"Population, Fertility and Development from a Gender Perspective: Building Strategies for Empowerment of Women"

by Yoriko Meguro, Ph.D.

Professor, Dept. of Sociology, Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan


Madame/Mr. Chairperson, distinguished delegates, colleagues and friends, It is an honor and a privilege for me to be invited to take part in this panel.

  1. Introduction: a brief review of achievement and problems.

As I review the progress of our global endeavor through the past quarter of a century, one of the outstanding landmarks was the adoption of "empowerment of women" as a strategy concept for the advancement of women since the Third World Conference of Women held in Nairobi. This concept, at the same time, is an ideological one based on the assumption that achieving gender equality is right and correct both as a goal and as a process of development. It is also an analytical concept. Empowering women in relation to men means not only that women gain more power but that the power relationship between women and men changes fundamentally, thus creating a new social system which inevitably challenges the existing social structure and cultural values.

We recognize that there have been some achievements: gender perspectives have increasingly been included in policy making; some improvements have been made in constructing a gender-equal opportunity structure; equal participation in the family and in society in general has been endorsed and institutionally supported. Even when a gender equality law is enacted, however, its enforcement is often another story. Equal participation tends to be more nominal than substantial. Less institutional, and less visible areas of sexuality such as violence against women and women's human rights emerged to the surface as serious problems which would remain to be coped with in the coming century. There are still many dimensions of women's life which we do not know about due to the lack of gender-dissagregated data.

In most societies, women are trapped in gender-specified activities since the gender-division of labor is believed to be connected with women's biological characteristics. Such a situation hinders their access to resources for empowerment.

2. Why focus on population and fertility?

When we try to build strategies, it is essential that we identify the baseline facts around the problem we intend to address as assumptions. Aging is an undeniable global trend. Demographic changes demand a restructuring of social systems, which means that existing relationships must change. It is, therefore, historically a good opportunity for engendering social systems.

Women, in most societies, outlive men. Therefore, the problem of the aged is the problem of women under the existing gendered system. The introduction of the concept of reproductive health and rights was a critical call for shifting the emphasis in demographic analyses from a macro to a micro approach in order to mainstream a gender perspective in population policies. What is needed is to connect the two approaches, since independent decision-making individuals live in a demographic context.

I find good evidence in the area of population and fertility to extract possible strategies for empowerment of women to apply in the next few years. My aim is to attempt to develop strategies based on such cases.


  1. Possible strategies
  1. Unintended outcome (by-product) analyses
  2. There is no doubt that we have endeavored to find ways to achieve gender equality. There are, however, gender-related outcomes which are not expected. I would like to draw your attention to one outcome that was not originally intended or which was a by-product of some efforts which might not have had women's empowerment as a specific goal. If we find evidence that such outcomes lead to women's empowerment, why not study them to find out what factors produce women's empowerment as by-products? Through such analyses, we are able to make an inventory of situations where non-gender types of policies or programs contribute to the enhancement of gender equality.

    The first example to which I would like to refer is the well-documented correlation between women's education and child mortality, particularly in developing countries. Women's education is also correlated with fertility and maternal mortality.

    Since fertility is determined by the survival of the previous-to-the-last child (Child Survival, Health and Family Planning Programs and Fertility, United Nations,1996, p.9), a decrease in child mortality will decrease the frequency of intentional pregnancy, which in turn influences maternal mortality, and these are all related to the level of education of the mother. It will be important to identify the component of education which influences the outcome variables because statistical analyses only show that these variables are significantly related. Education itself may contribute to the promotion of gender equality or to the maintenance of a power relationship based on gender.

    Another example is a development aid project implemented by the Japan International Cooperation Agency in Kenya on family planning education. The intended outcome was dissemination of awareness and the practice of family planning. Under a confining circumstance, the project expert approached women in the target villages to introduce a simple cooking stove easily built with available bricks and mud. The design of the stove is such that water is heated on the side of the stove. This stove was welcomed by the women as a means of supplying boiled water for their children and maintaining hygienic and healthier living conditions. This project was considered to be a gateway to the goal of the original project, but the unintended outcome could be evaluated as a success since the cooking stove mini-project initiated activities to improve living conditions in the community.

  3. Identifying women's bargaining power to negotiate

Women need to negotiate with those in power to change the existing gender-discriminatory system. If there is any kind of power that women have, it can be utilized as a resource for bargaining to gain more power or a different kind of power. In this regard, I would like to introduce the following examples, so that we may look for what women already have as resources to be strategically utilized for further empowerment.

The first example is found in the relationship between fertility and social responses in industrialized countries. The fertility rates in the Western industrialized countries declined to the below-replacement level in the 1960s. Contraceptive devices, legalized abortion, women's acquisition of higher education and paid work, secularization of values, together with increased acceptance of cohabitation and reproduction among unwed couples, the delayed timing of marriage and the birth of the first child caused a "revolutionary" change which led to the low fertility rate. However, some countries, such as Sweden and the United States, where the participation of women in the labor market was common, eventually regained their earlier levels.

