels, making the exact determination of their influence very difficult and allowing many possible explanations.

In addition, the mode of production (familial or industrial) is critical in determining the value of children's labour, which in turn affects the demand for children. Moreover, government policies and efforts made by governments to mobilize the mass media, to make access to information regarding contraception easier, to make contraceptive measures available, and to reduce the costs of regulation are also important [(1) P: 784].

Simmons [(2) P: 96] summarizes the effects of the individual variables considered in various research studies. He has found a strong relationship between women's education and fertility. Women's labour-force participation, sex preference, availability of family-planning services, general environment and population programmes and policies were found to have a medium effect on fertility, while infant mortality, per capita income, income distribution and preferred number of children had only a weak effect on fertility.

On the basis of a multi-variate regression analysis using data from a Punjab village (India), Sandhu [(3) P: 138] concludes that the five variables that were significantly correlated with fertility were duration of marriage, experience of child mortality, caste, household type and the preferred number of children. In this study, women's literacy, family standard of living, and even women's attitudes towards contraception do not appear to be significantly correlated with fertility. According to Sandhu [(3) P: 138], "This only means that these variables were either not really independent, and were influencing fertility through other variables or that their relationship with fertility was not linear."

Ahmad [(4) P: 14], after reviewing several studies in this field, finds that socioeconomic variables such as the literacy rate (especially that of women), per capita income, the portion of the labour force engaged in non-agricultural occupations, rates of infant mortality, life expectancy, age at first marriage, and the rate of women's participation in the labour force to be strongly associated with declines in fertility.

Education as a Determinant of Fertility

Among the various socioeconomic determinants of fertility, education, especially female education, has received considerable attention from scholars and researchers. Sharma and Ratherford [as described in Jeffery and Basu (5) P: 44] have argued that in India, "a 10 per cent increase in the female literacy rate seems to be associated with a 0.5 decline in total fertility rate" . If this were true, in order to reduce fertility, it would be necessary to "arrange for 80 per cent female literacy." While this kind of conclusion exemplifies the tendency to overstate the relationship between education and fertility, and to make wild extrapolations, it is a recognized fact (we have evidence from several studies) that female education is an important factor even after controlling for related variables such as place of residence (rural or urban), income levels of households and educational levels of husbands, and that exceptions [as we have seen in Sandhu's study (3)] are rare [(5) P: 44].

Education, for the most part, operates indirectly through the various channels described by Easterlin (6-8) -- namely, through the supply of and demand for children, as well as through the costs of regulation. Each of these channels is affected by several intervening determinants which are influenced by the extent of women's autonomy -- often considered to be a product of education. Women's autonomy is seen as taking five forms: (1) autonomy through knowledge (exposure of women to the modern world ); (2) decision-making autonomy; (3) interaction with a wider social circle ; (4) emotional autonomy; and (5) "economic and social autonomy, self reliance, control over economic resources" [(8) P: 13].

Abadian (9), in her study of 54 developing countries, finds that female autonomy (operationalized through age at marriage of women, differences in age between spouses and rates of secondary schooling among women) has a negative and significant impact on fertility. The difference between the approach of Jejeebhoy (8) and that of Abadian (9) is that the former views education as operating through autonomy, whereas the latter uses education to operationalize the concept of female autonomy. Abadian [(9) P: 1802], in her study, observes that education acts "directly on fertility rates [and] . . . works through infant mortality rates to decrease fertility."

Female Education and Supply of Children

Education affects the supply of children through four intervening variables. These are: (1) age at marriage; (2) breast feeding; (3) post-partum abstinence; and (4) child mortality [(8) P: 12].

Age at Marriage: Education tends to increase the age at first marriage, thereby decreasing the number of years that can be devoted to child bearing. This relationship between women's education and age at marriage has been found in almost all fertility studies. Cleland and Jejeebhoy (10) show that in almost every country in South Asia, women with education get married "roughly two to five years later than uneducated women" (p.87). A study of 26 developing countries sponsored by the United Nations (6) finds that age at marriage invariably increases with the level of education in all of the countries examined, despite the fact that "the age at marriage varies widely across countries" (p.50). According to Jejeebhoy [(8) Pp: 12-13], age at marriage is affected by education through decision-making autonomy, interaction with a wider world", emotional autonomy and self-reliance.

