The Platform

Women marching in a rally to protest the gang rape of a 70-year-old nun in Kolkata, India on March 18, 2015. (Shutterstock)

Demographic transitions have been monumental for increasing women’s rights and economic growth. Due to this global phenomenon, women, primarily in Western and higher-income nations, now more than ever before have greater access to economic opportunities, personal freedoms, fewer ties to the domestic domain, and the realization of their agency in our global society and the vital position they hold in our global economy.

Female empowerment has multidimensional benefits; not only does it close the gap between the battle of the sexes, but it has been a launching point for sustained economic growth and population control. Fortunately, because of demographic transitions, women’s untapped potential has been realized. Before the Industrial Revolution, most societies were characterized by long periods of economic stagnation, high fertility rates, and high mortality rates. However, following the stages of demographic transitions, Western countries now have lower fertility rates, lower mortality rates, higher life expectancy at birth, and sustained net income growth.

The interaction between female empowerment, demographic transition, and economic development is an incredible feat on a social and economic scale, and therefore pre-transitioned countries should instigate this process by introducing development policies geared explicitly for increasing the wellbeing of women.

Assuming women’s rights have revolutionized once stagnant economies to sustain growth and lower fertility and mortality rates; how can we instigate demographic transitions in pre-transitional societies for them to capitalize on this phenomenon and instigate long-term sustainable development? In my opinion, one of the most impactful policy initiatives to commence demographic transition is to increase access to reproductive healthcare and education opportunities for women.

One of the main advantages of demographic transition is a reduction in fertility rates. Our world is full of finite resources, and we must live within our boundaries if we wish for future generations to have fulfilling lives with sufficient resources. In pre-transitional societies, most women’s lives are consumed by pregnancy, breastfeeding, and childcare. Women have limited time and resources to do anything but bear children for the majority of their lives. However, in contrast to pre-transitional societies, it is custom for women in the Global North to have one or two children, enter the labor force, serve as human capital, and have far more productive lives.

When childbearing is concentrated into a relatively short period, it leaves ample time for women to attain education and contribute to their countries economy. Therefore, low fertility rates are vital to a country’s development. However, to ignite a demographic transition in developing countries and encourage fewer children, there needs to be greater access to health and reproductive care service for women. This would include government distribution of birth control, condoms, menstruation products, and comprehensive sex education and family planning resources.

Unfortunately, it seems as though these development initiatives will be far more effective in urban areas rather than in rural areas. In rural areas, having prominent families holds a more significant cultural significance, as children serve as free labor for tending to livestock and crops. Trying to reduce fertility rates in these areas would seem insensitive, where a family’s economic livelihood depends on maintaining their farms and agriculture. Population growth needs to be more controlled in urban areas, as opposed to rural areas. While women in rural areas should be entitled to reproductive health care and education, I believe there is less priority to reduce fertility rates and speed up the demographic transition in rural areas.

Another critical benefit of demographic transition is a reduction in gender differentiation and discrimination. One of the most remarkable differences between pre-transitional and post-transitional societies is the personal autonomy of women. Demographic change has shifted the domestic gender stereotype women once were obliged to uphold in many countries.

In low fertility societies, women now have more time and resources to attain an education, become a member of the workforce, and serve as human capital. However, the demographic transition will not be as quick or successful if development policies focus only on family planning and contraceptives but not mirroring these development policies with educational opportunities for women. The combination of both healthcare and education will significantly speed up the transition.

Once more women are in the workforce, and their lives are not consumed by child-rearing, they will have greater financial and personal independence and the ability to choose the lifestyle they want, not only the one gender stereotypes and societal standards have created for them. Women who do not marry in adolescence and further their education are more likely to have fewer children and prioritize their own children’s learning. This will commence a cycle of prioritizing education within families and ultimately reduce a nation’s fertility rates. Education is a multi-beneficial investment and one of the most imperative development policies.

Women in demographically transitioned societies are more independent, productive and utilize their time and skills to contribute to their country’s economic growth. However, the demographic transition is not an inevitable process. It requires long-term development policies from social, political, and financial institutions to streamline the process and allow governments to realize the growth potential created by increasing women’s rights.

The rise of feminism will also have a significant presence in these societies more than ever before and lead to reduced inequalities. All in all, demographic transitions have led and will lead to an influx of women breaking free from patriarchal norms and realizing the choices they have over their lives and bodies. Most importantly, we need to keep our global population at a sustainable level, and if providing women with access to reproductive healthcare and education can make that happen. It should be a straightforward plan for countries’ long-term development.

Isabella Petros-Weber is a Master’s candidate studying International Policy and Development at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.