Women’s Status and Fertility Rates

The role and status of women around the world is very closely tied to fertility rates and ultimately, population growth trends. Universal education and gender equity are both very important topics to consider when discussing the link between fertility trends and women.

A Tradition of Discrimination

Progress toward gender equity is hampered by long-held traditions that define women’s roles narrowly as childbearers and unpaid workers in the home and fields. This is especially true in many of the less developed countries, where the cycle of discrimination against women begins with the treatment of girls. Some societies limit girls’ access to formal education, thereby limiting future employment and economic freedom. Girls’ education often ends with an early marriage.

The Importance of an Education

Investments in women’s education have proven especially effective at lowering fertility rates, since better educated women tend to marry later and have fewer, healthier children. Studies on every continent show that as literacy rates rise, especially those of women, income levels, nutrition levels, and child survival rates rise as well. A study using data from 219 countries from 1970 to 2009 found that, for every one additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5 per cent.

Participation in the Economy

When more women work, economies grow. Increasing women and girls’ education contributes to higher economic growth. But today, women still earn substantially less than men and bear a disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work. When paid and unpaid work are combined, women in developing countries work more than men, with less time for education, leisure, political participation and self-care. Women make a significant contribution to agricultural work worldwide, yet fewer than 20 percent of landowners are women. This jeopardizes their long-term economic security.

Government Participation

Women have historically had fewer opportunities in the policy-making bodies, and change has been slow. In 2020, women comprise just one-fourth of legislators worldwide and only 7 percent of heads of state. Some countries have only recently granted women the right to vote, including Saudi Arabia (2015) and the United Arab Emirates (2006). When women have greater participation in policy-making, they can more effectively advocate for policies that advance women’s status and child health, both essential for healthy, sustainable societies.

Women’s Health

One of the key U.N. Millennium Development Goals objectives was to achieve universal access to reproductive health and family planning services. Allowing families to plan the number and timing of their children reduces infant mortality rates and improves the health of both women, and their families. The very conditions that will help the population stabilize are also good for society; they help families’ live longer, healthier lives, raise healthier children, and have more opportunity to contribute to their nations and families’ prosperity. These kinds of advancements will lead to lower fertility rates, and eventually, population stabilization.

women’s education and fertility

Sources: Barro-Lee Educational Attainment Dataset v. 3.0 (September 2021); United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2022). Data Portal, custom data acquired via website. United Nations: New York. Available from https://population.un.org/DataPortal/ (accessed 11 October 2022).