Women's Empowerment and Ideal Family Size: An Examination of DHS Empowerment Measures in Sub-Saharan Africa

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CONTEXT: The Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) program collects data on women's empowerment, but little is known about how these measures perform in Sub-Saharan African countries. It is important to understand whether women's empowerment is associated with their ideal number of children and ability to limit fertility to that ideal number in the Sub-Saharan African context.

METHODS: The analysis used couples data from OHS surveys in four Sub-Saharan African countries: Guinea, Mali, Namibia and Zambia. Women's empowerment was measured by participation in household decision making, attitudes toward wife beating and attitudes toward refusing sex with one's husband. Multivariable linear regression was used to model women's ideal number of children, and multivariable logistic regression was used to model women's odds of having more children than their ideal.

RESULTS: In Guinea and Zambia, negative attitudes toward wife beating were associated with having a smaller ideal number of children (beta coefficients, -0.5 and -0.3, respectively). Greater household decision making was associated with a smaller ideal number of children only in Guinea (beta coefficient, -0.3). Additionally, household decision making and positive attitudes toward women's right to refuse sex were associated with elevated odds of having more children than desired in Namibia and Zambia, respectively (odds ratios, 2.3 and 1.4); negative attitudes toward wife beating were associated with reduced odds of the outcome in Mali (0.4).

CONCLUSIONS: Women's empowerment--as assessed using currently available measures--is not consistently associated with a desire for smaller families or the ability to achieve desired fertility in these Sub-Saharan African countries. Further research is needed to determine what measures are most applicable for these contexts.

International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2012, 38(2):78-89, doi:10.1363/3807812

The literature on women's empowerment has defined and conceptualized "empowerment" using different and often interchangeable terms, including "autonomy," "status" and "agency." (1), (2) According to one definition, empowerment is "the expansion of people's ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously, denied to them." (3) Two central components of empowerment are the agency and the resources needed to exercise life choices. (2), (3) In addition, the construct of women's empowerment encompasses many dimensions, including reproductive, economic, social and cultural, familial and interpersonal, legal, political and psychologica1, (2) which leads to wide variation in conceptualization.

Given this wide variation, women's empowerment is difficult to measure consistently. Studies often assess women's autonomy with an index measuring participation in decision making about various household issues, which represents women's degree of control over their environment. Some researchers include both major decisions (e.g., large household purchases) and minor decisions (e.g., what food to cook) in the index, (4) whereas others exclude day-to-day household choices and those that are traditionally within the woman's domain. (5) Other measures of women's empowerment assess freedom of movement, (6), (7) differences in age and education between marital partners, (8), (9) and the process of spouse selection. (10)

Even with a clear definition and conceptualization, these constructs are difficult to quantify in a standardized way within a given population. To measure empowerment at an individual level, researchers must translate the amorphous construct into a set of specific questions that population-based surveys can ask; ideally, those questions would be applicable to individual respondents with a diverse set of social and demographic characteristics. For example, young women who have not had sex would not have the experience needed to answer questions about sexual power. …


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