Besides delaying marriage, female education has been observed to be associated with greater numbers of women not marrying at all. Women with higher education levels are more likely to be able to organize their lives outside the realm of marriage and family. For example, in Thailand, only about 1.9 per cent of women without education do not marry, whereas 14.6 per cent of highly educated women do not marry [(6) P: 46].

Breast Feeding: Prolonged breast-feeding is one of the traditional practices that serves as a means of contraception. With increases in the levels of education of women, the period of breast-feeding tends to decrease [(6), (8), (10)]. Breast feeding practices are affected by education through knowledge autonomy, decision-making autonomy and emotional autonomy [(8) Pp: 13-14].

Post-Partum Abstinence: The kind of relationship that was observed in the case of breast feeding is also observed when one examines the relationships between post-partum abstinence and fertility. Women's compliance to the traditional norms that encourage prolonged post-partum abstinence tends to decline with increases in the levels of female education [(5), (8)]. However, evidence with regard to South Asia is scarce and researchers have not been able to find any relationship between female education and post-partum abstinence. Cleland and Jejeebhoy (10) argue that recent research findings suggest that the length of post-partum abstinence and education are unrelated. But in countries where education does have an effect (e.g. sub-Saharan African societies), the effect of education is channeled through knowledge -autonomy, decision-making autonomy and emotional autonomy [(8)P: 12-13].

Child Mortality: High rates of child mortality reduce the supply of children, which in turn is likely to increase the demand for children. The existence of a linear relationship between mother's education and child mortality has been well established [for a review, see (11)]. With a high rate of child survival, parents can be certain that they need not have many babies in order to maintain their desired family size. Moreover, with the death of an infant, duration of breast feeding and post-partum abstinence is curtailed, which promotes fertility [(10) P: 93].

Thus with the survival of children, intervals between births are likely to be widened. Female education affects child survival through all the five forms of female autonomy described by Jejeebhoy [(8) P: 12-13].

Female Education and Demand for Children

Female education has an impact on the demand for children via these variables: (1) Desired family size; (2) Son preference; (3) Labour contributions of offspring during childhood; (4) Children as old age support; (5) Children as sources of prestige; and (6) Economic, time and opportunity costs of raising children [(8) P: 12].

Desired Family Size: With education, women become much less fatalistic regarding their family size. As Cochrane [(7) P: 104-5] notes in a study of fertility in Nigeria, only 10 per cent of the women with education beyond the primary stage believed fertility to be 乪determined by God', whereas 50 per cent of the totally uneducated women held that belief. In most research studies it has been found that desired family size becomes smaller with the increase in women's educational levels [e.g., (6), (8), (10)]. However, the strength of relationship varies from culture to culture [(6), (8), (10)], depending mainly on the degree of gender stratification in the society under study. Education (lower level) has less impact in highly gender- stratified societies than in relatively egalitarian societies. Education affects desired family size through all the five forms of autonomy that it brings about [(8) P:12-13].

Son Preference: In gender-stratified societies, as in South Asia, son preference is a common feature. If a couple desires to have two living sons, they will end up having 3.9 children on an average. If parents want at least one daughter and one son, the average would turn out to be 3 (Sheps, as cited in Chowdhury's paper [(12) P: 257]. Thus son preference increases the family size significantly in the long run. Chowdhury (12) finds that in Bangladesh son preference is so strong that even education above primary level cannot counteract it. Cleland and Jejeebhoy [(10) P: 94] suggest that very high levels of education are required in order to counter the preference for sons in such societies. The higher education of women, through providing them self reliance, social and economic autonomy, probably has a negative impact on son preference [(8) P: 12-13].

