The world entered the New Millennium riding on the declining fertility rates across the developing nations. Although the current global population of over 7 billion is at all time high, many will find it interesting that 5 billion people got added in last 100 years alone; world population was around 2 billion in 1914. They will be even more surprised to know that particularly over the past three decades, fertility rates have declined sharply in most of the developing world, barring tropical Africa and a few Middle East nations.
Of course, the global population leader China is the most well known example of population control with its famous (or infamous, depending upon where you stand!) State imposed One Child Policy. But there are countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh that have also achieved similar reduction in fertility, but without forcing their people to limit family size. Instead, they promoted social development and women empowerment while making family planning tools and healthcare easily available to common people. Even in much of the North America, Europe and East Asia the average birthrates have fallen to unprecedented low levels.
“It can be firmly stated that the world is no longer on the path of unrestrained population growth; people everywhere are applying brakes.”
A new book from the Yale University Press, 2013, The Global Spread of Fertility Decline: Population, Fear, and Uncertainty provides a good update as well as a wake-up call for the experts around the world who still live obsessed by the Malthusian fear of the world heading towards a “population explosion.” Like various facets of globalization, the fertility declines are not uniform across nations but the decline is now a rule rather than exception. Only the sub-Saharan nations and countries like Yemen in the Middle East stand out as odd-men out.
The underlying trends clearly mean absence of any upward push to population growth and almost certain decline of fertility rates in the American, European and Asian continents. About 60% global population now lives in countries with sub-replacement fertility rates. In Africa, Nigeria with 174 million people today is expected to have 440 million in 2050. It will be next only to India and China and population of Africa will increase from 1.1 billion today to 2.4 billion in 2050.
The replacement fertility means on the average a woman giving only 2 births during her entire reproductive life of which 1 is likely to be a girl; thus, she exactly replaces herself. For developed societies with good medical facilities the child mortality is quite low and the replacement fertility is assumed to be slightly above two – at 2.1. For less developed societies with higher child mortalities the replacement levels can be easily higher than 2.1. Therefore, if Bangladesh reduced the fertility rate from 6 in 1975 to 2.2 in 2010, it has reached the replacement level and its population would eventually stabilize after about 3 decades. After a country has reached the replacement fertility level, its population continues to grow for some time due to “population momentum”, then stabilizes and then starts to decline.
Its giant neighbor India is struggling at around 2.6 but is likely to hit the replacement level around 2020 and its population would peak near 1.65 billion at about 2050. Achieving the replacement fertility is an important milestone for a society; it nullifies the possibility of unrestrained growth in the future. Fertility rates below the replacement levels lead to shrinking population numbers after population stabilization, as is already happening in many European nations and Japan, for instance.
It is well known that social development leads to reduced fertility rates. Leaving aside the higher fertility of the 1950s and early 1960s, after the Second World War, the developed nations had achieved lower birthrates long time ago. After the mid 1960s fertility rates had begun to fall again. By the 1970s, they had declined to low levels, first in Central Europe, especially Germany, and in East Asia, starting with Japan and followed by the four “Asian Tigers” – South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The trend then gripped the Mediterranean Europe – Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal.
Most notable recent example of drastic reduction in fertility is the population leader China. Its fertility rate of 1.7 is similar to those of many European nations. The other Asian giant India has also done well with the country average fertility rate at 2.6 – barring its poorest northern states rest of the country is already below or near the replacement level fertility.
What led to reduced Fertility Rates?
Traditionally, experts have advised State policies to regulate people’s reproductive behavior; China’s One-Child policy is a classic example, which started in 1979. But since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) of 1994 held in Cairo, the population control thought-process has undergone a paradigm shift. It introduced the concept of “reproductive rights” of women and turned the population issue into a “development problem” while keeping women in the center of attention. It prescribed women empowerment as an important social development measure. Once women are removed from the shadows of patriarchal dominance they are in a better position to decide about how to participate in the social and economic activities, when to marry and when and how many children to have. Given the availability of family planning tools they naturally go for lesser births.
Penetration of healthcare services in the rural areas along with increasing availability of different contraceptives have ensured that people can take control of births rather easily. The issue of girls’ education and social advancement of women becomes important from another angle – that breeding and family-care are not the only roles women should be restricted to. As this message is spread by the media, social activists and health workers the need for State regulation on fertility becomes meaningless. Thus, countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh achieved quick results as in China but without infringing on the rights of the people.
In fact, there are skeptics who believe that China’s success was more a result of social progress than the infamous single child policy which mainly served to distort the sex ratio by encouraging abortions of girl fetuses. Sociologists are wary of the long term social impact of sex selective abortions that still continues – between 30 to 50 million girls have gone ‘missing’ from the Chinese society. By now it is a common knowledge that whenever State controls are imposed on fertility, people start aborting girls in favor of boys – it is more or less a global phenomenon. Yet another consequence of sudden drop is birthrate is the phenomenon of aging population after – too many aged people in society. China is anticipating this phase very soon and is worried about the shrinking size of the working population after another decade or so.
Demographer John Bongaart has predicted in the mid 1990s that in the 21st century about half of the population growth would come from population momentum – too many people in the child bearing age. The remedy for reducing population growth lies in postponing pregnancies rather than sterilization which has been the traditional prescription for population control. Bongaart suggested that if the average age of women at the first birth is raise by 2.5 years, it would reduce population momentum by 40%.
In India, preventing girls’ marriages below 18 alone would immediately reduce the fertility rate to below replacement level. Teen-marriages and teen-pregnancies are the major cause of population growth in the developing nations.
While experts are still obsessed with the Malthusian fear of population explosion, the realities have changed significantly in last few decades. Apart from the sub-Saharan Africa and some Middle East nations, fertility rates are declining everywhere. The proper way to population control passes through social progress and women empowerment, rather than the state control on family size (as in China). In the 21st century world, it is no longer right to see women as mere breeders or family caretakers; their involvement in the social activities is equally important for proper and balanced development of the world.