Women’s lives and rapid fertility decline: Some lessons from Bangladesh and Egypt

Type Journal Article - Policy Research Division Working Paper
Title Women’s lives and rapid fertility decline: Some lessons from Bangladesh and Egypt
Volume 117
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 1998
URL http://www.jstor.org/stable/40230790
In some of the more traditional parts of the world, fertility is falling steadily, sometimes rapidly, in environments where women’s lives remain severely constrained. The recent experiences of Bangladesh and Egypt, both predominantly Muslim countries, are illustrative in this regard. Since the late 1970s, rural and urban areas in both countries have experienced steady declines in fertility, with recent declines in rural Bangladesh similar to those in rural Egypt, despite lower levels of development and higher rates of poverty. This paper provides an in-depth exploration of the demographic transition in these two societies as seen through the dual lens of society-wide gender systems and a range of relevant state policies. It addresses three basic questions: (1) have measurable improvements in economic opportunities for women been a factor in the fertility decline in either country?; (2) have differences in gender systems at the societal level provided a more favorable environment for fertility decline in Bangladesh in comparison to Egypt, despite the former’s more modest economic achievements?; (3) in what ways can the development strategies adopted by the governments of Bangladesh and Egypt, with their very different implications for women’s opportunities in contexts where personal autonomy remains limited, be seen as additional factors in explaining the similar rural fertility declines despite dissimilar economic circumstances? After reviewing the evidence, the paper concludes that neither differences in existing gender systems nor measurable changes in women’s opportunities have been key factors in the notable demographic successes recorded in these two countries. Indeed, low levels of women’s autonomy have posed no barrier to fertility decline in either country. However, there is a case to be made that Bangladesh’s distinct approach to development, with considerable emphasis on reaching the rural poor and women and a strong reliance on nongovernmental institutions, may have played a part in accelerating the transition in that environment and in helping women to become more immediate beneficiaries of that process.

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