The Labour Contributions of Offspring During Childhood: Better educated women are more likely to educate their children and to send them to school. Their expectations with regard to their children's labour are not as great as those of uneducated women, who believe that a function of children is to help their parents in economic activities. Jejeebhoy [(8) P: 131] cites evidence from a study carried out in Maharastra, India. The study reveals that expected and actual levels of support from sons diminished as women's educational levels increased. For girls the decline is relatively modest, as more emphasis is placed on sons' schooling. Overall, the children of women with secondary education only contribute about 60 per cent of the labour that is contributed by the children of uneducated women. Cleland and Jejeebhoy [(10) P: 96] also mention several other similar studies. Effects of female education on child labour are channeled through self-reliance, and social and economic autonomy [(8) P: 12-13].

Children as Old Age Support: One of the perceived benefits of children is as providing a means of support in old age. With increasing levels of education, women tend to rely less on their children for support in old age and for economic help and housing [(8) P: 129]. However, the effect of education varies with the intensity of gender stratification in the society. In highly gender-stratified societies, a higher level of education is required in order to have a significant impact. As the level of education of women increases, they are more likely to depend on other types of resources (such as personal savings) rather than relying solely on their children (especially their sons) [(10) P: 98]. Women's education affects the extent to which children are perceived as sources of support in old age through social and economic autonomy and self-reliance [(8) P :12-13].

Economic, Time and Opportunity Costs of Children: Education leads to aspirations for better qualified children. With "higher standards of child care" [(13) P: 570], other than feeding, housing and clothing children, educated parents perceive costs to be higher because they have to arrange for a better education for their children. Level of education of children tends to have a direct relationship with mother's schooling [(8) P: 133]. Thus raising 乪quality children' is perceived by parents to be costly, hence reducing the number of desired children and fertility.

More highly educated women are more likely to be engaged in paid employment outside the home. An educated woman is likely to take into account the loss of income that will result from having more children and may therefore decide not to have large numbers of children. Besides this opportunity cost, better educated women also feel it necessary to spend more time with children and are less likely to leave young children in the care of older siblings. This time cost leads educated women to have fewer children than uneducated women. Education affects the perceptions of mothers in terms of economic, opportunity and time cost of children through knowledge autonomy, decision-making autonomy and self-reliance [(8) P: 12-13].

Children as Means of Enhancing Prestige: In some societies in Asia and Africa, a woman's sense of identity, legitimization, recognition, security, and prestige in the family is dependent on her having children. Although very few studies have been carried out in this area, the evidence suggests that the education of women serves as an alternative means of gaining respect. As an educated person, an educated woman is considered to be knowledgeable. If she earns money by working in an `honourable' occupation, she is likely to be highly valued. Education brings in prestige for a woman, in spite of not having many children through social and economic autonomy and self-reliance [(8) P: 12-13].

Female Education And The Costs Of Regulation (Contraceptive Use)

Studies have overwhelmingly documented positive and significant relationships between female education and contraceptive use [(6-8), (10), (14)]. Female education affects the use of contraception through the acquisition of knowledge regarding contraception and through increased spousal communication.

Knowledge About Contraception: There appears to be a positive relationship between the education of women and contraceptive knowledge [(6-7)]. Cleland and Jejeebhoy [(10) P: 100] argue that "the role of schooling becomes more apparent in terms of detailed knowledge: the number of methods, especially non-terminal methods, known; the correct use of a particular method; and from where a particular method can be acquired." For example, they refer to a study showing that in India, 95 per cent of the women with secondary education knew about the IUD whereas only 39 per cent of the uneducated women had the knowledge of this method of birth control.

In many developing countries, it has been observed that even women who are highly educated do not have an adequate understanding of reproductive physiology -- upon which the success rate of traditional and modern contraceptive methods depend. Moreover, there still exists a large gap between knowledge and actual practice of contraception [(6) P: 71].

