Academic journal article Population

The Fertility of Palestinian Women in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon

Academic journal article Population

The Fertility of Palestinian Women in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon

Article excerpt

The 1948 Arab-Israeli war marks an important development in the history of the Middle East. As a result of the war, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes and sought refuge mainly in Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, and Syria (Morris, 1987). During the next 50 years, the Palestinian refugee population grew rapidly. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), there are approximately 3.7 million refugees in these countries - making it one of the largest refugee populations in the world today (Roudi, 2001). The sources of population growth among the Palestinians are well known: mortality declined substantially while fertility remained exceptionally high, and sometimes increased (Khawaja, 2000).

There is considerable debate concerning the lack of fertility decline among the Palestinian populations despite favourable socio-economic conditions. Given the relatively high levels of female education and the low levels of infant mortality, the persistently high fertility among Palestinians, especially in Gaza and the West Bank, is "a demographic puzzle" (Randall, 2001). Indeed, research shows that mass schooling is one of the most powerful predictors of fertility change almost everywhere (Caldwell, 1982). In her review of the literature, Cochrane (1979) identified several pathways through which education affects fertility, concluding that in most cases, the net effect is positive. Education is commonly used to index modernization and socio-economic development more generally (Cleland and Wilson, 1987). Higher educational achievement also lowers fertility through later age at marriage and birth, the use of contraception, and the acquisition of small family ideals. Moreover, girls' schooling provides an environment for social interaction and the transmission of modern values (Bledsoe et al., 1999).

However, Mason (1987) and Jeffrey and Basu (1996) have argued that contrary to the conventional demographic transition account, the impact of education and other "modernizing" factors such as non-household employment may not be universal, but is conditional on political, social, and cultural contexts. Despite some qualifications raised by many authors more recently (e.g. Bledsoe et al., 1999; Jejeebhoy, 1995), the socioeconomic status of women indexed by education is generally the most salient influence on childbearing in most societies. This is so not merely because of improved employment prospects for educated women, but also because educated women have different outlooks and ideas about family, childbearing and life more generally (Cleland, 1985).

It is known by now that high educational attainment by women did not lead to a fertility decline in many Arab countries (Cleland, 1994). In our context, as we shall see, there is a clear overall relationship between education and fertility in the four settings considered here, but the question remains: how can we account for the persistently high fertility in these settings, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza, despite the high levels of educational attainment of Palestinian women, and especially of the refugees among them?

The political factor, namely the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has been commonly singled out to account for the persistently high fertility levels among Palestinians. According to one interpretation of this perspective, population numbers are important ideologically and "can be used as weapons against occupation" (Courtage, 1995, p. 215). Pronatalist ideologies advanced by nationalist movements and the media during the course of conflicts are quite common, and the Palestinian case is no exception. Calls for increased childbearing during the recent popular uprisings in the Palestinian areas are well documented (Tamari and Scott, 1991). As Fargues (2000, p. 469) puts it, "fertility was high because it was desired". On the other hand, people in conflict-ridden contexts desire children as an insurance against expected deaths during wartime (Goldscheider, 1996). …

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