If we assume that implementation of family policies promotes reproductive activities, Sweden may be an appropriate case, but not the United States. The U.S. was perhaps the least active in making such efforts at the time. Then, what explains the correlation between fertility and women's work participation? My colleague, Dr. Atoh, hypothesized, based on OECD Labor Force statistics, that the social response to women entering the workplace is the intervening variable. He found that Sweden, on one hand, made efforts to build a balanced system of economic and reproductive sectors on the basis of gender equality as an ideal. The United States, on the other hand, experienced what we might call "gender revolution" when the workplace made efforts to accept women as full-fledged workers and men began to assume family responsibilities, so that both women and men could reconcile their productive and reproductive activities. It is evident that countries with low levels of fertility such as Italy and Spain experienced a lower level of women's participation in the workplace than other countries among the Western industrialized countries. The successful social response, whether by the government in the form of policies or by the private sector and individuals, is based on gender equality as an ideal and also a realistic way of coping with the "problem."

The second example comes from the experience of Japan. Economic recovery was the national goal in the post-Second World War period and industrialization became the means to this end. Industrialization inevitably created the modern family system as the institution that would reproduce human capital for efficient production in the workplace. The pairing of a breadwinner (the husband) and a housewife (the wife) fitted the industrial system characterized by the gender division of labor within the family, and between the reproductive institution of the family and the productive institution of work.

Under such a system, women who worked were "allowed" to take a different track than men; women were concentrated in the low-paid, less-skilled, and less-stable areas of work, and they were utilize as an adjustable valve by means of which the labor supply for cost-effective production could be controlled. Many women, under this system, had to work to supplement their family income. This system of gender-differentiated roles contributed greatly to the economic growth of Japan. The fit between this modern family system and the economic system did not last long. By the mid-1970s, the life course of the Japanese people began to change, due to extended longevity and falling fertility rates. Both women and men were marrying later, and having fewer children . The post-parenting period emerged as a consequence. While men continued to play the breadwinner role in these changing circumstances, women began to question the normative, expected life as the "housewife/wife/mother." This attitudinal gender gap is highly related to increased work participation and higher level of education of women, and to the considerable delaying of the first marriage. Demographic analyses concluded that the postponement of marriage was the direct cause of the continued dramatic decline in the fertility rate since the mid-1970s.

We must ask, then, why men did not change their view and attitude on their gender role as the breadwinner. Throughout the past fifty years, policies and programs relating to taxation, pension, health care insurance, school education, and work contributed to the maintenance of the social framework based on the notion of gender-differentiated roles, that is, the family as the unit on which social policies were to be based.

At the same time, the government's commitment to the World Plan of Action adopted at the First World Conference of Women in 1975 and the subsequent international agreements promoted the notion of gender equality without reconciling the existing, conflicting notions on gender roles.

The inconsistency between family-based policies and programs and those encouraging women's independent rights creates a sense of uncertainty among the younger generation today because, while they value the idea of making choices, it is difficult for them to find an image of their future life.

Young men are more confined to their gender role while women try to make choices for a life style which demands little cost. This, according to a recent analysis I carried out with my colleagues, is the main cause not only of the delay in marriage but also of the low overall fertility rate and of an emerging trend toward having fewer children among married couples.

The relevant point is that it may not take a gender revolution to change the existing gender system. The majority of women in Japan are not feminists in the narrow sense. The system changed because their conception of womanhood and housewife-hood became challenged by the change in the pattern of life course which in return was caused by demographic changes. In short, they began to question their gender roles. Change occurred because the existing gendered system was so rigid that they consciously or unconsciously chose not to enter into marriage and the trap motherhood at the expected time. Japan's overall economic success made it possible for the parents to continue to support their adult children when young women, in particular, working in gender-segregated workplaces could not afford to live independently.

Japan's leaders are aware today that it is not politically correct to tell women to stay home to reproduce more, as they did ten years ago when the fertility rate dropped to a critically low level. Though many of them still believe personally that women are more likely to choose to become mothers when given some incentives, the social response to this issue of critically low fertility is a shift in the direction of restructuring the existing system. If such a reconstructing is carried out, it would be a step toward building a gender-equal society. This declining fertility created a social crisis which gave women power to negotiate changes in the existing system.

4. Conclusion

Both of the strategies just described have become clear when existing micro data are reexamined from a gender perspective. Macro demographic statistical data are not sufficient for gender analyses since significantly related variables differ from society to society. Country-based and community-based studies are essential for identifying key variables in specific settings. Such studies will provide data from which more generalizable, systematic analyses can be derived, regardless of the critical areas of concern, from a gender perspective. The strength of these strategies is that they make us aware of what we already have, so that we may utilize existing resources in order to make further advances.