Gender, Power, and Population Change

By Riley, Nancy E. | Population Bulletin, May 1997 | Go to article overview
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Gender, Power, and Population Change


Riley, Nancy E., Population Bulletin


Gender shapes the lives of all people in all societies. It influences all aspects of our lives, the schooling we receive, the social roles we play, and the power and authority we command. Population processes-where women and men live, how they bear and rear children, and how they die-are shaped by gender as well.

Gender refers to the different roles men and women play in society, and to the relative power they wield. While gender is expressed differently in different societies, in no society do men and women perform equal roles or hold equal positions of power. The impact of this inequality on women's lives varies tremendously. In the United States, for example, this inequality is reflected by a glass ceiling, which keeps most women from advancing to top levels of management. In some Asian societies, gender inequality can compromise the basic health of women in poor families because they are the last in the household to receive food and medical care.

Gender equality has gained wide acceptance as an important goal for many countries around the world. The growing support for and attention to gender equality is bolstered by the assumption that it would improve the lives of most people, especially those of women and children. Many now consider enhancing gender equality to be a vital component of population policies, as expressed by participants from 180 countries at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. The participants agreed on the principle "that advancing gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women, and the elimination of all kinds of violence against women, and ensuring women's ability to control their own fertility, are cornerstones of population and development-related programmes."' Whether and how these declarations are put into action through policies and programs remains to be seen in the next decades.

Most countries now acknowledge that gender and the extent of gender equality will influence the timing and shape of demographic change. Recent research has explored these relationships and has highlighted potential policy implications. In general, as the differences between men's and women's roles diminish, women gain status and power within a society and begin to control their reproductive lives. When women have more autonomy, maternal and child health tends to improve, fertility and childhood mortality tend to decline, and population growth slows.

When women have frequent and numerous births, their life choices are often restricted. Their options increase if they have access to safe, effective means of controlling the timing and number of their births. When women have fewer children, they face fewer years of child care and they are freer to participate in activities in the public sphere, such as paid employment or political office.

Decreasing the number and planning the timing of pregnancies reduce women's risk of dying of pregnancy-related illnesses, especially in low-income countries. Child health also tends to improve with more widely spaced births. Babies are less likely to have a low birth weight if the mother has waited two or more years between pregnancies; and mothers are better able to care for the physical needs of their children if births are fewer and further apart.

Many governments expect population programs that promote gender equality also to influence the timing and shape of demographic change. The growing adoption of these policies makes it imperative to understand the relationship between gender and population processes. However, research tells us that this relationship is not exact and is not the same everywhere or at all times. Gender equality is not likely to translate automatically into mortality or, especially, fertility decline, and both mortality and fertility declines have occurred in places with little gender equality. Social scientists have learned that they must look at the links between fertility, mortality, and gender differences within a social and cultural context.

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