On a fertile course

Women's Education, Autonomy and Reproductive Behaviour
May 9, 1997

Women enter debates on population control usually as objects of policies aimed at regulating reproductive behaviour. However, perspectives on the question of population growth and its control have shifted over the years, influenced by two broad trends: feminist advocacy and a body of scholarship that has explored the ideological and material conditions under which reproductive decisions are made by women and men. This has been accompanied by a shift from a growth-dominated model of development towards a model in which investment in human well-being has a central place.

Shireen Jejeebhoy's book is a contribution from the field of demography which reflects these shifts. It is now widely accepted by policymakers that education, apart from its intrinsic value as a human right, has a positive impact on the health, nutrition and productivity of men and women. In the context of demographic behaviour and change, macro-level aggregate data indicate an inverse relationship between women's increased access to education and fertility decline. Jejeebhoy explores this relationship between education and fertility, using data from various countries to investigate the ways in which cultural, economic and political contexts shape it.

Looking at demographic data - generated from studies ranging from cross-country and large-scale, multivariate surveys, to qualitative case-studies generated within specific microcontexts - Jejeebhoy disaggregates the relationship between education and fertility, and examines the various factors that contribute to fertility change, and the impact that women's education levels have on these factors. The analysis presented confirms the positive impact of schooling on fertility decline, but finds that the nature of the impact tends to be shaped by the overall level of development as measured by income, literacy and gender stratification of a country. This, Jejeebhoy argues, indicates that in countries that are poorer and more gender-stratified, the minimum levels of education needed to secure a uniform inverse relationship to fertility will be higher than in countries that are relatively more developed and gender egalitarian.

This analysis carries two significant assertions: first, that reproductive behaviour is critically affected by women's autonomy, defined here in terms of a woman's ability to exert control over her own life; second, that education enhances women's autonomy because "for women ... education is perhaps the primary channel for learning new ideas". These assertions and their policy implications fit comfortably with conventional wisdom.

But the discussion fails to explore in depth the nature of the education-autonomy relationship, and appears to ignore the literature that discusses women's autonomy and its dynamics.

The discussion on education, for instance, assumes that education refers to formal schooling, and measures it by years, rather than by the content of learning. In many parts of the developing world, the factors barring women from challenging the constructs that inhibit their participation in decisions related to reproduction, are also responsible for limiting their access to education. Women's autonomy can emerge in other ways, through access to employment, credit, skills training and literacy classes. But the discussion pays little attention to this, or to the assistance given by female collectives.

To imply that women's autonomy is mostly enhanced by a linear progression through school education, ignores evidence that many nonformal education initiatives have led to women becoming aware of, and challenging the constraints. By gaining autonomy over their lives, many women get the chance to overcome their own socially conditioned inhibitions.

Jejeebhoy's book fits into a vast body of literature calling for greater investment in women, and the data from developing countries will be useful to demographic studies. But it fails to push beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom in its discu- ssion of autonomy and education.

Ramya Subrahmanian is researching a PhD on the delivery of primary education services in rural India for the Open University, UK.

Women's Education, Autonomy and Reproductive Behaviour: Experience from Developing Countries

Author - Shireen Jejeebhoy
ISBN - 0 19 829033 0
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 306

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