Several contributors to this forum have highlighted that one of the critical constraint that rural women face is the huge burden of unpaid care work.
A significant part of that burden results from women’s role as mothers – or, to put it demographically, their fertility. As societies modernize, they typically undergo a profound demographic transformation in the form of significant declines in fertility (as well as mortality) from the high rates characteristic of pre-modern and low-income societies to the low rates characteristic of advanced, industrialized societies. Demographers call this process the demographic transition (and there is a huge amount of literature available about it). What drives the demographic transition is typically a combination of factors, including: an overall improvement in the standards of living, better nutrition and sanitation, progress in health care and medical service provision, the emancipation of women, a declining role of the family as the unit of production, diminishing economic and social advantages of larger families, and (in some countries) explicit family planning programmes.
One of the key effects of demographic transition is that in post-transitional regimes, childbearing and childcare occupy a much smaller portion of women’s lives than in transitional settings. In addition to direct health benefits for women (e.g. reduced rates of maternal mortality and other pregnancy-related health risks), declining fertility tends to lessen the conflict between domestic and non-domestic responsibilities, with the consequence that women are becoming better able to access educational and employment opportunities outside the domestic sphere. Having fewer children also allows women to maintain continuity of employment, which may have significant positive implications for their earnings and occupational choices, as well as employers’ willingness to hire and train them. Furthermore, formal employment usually gives women some measure of control over self-earned income, thereby increasing their self-esteem. And by becoming contributors to a joint household income pool, women may gain a stronger intra-household bargaining power and a greater say in household decisions.
However, the demographic transition does not automatically lead to improvements in gender equality and women’s empowerment. While fertility declines make it generally easier for women to participate in non-domestic activities, they often continue to have primary responsibility for the domestic tasks. As the demographic transition progresses, women may become increasingly confronted with a growing “double burden”: they are not only expected to fulfil usual “female” roles – that is, bear and rear children, care for other dependents in the household, carry out day-to-day household tasks, and work in the informal context of smallholder agriculture – but also perform well in a formal occupation outside the household.
Moreover, in many settings, women have traditionally earned their social status through the children they have reared, and there may be a significant time lag between the fertility decline and a shift in societal perceptions towards greater acknowledgment of women’s occupational and income-earning roles. Thus, women may lose the basis of status that motherhood once gave them, without acquiring a standing equal to men in the labour force.
I would like to conclude by saying that policy-makers and rural development practitioners should pay close attention to population trends and be prepared to implement appropriate measures to maximize the potential gender equality benefits of the demographic transition. In general, the demographic transition can foster a reordering of gender relations and a more equal distribution of roles and responsibilities between women and men. But the degree to which this potential is actually realized depends greatly on the existing socio-economic, cultural and political context. Conditioning factors include such things as the economic health of the society; availability and nature of employment opportunities outside the domestic sphere; availability and quality of publicly provided social services; cultural norms and practices; and the distribution of power and resources within the household. Many of these contextual factors are open to policy intervention.
Libor Stloukal, member of the gender team in FAO