Academic journal article Demographic Research

Attitudes towards Abortion and Contraception in Rural and Urban Burkina Faso

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Attitudes towards Abortion and Contraception in Rural and Urban Burkina Faso

Article excerpt


Using results from the ethnographic literature and two qualitative studies on people's representations of different means of birth control (abstinence, contraception, abortion) in two populations in Burkina Faso (one rural and one urban), we designed a multidimensional quantitative scale to measure individuals' attitudes towards varied means of birth control. We applied it in two representative surveys in rural and urban Burkina Faso. Relating individuals' attitudes towards birth control to their socio-demographic characteristics and to their attitudes towards other life dimensions, and applying N. Elias' theory of the civilization process, we seek to explain why abortion is less tolerated, while more widely practiced, in the city than in the villages.

1. Introduction

Reproductive practices in contemporary Europe are usually studied in the light of existing family planning or child care services, or in terms of economic constraints and opportunities. But policy and economic explanations are not sufficient to explain the range of reproductive practices observed across Europe. Meanings individuals attribute to sexuality and conjugality, their representations of gender roles, reproduction and parenthood also deeply shape how, when, and with whom they have sex, whether or not they use contraception, and, once pregnant, their decisions to abort or give birth.

One could expect, for instance, that today's young men and women exhibit no differences as to when and with whom they have sex for the first time, given the progress in gender equality achieved since the late 1960s. Although over this period women's sexual practices have become more similar to men's in many respects (for example concerning the average number of sexual partners), young women in France still have their first sexual encounter at an older age than young men, often with a partner they say they are in love with, while young men experience sex for the first time at a younger age, often with an occasional partner (Spira, Bajos and the ACSF team, 1993). These differences stem from the fact that sexual relations still do not represent the same thing for these two groups of individuals: women are more likely to envision sex as part of a loving relationship, while men remain more likely to separate the affective and sexual spheres, although their vision of sexuality has converged on many other points.

As this example shows, the meanings attributed by individuals to diverse behaviours are not distributed at random, nor are they innate. They are shared by groups of individuals in the same social position, and passed on to some extent from one generation to the next. This example also shows that the meanings given to sexuality and reproduction are social constructs whose content can evolve, in particular when the power balance between diverse social subgroups changes (Elias 1939, Foucault 1976, 1984, 1997): we see that men and women's representations (and practices) in the area of sexuality converge to some extent as women gain power. Finally, this example shows that belief systems do not evolve as one block: closely related human representations (and behaviours) can change at different speeds, and may sometimes become contradictory. For example, these young French men, whose perception and practice of sexuality remain more instrumental than that of women, believe at the same time in the value of women's work. Moreover, social groups are open to the influence of other societies they are in contact with, creating yet another source of diversity in belief systems. Confronted at one point in time with different and sometimes conflicting representations on the same topic, individuals can choose those which best fit their interest of the moment (Hammel 1990); the link between representations and practices is thus often less than straightforward.

Most quantitative surveys on European reproduction (i.e. the Family and Fertility Surveys, the Gender and Generation Program) include some measures of individual representations on this topic (attitudinal questions), but these data remain under-utilized to date. …

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