Women’s rights and empowerment as a means to solve India’s demographic problems
„By the time I returned from Kerala and Gujarat, I had learned that, at its heart, the country’s population problem was the most profound symbol there was of the powerlessness of India’s women. And yet it was these women who held the power to help India solve its greatest crisis.“
- Elisabeth Bumiller 1994, p. 281.
India suffers from two crucial demographic crises that not only endanger the country’s political stability but also the lives and health of millions of its inhabitants: Overpopulation and gender imbalance. Both demographic phenomena are highly interconnected, yet they move in opposite directions: While overpopulation is going to remain a problem for the coming decades, recent developments give reason to hope for a stationary population, provided that fertility rates on state level either remain as they currently are or decline even further. Gender imbalance, however, continues to worsen in large parts of India. The protection of women’s rights and the enhancement of their social and economic status are given utmost priority in the global battle against overpopulation and anti-female discrimination; many scholars argue that these may even be the single most important steps towards creating peaceful and just conditions for everybody. But can there be a panacea for the population problems of a country as complex and diverse as India? This essay attempts to show that women’s rights and empowerment have partially already proven to be the key solution, although it can unfold its potency only in conjunction with further factors and as an accompaniment of social developments that are often culturally and regionally specific.
A profound contrast roughly divides the northern from the southern states both in terms of total fertility rates (TFR) and child sex ratio (CSR), the latter of which representing the number of girls born per 1000 boys (ages 0 to 6). Therefore, it might prove to be a fruitful starting-point to analyse the exact differences between North and South as well as the mechanisms and causes underlying them.
It is mostly the southern states, Kerala in particular, that have the lowest TFRs 2 of the country, whereas in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh women give birth to more children than is the Indian average (2.5). In fact, were it not for most of the northern states, the Indian population would have already reached replacement level - or even begun to shrink in size (Lewis 2013). It should furthermore be noted that the highest TFRs usually coincide with the highest rates of illiteracy and poverty, and vice versa. Kerala has indeed relatively seen the largest amount of educated women (90 to 92%), but this factor is one of many social advantages prevalent in this state and therefore not the sole explanation for Kerala‘s low birthrate. The TFR among Bihar’s educated women is well below national average with 2.0 children, even though the state has one of the worst overall TFRs in India with nearly 4 children per woman, whereas in Maharashtra with a TFR of 1.9 in the same year, women without education had an average of 6 children (Sinha 2012). A strong causal linkage between education and fertility is thus highly likely. Contrary to this hypothesis, illiterate women have also shown an inclination towards a smaller number of children; in fact, the differences in births between mothers with or without education constantly decreases in some regions such as Kerala. In low-fertility areas even uneducated women tend to behave similarly to educated women. Still, education influences a woman’s fertility in multiple ways. For one, literate women seem to be more inclined to become well-informed about family planning methods such as contraception. They are thus enabled to make informed choices about their own reproductive behaviour. Knowledge of proper care in terms of nutrition and hygiene significantly reduces a mother‘s risk of losing her child (Murthi et al. 1995, p. 748), an effect which in turn may result in fewer births. Mothers who suffered the loss of one or even more children are understandably not very keen on using contraceptives (Jain/Jain 2012, p. 139). A later marriage can also be seen as a direct result of the continued pursuit of education. On this basis one could argue that a shorter span of reproduction is created this way, which in turn means that the respective woman gives birth to fewer children than she would have done if she had married earlier. Aside from the many individual factors that come into play even though they cannot be considered here, there exists the possibility of a counter-balance to this effect when post-partum amenorrhea as well as abstinence are reduced. Nevertheless, there seems to exist a correlation between delayed marriages and lower fertility rates as is the case in Kerala where a woman married at nearly 23 years in 2007 and had an average of 1.8 children in 2010. The situation looks quite different in Andhra Pradesh, though; despite its women being largely illiterate and marrying below the Indian mean age, the state’s TFR actually lies below-replacement level. Here, other factors must be responsible for this inconsistency. In many regards, women are better off in South India, both socially and economically, and it is in this part of India that the TFR is lowest. Admittedly, the exception does not prove the rule. Andhra Pradesh is once again such an exception: While comparably few children are born in this state, it simultaneously ranks low on some further social indicators such as female literacy and education. It is strong in terms of contraceptive usage, though, ranging high with a percentage of 52.8 using modern methods, of which 97% choose, often for lack of instruction and access to reversible contraceptives, female sterilisation (cf. Santhya 2003).
The higher the quality of a woman’s education, the better her chances of being presented employment opportunities. Studies have shown that women who get paid in cash are significantly more likely to use contraceptives, whereas those who are either unemployed or get merely paid in kind generally make less use of family planning methods (Jain/Jain 2012, p. 140). In urban regions of India, less than a third of women participate in the work force, and yet the TFR of these areas is generally close to replacement level (Bhat 2002, p. 379). Why is that so? A justified guess considers improved access to healthcare services as well as increased media consumption some factors that influence a couple’s desired family size and help them attain it as people tend to be more exposed to the two-child family ideal the government promotes via advertising in television, posters, etc. Changing attitudes may go hand in hand with the opportunity to act on them only in urban areas or those with sufficient infrastructure. However, a changing of attitudes also takes place in rural India. Several scholars suggest a strong causal connection between television viewing and fertility decline in some Third World societies (Lewis 2013).