Recent Fertility Decline in Eritrea: Is It a Conflict-Led Transition?

By Woldemicael, Gebremariam | Demographic Research, January-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Recent Fertility Decline in Eritrea: Is It a Conflict-Led Transition?


Woldemicael, Gebremariam, Demographic Research


Abstract

During a period of military conflict towards the end of the 1990s, Eritrea experienced a remarkable decline in fertility. This decline has been a concern to many Eritreans. An important issue of concern has been whether the decline is driven primarily by the recent border conflict with Ethiopia or by changes in other factors including delay in age at marriage, improvements in child survival and the socio-cultural changes that pre-dated the conflict. Using retrospective event histories from the 1995 and 2002 Eritrea Demographic and Health Surveys (EDHS), this study provides an in-depth exploration of recent fertility change in Eritrea. The findings illustrate that although marriage delay might have played a role in the decline of first births, a decline in fertility within marriage - partly due to cessation of childbearing after families reach their desired family size - is the major contributor to the overall decline. Even though we cannot conclude that the overall fertility decline primarily is the outcome of the conflict, there is evidence that it has contributed substantially to the decline, particularly for first birth fertility. The implications of these findings for theories about fertility change in times of military conflict is that crises may not be likely to initiate a sustainable overall fertility transition, but can still prompt short-term fertility changes among certain social groups or modify an ongoing decline.

1. Introduction

Although Eritrea is one of the countries that have witnessed a steady decline in fertility during a military conflict, there is very little evidence that describes how fertility declined so rapidly in a country that apparently meets few of the standard preconditions for fertility transition including significant socio-economic progress, major declines in child mortality, and substantial changes in the status of women. Some progress was made in the realms of education, health care services and agriculture after independence in 1991, particularly between 1992 and 1998, but after this period, Eritrea experienced severe economic declines, internal displacement, and military mobilization as a result of the 1998-2000 border conflict with Ethiopia (GSE and UNICEF, 2001). The records from the EDHS surveys show that Eritrea's infant and child mortality has rapidly and consistently declined since the mid-1990s (NSEO and ORC Macro Inc., 1997, 2003). In terms of women's status, like in most other sub-Saharan African countries, men's dominance and women's dependency on men still exists in Eritrea, particularly in the rural societies, even though some improvements have been made since the struggle for independence (this is discussed in the background section). Regarding the proximate determinants of fertility, Bongaarts and Potter (1983) argue that an increase in contraceptive use and in induced abortion, a relatively late age at marriage as well as long periods of post-partum sexual abstinence and postpartum ammenorrhoea can substantially reduce fertility from its natural maximum. In Eritrea, although contraceptive use is very low and has barely increased since 1995, and duration of postpartum amenorrhoea has remained almost constant since that time, there are indications of recent delays in age at first marriage and increased proportions of never-married women at ages 15-49 (NSEO & ORC Macro Inc, 1997, 2003). In addition, the proportion of married women currently residing with their husband has declined significantly between 1995 and 2002, particularly among younger women (see Table 1). Thus, the decline in fertility can be related to one or more of the proximate variables (Bongaarts et al., 1984) that have changed in recent years, while background variables such as women's educational attainment, urbanization, etc., may have affected fertility by modifying these proximate determinants.

Today, despite the uncertainties that surround the nature and causes of changes in Eritrea's fertility, no comprehensive evidence is available, with the exception of one article on the role of conflict in the rapid fertility decline in Eritrea and its prospects for the future by Blanc (2004) and the reports of the 1995 and 2002 EDHS surveys (NSEO and ORC Macro Inc. …

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