Communications Between Spouses: The education of women (even primary level education) also breaks another barrier to contraception: lack of spousal intimacy -- which restricts free discussion on sexual matters or on issues related to contraception [(7-8), (10)]. Education affects spousal communication through emotional autonomy and decision-making autonomy [(8) Pp: 12-13].

The number of unwanted pregnancies is lower among educated women than among uneducated women. Educated women are more likely to use contraception consistently as soon as their desired family size has been completed. The gap between desired family size and actual family size shows the unmet need for contraception among uneducated women [(6), (8)].

Thus female education, in addition to having many other benefits, also goes a long way in reducing fertility. But what level of education threshold is required for it to have a negative impact on fertility? In the next section, I reflect on this issue.


The thresholds at which female education has an impact on fertility are often determined by the level of development, the extent of modernization, and the degree of gender stratification. Countries that have achieved relatively high levels of overall development, modernization and egalitarianism (in terms of gender) are likely to find that lower levels of education influence fertility, whereas in the case of countries with lower levels of development and modernization and highly gender-stratified cultural settings, are likely to find that a higher level of education is required. In general, it has been observed that a secondary level of education is likely to influence fertility [(6), (8)]. Almost irrespective of setting, women who have secondary level schooling have fewer children than do women with no schooling at all.

The Case Of Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a small South Asian country. Its population in 1991 was 116.6 million with a density of 2097 people per square mile. The overall fertility rate of the country is 4.9, with an annual growth rate of 2.4 per cent [(15) P: 75). Given this situation, the government of Bangladesh, along with some Non-Government Organizations, and world bodies have made major efforts to reduce fertility at the fastest rate possible.

In most of the studies, which considered the relationship between female education and fertility in Bangladesh, a significant, linear and inverse relationship was found. Miah [(15) P: 78] mentions the studies by Khuda and Howladar (16), Amin and Faruquee (17), and Mizan (18) as examples of such studies. He makes mention of one study conducted by Chowdhury (19) as showing a curvilinear relationship (meaning that with a modest level of education, fertility is likely to rise and with a higher level of education fertility tends to decline). Miah's own study (15) shows a linear, significant negative effect of education on fertility. He explains this relationship by stating that the education of women brings about higher honour and dignity and also allows them to use critical social resources.

Hoque and Murdock (20) have observed statistically significant and substantial differences in use of contraceptives between women with different levels of education, even after controlling for other related variables. Women with degrees from colleges/universities had three times more likelihood of using contraception than those without any education.

In Chaudhury's (14) study in a metropolitan urban area of Bangladesh (Dhaka), the education of women emerged as the most significant factor influencing use of contraception. Education explained about 7 per cent of the variance in contraceptive use "over and above that [could] be explained by all other variables together" (P. 267). The differences between women without any education and women with some education with regard to use of contraception were statistically significant.

Khan and Raeside (21) studied urban and rural fertility in Bangladesh. Their study shows significant negative direct and indirect effects of education of women on children ever born in both rural and urban areas. Education operates indirectly through age at marriage. However, it was also found that education has a greater effect in urban areas than in rural areas.

Jejeebhoy [(8) P: 150] refers to a study by Rahman et al. (22) that shows that "even after controlling for" fertility, the number of girl and boy children, age, child mortality, and level of education of household head, "women's schooling exerts a net positive and significant effect on contraceptive acceptance." A seven percent increase in contraceptive use is associated with each increased year of schooling.

Preference for sons is marked in Bangladesh. As I have discussed earlier, son preference is associated with high rates of fertility. The society of Bangladesh is highly gender stratified. The birth of a daughter is viewed as a burden increasing event, rather than an occasion of joy. The main reason for this is the low status of women. Providing dowries is a common practice, although prohibited by law. This practice often brings about distress to the family at the time of marriage. After marriage, daughters leave their parental homes to live with their in-laws, where they are dependent on their husbands (and later on her sons).

Sons, on the other hand, ensure the continuation of the family and the lineage. Parents can expect and demand old age support from sons, but not from daughters. In a study by Chowdhury (12), it was found that preference for sons was almost as strong among women with no education as it was among those with post-primary education.

