EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Stabilizing Population by Reducing Fertility: The Role of Female Education

Over the last two decades, scores of studies have analyzed the relationship between female education and fertility and have concluded that the more education women have, the fewer children they bear. A 1999 survey of research by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) analyzes studies that compare countries with varying levels of female education and studies that examine changing levels of female education in individual countries over time. Both groups of studies support this basic hypothesis.36

The NAS study contrasts Sri Lanka and Pakistan, for example. Sri Lanka, which has a female literacy level of 87 percent for women over age 15, has a total fertility rate of just over two children per woman. In Pakistan, where only 24 percent of adult women can read and write, the fertility rate is 5.6 children. Pakistan is typical of most countries, but there are occasional exceptions. For example, in Jordan 86 percent of the women are literate, but the fertility rate is the same as in Pakistan. Bangladesh is also something of an anomaly, because although only 26 percent of its women are literate, its fertility rate has dropped by half over the last generation.37

As the NAS survey notes, the relationship between educational level and fertility is not always a simple one. For example, while rising female educational levels lead to smaller family size, so does the desire to educate children. Once couples decide that they want to educate their children, including girls, they are faced with the cost of education. This in itself is apparently reducing family size.38

In Bangladesh, as noted earlier, the fertility rate was almost cut in half within 16 years. One factor apparently affecting family size was spreading land poverty as land was divided and subdivided from one generation to the next. Among families with relatively small plots of land to begin with, fragmentation leads to basic changes in thinking. At one time, economic security came from owning land. It was always a source of employment and food. But as the land per family shrinks, this security diminishes, leading many couples to define economic security for their children, and thus indirectly for themselves, in the form of a wage-paying job. Getting such a job requires education. This is costly, leading to a conscious reduction in family size that is not necessarily dependent on any gains in income or female literacy.39

Research in Bangladesh shows that thinking about family size is not occurring in a vacuum. As people are exposed to higher living standards elsewhere in the world, they begin to think about how to achieve the same thing for their children. Again, they come back to education. Investment in education is the key both to a better life for their children and to their old age security. Large families, which were an asset when there was more land to farm, have now become a liability.

While sociologists have looked at the relation between education and family size, economists have looked at the economics of this relationship. Lawrence Summers, while Director of Research at the World Bank, pointed out that at prevailing levels of education, each additional year of female education reduces fertility by roughly 10 percent. Using this information to analyze the economics of educating girls, he noted that raising female enrollment in primary school to the same level as that of males in developing countries would mean adding some 25 million girls to the current primary school enrollment. This, he estimated, would cost $938 million per year. Gender balancing in secondary schools would mean adding 21 million girls to current enrollment at a cost of roughly $1.4 billion per year.40

Summers then went on to estimate that this investment of $2.3 billion would yield a return of 20 percent annually. He noted that it was the most effective way of breaking the cycle of poverty. As female education levels rise, women have healthier, better-educated children, a gain that is typically passed from one generation to the next. The difficult part is the initial break out of poverty.41

This 20-percent annual return dwarfs that of almost any other investment in development. For example, the roughly $1 trillion that developing countries were planning to spend on new power generating facilities over the next decade would yield an annual return of at most 6 percent, and sometimes substantially less. Diverting a small amount of investment from power generation to the education of girls and young women could both raise families out of poverty and accelerate development.42

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37. Ibid., p. 3.

38. Ibid.

39. Caldwell and Barkat-e-Khuda, op. cit. note 31.

40. Lawrence Summers, "The Most Influential Investment," reprinted in People and the Planet, vol. 2, no. 1 (1993), p. 10.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute