Family Change in Nepal: Evidence from Western Chitwan

By Ghimire, Dirgha J.; Axinn, William G. | Contributions to Nepalese Studies, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Family Change in Nepal: Evidence from Western Chitwan


Ghimire, Dirgha J., Axinn, William G., Contributions to Nepalese Studies


Family change has been of central interest in both academia and the policy arena for some time. Because family has always had the primary responsibility for raising children, caring for individuals as they age, and generally pursuing the welfare of their individual members, and changes in the family have important influences on individuals, the study of family change has received great attention in this research literature. Moreover, as social scientists discovered the many different forms of family change around the world, the study of the transitions became a central focus of family research (Goode 1970; Thornton 2001, 2005; Thornton and Lin 1994). These include the transition from large families with extended family living, high parental authority, low youth autonomy, young ages at marriage and childbearing, low levels of fertility control, or low women's status and independence to smaller families with nuclear family living, low parental control, high youth autonomy, older age at marriage and childbearing, high levels of fertility control including childlessness, or high women's status and independence, commonly labeled as western family behaviour.

Here we document the changes in family life in Nepal and examine the driving forces behind those changes in a society beginning with high fertility, young age at marriage and childbearing, low youth autonomy and low use of birth control. To document the family changes and the forces behind those changes, we take advantage of the Chitwan Valley Family Study (CVFS), a longitudinal panel study specifically designed to study families and family formation behaviours in a rapidly changing society.

The Chitwan Valley in central Nepal provides an ideal setting for studying the transition from a historical Nepali family system to a new family system with western family behaviours. Up until the early 1970s, Chiwan was an isolated valley surrounded by rivers and dense forest and heavily infested by malaria. It was a purely subsistence agricultural society with most social activities organized within families and patterns of family formation as they had been for centuries. Beginning in the late 1970s, Chitwan valley has undergone a dramatic social change that spurred the spread of wage labor employment, schools, markets, transportation, government services, and the mass media. In 1995 we launched the Chitwan Valley Family Study (CVFS) to document the rapid social changes occurring in Chitwan and to investigate their influence on family formation behaviours. By 2005, this project has accumulated more than two-dozen studies of factors implicated in changing the timing of marriage, the arrangement of marriage, family size preferences, the timing of first birth and the use of contraception for spacing childbearing. Each of these dimensions of family formation has undergone tremendous change in Chitwan Valley.

We begin with a theoretical framework designed to explain the change in these family behaviours. We draw on the family mode of social organization approach to explain family change and variation in this setting (Thornton and Fricke 1987; Thornton, Fricke, Yang and Chang 1994). Next we turn to empirical evidence about family change in Nepal. Drawing on results from several different studies using data from the CVFS, we summarize the evidence of family change and the drivers of these changes in Chitwan valley.

Theoretical Framework

The family is the primary group within which most individuals spend the majority of their lifetimes and in which virtually all individuals spend the early years of their lives, making the family a ubiquitous element of social life and a common object of social research (Goode 1970; Thornton 2001; 2005). In fact, family has always had the primary responsibility for raising children, caring for individuals as they age, and generally pursuing the welfare of their individual members. Given the centrality of the family in most societies, family change has been so important that numerous theorists have focused on these phenomena to understand change and variation in the families around the world. …

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