In spite of a strong preference for sons among educated women, a recent study by Cleland, Kamal and Slogget [(23) P: 217] documents "that exposure to formal schooling enhances the position of women by according them greater role in domestic decisions, which exert strong influences on reproductive behaviour"

The threshold at which female education has an impact on fertility in Bangladesh is at the level above the primary level (Ahmad 1991:147). However, Cleland and Jejeebhoy [(10) P: 104] argue that even primary schooling is sufficient to have an impact on fertility. Ahmad [(4) P: 147] believes that secondary schooling is necessary, and that education, without any change in labour participation, is not likely to bring about the desired change.

With regard to the contraceptive methods used by women with different levels of education, the findings of Cleland, Kamal, and Slogget [(23) P: 213-14] show that the education of women has a strong effect on the use of traditional as well as modern reversible methods * although in case of the latter, the relationship is much more pronounced. Among the educated women, use of modern reversible methods is much more prevalent; they tend not to choose sterilization.

During the last 15 years, fertility in Bangladesh has fallen by almost 40 per cent, despite the fact that literacy rates (especially those of women) have not increased significantly. Cleland and Jejeebhoy [(10) P: 105] attribute this achievement to the success of the family planning programmes in Bangladesh, which hastened the fall in fertility. In this regard, Schular et al. (24) specifically refer to the strategy of employing women as family planning field workers. These women go from door to door in Bangladesh villages, talking to village women, distributing contraceptives, trying to answer their questions and referring them to doctors when necessary. In a society like Bangladesh, where women's mobility in general is restricted and where the institution of purdah is still maintained to some extent, the activities of these female family planning workers brought about dramatic increases in the percentages of women practicing contraception between 1975 and 1989: among women without education, the proportion rose from 6.2 to 27.3, among women with primary education, the proportion rose from 12.2 to 34.3 and among women with education beyond primary stage, the proportions rose from 23.5 to 49 percent [(25) P: 203].

Summary and Conclusion

From our discussion thus far, we have observed that education does have a major impact on fertility. Even after controlling for other relevant factors, the education of women stands out as a significant factor in determining fertility. It mostly operates through some intervening variables that determine the demand for children, supply of children and costs of regulation. It was shown that the greatest impact of education on fertility occurs when levels of education are at secondary level. Small amounts of primary education are not likely to have a significant impact. However, the threshold level varies from one social setting to another. In highly gender-stratified societies, the threshold level is likely to be higher than in relatively egalitarian societies. Education has been found to increase women's levels of autonomy in decision-making, in acquiring knowledge, in gaining access to economic resources, and in interacting with a wider social circle. It is through this autonomy that education exerts an impact on fertility.

In the case of Bangladesh, in particular, we have seen that research studies show a significant and inverse relationship between education and fertility. Again, in studies carried out in Bangladesh, we have seen the success of family planning policies, which have been quite effective in reducing the fertility rate in that country, despite the fact that the level of women's education has not changed much. In this context, should we reconsider our efforts in reaching for a higher level of female education in developing countries? Certainly not. Rather, along with effective family planning-policies and successful implementation (as in Bangladesh), efforts to educate women beyond the threshold level must continue in order to help reduce fertility rates at an even pace. A reduction in the fertility rate is only one of the numerous positive effects of education. It affects the survival rates of children. Above all, education helps men and women to become efficient and conscious citizens. The autonomy acquired through education helps individuals (both men and women) to understand what their rights are and the range of options they have to solve or mitigate their problems and sufferings in order to live a better life. It is for this reason that education is a basic human right, and it is the duty of world leadership to ensure education for all.


This paper was written in partial fulfillment of a reading course entitled "Education and Women" at McMaster University, Canada, in order to achieve an M. A. Degree in Sociology. The author gratefully acknowledges the suggestions and comments made by Dr. Jane Synge, under the supervision of whom this paper was written.


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