7 February 1996



19960207Study Explores Negative Correlation Between Educational and Fertility Levels among Countries, Regions

NEW YORK, 7 February (DESIPA) -- In an effort to promote understanding of the linkages between female education and fertility behaviour, the Population Division of the Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis (DESIPA) has issued a cross-national study entitled Women's Education and Fertility Behaviour: Recent Evidence from the Demographic and Health Surveys.

According to the report, women's education has long been recognized as a key factor influencing reproductive behaviour. However, despite universal recognition of the fundamental right to education, women's access to schooling remains inadequate. This has an adverse affect on their productive and reproductive roles, as well as on their overall quality of life.

The lowest levels of female educational attainment are found in sub- Saharan and northern Africa, where many women have never attended school and lack basic literacy skills. Nevertheless, recent educational trends provide some basis for optimism. Specifically, school enrolment has increased steadily in most developing countries over the past decades and the gender gap in primary education has narrowed considerably.

As indicated in the table below, the pattern of lowest fertility among the most educated women holds for all societies. In every country examined, women with 10 or more years of schooling have much lower fertility than women who have not attended school. The largest difference in fertility rates among countries of a region occurs in Latin American, where the rates range from 3 to 5 children.

Fertility rates as a factor of education are not uniformly related to the level of development. The strength of that association varies significantly among countries. This suggests that such factors as socio- economic development, social structure and cultural context also play a role. The impact of individual schooling, which is generally weak in poor, rural and mostly illiterate societies, tends to be greater in more prosperous societies.

In Burundi, Kenya and Liberia -- three of the 26 developing countries surveyed -- greater education was actually found to enhance fertility among women with incomplete primary education. However, the slightly higher level of fertility among women with a few years of schooling should not be interpreted as indicating that education increases the demand for children.

The prevailing explanation for the apparent anomaly is that, in societies where reproduction is not subject to deliberate regulation, education tends to increase fecundity, owing to improved maternal health. It also tends to reduce foetal deaths and to diminish the protection against short-spaced pregnancies traditionally provided by prolonged breast-feeding and post-partum abstinence.

Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that, even in those societies where the impact of a few years of education on fertility is negligible or even positive, the relationship turns unequivocally negative once the primary level of education is surpassed.

Female education influences fertility in a number of ways. It is associated with later age at marriage, desire for smaller families and increased acceptance of and access to contraception. It enhances women's choices in the matter of family formation. Even in societies where marriage is a poor indicator of the onset of sexual activity, better educated women are older when they have their first child. A later transition to motherhood is likely to have an influence on family size.

Better educated women consistently want smaller families. In many countries, unwanted fertility rates are remarkably high, implying that women are far from having achieved satisfactory control over their reproductive lives. In most Latin American countries, for example, the desired fertility rate is estimated to be one or two children lower than the actual rate. Unwanted fertility rates are lowest among educated women. This suggests that education improves reproductive choice and reduces the discrepancy between desired and actual family size.

The effect of women's education on fertility rates is not limited to the demand for children; it also affects the ability and willingness to implement fertility preferences through contraception. Although women's knowledge of contraceptive options is generally incomplete, awareness of at least one method is fairly high. This is true even in regions characterized by low levels of contraception, such as sub-Saharan Africa. Yet while contraceptive awareness is fairly uniform among women having different levels of education, the difference in contraceptive use as a factor of education is remarkably large.

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For instance, in five of the sub-Saharan African countries examined -- Burundi, Liberia, Mali, Senegal and Uganda -- the percentage of married women using contraception is four times higher among women with 10 or more years of education than among women having no formal schooling. Better educated women have much higher rates of contraceptive use. They are also more likely to use effective methods and to rely on contraception at earlier stages of family formation.

Education should be promoted primarily as a matter of human rights and social justice. Nevertheless, it has also come to be regarded as one of the most promising catalysts of fertility decline. Despite all obstacles, education continues to inspire high hopes as the most viable strategy for enhancing women's status and reproductive health.

Note:Women's Education and Fertility Behaviour: Recent Evidence from the Demographic and Health Surveys (Sales No. E.95.XIII.23), is available at $15 per copy. It may be obtained from the Sales Section, United Nations Publications, New York or Geneva; and from major booksellers throughout the world. It may also be obtained by writing to the Director, Population Division, Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis, United Nations Secretariat, 2 United Nations Plaza (Rm. DC2-1950), New York, NY 10017, USA.

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