, Volume 21, Issue 4, pp 275-317

Women's lives and rapid fertility decline: Some lessons from Bangladesh and Egypt

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Abstract

The recent experiences of Bangladesh and Egypt show thatfertility can sustain impressive declines even when women's lives remain severely constrained.Since the late 1970s, rural and urban areas in both countries have experienced steadydeclines in fertility, with recent declines in rural Bangladesh similar to those in ruralEgypt, despite lower levels of development and higher rates of poverty. This paperprovides an in-depth exploration of the demographic transition in these two societies andaddresses three basic questions: (1) have measurable improvements in economic opportunities forwomen been a factor in the fertility decline?; (2) can preexisting differences in gender systemsexplain the more rapid fertility decline in Bangladesh, despite the more modest economicachievements?; (3) can the development strategies adopted by the governments ofBangladesh and Egypt, be seen as additional factors in explaining the similar rural fertilitydeclines despite dissimilar economic circumstances? The paper concludes that neither gender systemsnor changes in women's opportunities appear to have contributed to declining fertility.Indeed, low levels of women's autonomy have posed no barrier to fertility decline in eithercountry. However, there is a case to be made that Bangladesh's distinct approach to development,with considerable emphasis on reaching the rural poor and women and a strong reliance onnongovernmental institutions, may have played a part in accelerating the transition in thatenvironment and in helping women to become more immediate beneficiaries of that process.