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Lottery of birth
Lottery of birth

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3 What choices do individuals have?

Everyday, millions of individual decisions about reproduction, are made by women and men around the world.

They make decisions about whether or not to have children, whether to have another child, whether to delay having children, whether to use contraception or abortion, or more specifically whether to abort a girl child. These choices are shaped by many social, cultural, political and economic forces that may be present nationally and internationally at a particular time, but they are experienced by individuals who need to make decisions in their lives.

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Figure 7 A health worker in Odisha, India gives advice on contraception to mother-of-two, Tuni, so she can plan the size of her family.

Intentions with regard to having children or how many children, will often be developed, and expressed, in relation to perceived societal norms and familial expectations. Over time, these intentions change according to changes in circumstances.

Haskey (2013) believes that there may be a deeper, more powerful explanation as to why people make the choices they do. For example, a desire for achievement might be linked to the higher social and economic status and higher education achievements of what some prefer to call ‘childfree’ women. Likewise, in more competitive and individualistic societies, there seems to be greater approval, for both men and women, of goals such as higher status employment or financial success , and the bearing and raising children can drift down personal agendas.

Clearly, to some extent, individual choices are also affected by external factors such as whether the country a women is living in makes it easy or easier to combine employment and family life.

In Figure 8, you can see some of the choices made by women, and men, in different countries about whether to have children and how many children to have.

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Figure 8 Percentage of women aged 40–44 who are childless or with three or more children, latest point available, low-fertility countries.

As the graph shows, almost all countries are at different stages of demographic transition.

‘Demographic transition’ is a model that describes changes in population structure as a result of the fall in birth and death rates that is observable right around the world. The video below helps to explain.

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Demographic transition begins with mortality rates – including child mortality rates – falling. Improvements to sanitation and agriculture as well as medical care and education drive down rates of human mortality. Then women, and men, make the choice to raise a smaller number of children whose health and education needs can more easily be met. And as more girls survive and become educated, they too acquire choices other than early marriage and endless childbearing.

The differences between countries at different points on the demographic transition path can be illustrated by looking at two countries with similar population sizes. The table in Figure 9 below contrasts Germany and Ethiopia. They have very similar population sizes but drastically different birth and death rates:

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Figure 9 Key demographic indicators for Germany and Ethiopia, 2010 and projected for 2050.

As you can see, there are some striking differences in the demographic projections of these two countries. May (2011) draws out some of the profoundly difficult decisions facing both of these countries.

A comparison of Germany and Ethiopia provides a stunning example of the current global demographic divide (see table above). On the one hand, persistently low fertility rates in many developed countries jeopardize the health and financial security of the elderly, as illustrated in the case of Germany. On the other, less developed countries and LDCs [Less developed countries] continue to experience rapid population growth, which exacerbate poverty and threaten the environment, as shown by the example of Ethiopia (Kent and Haub 2005). Although roughly similar with respect to their population size, Germany and Ethiopia have very different demographic regimes. More significantly still, the demographic outlook of the two countries will continue to diverge over the next decades. Germany will likely see its total population shrink by about 10m during the next 40 years, while Ethiopia’s population will more than double over the same period, increasing from 85m to 174m. Age structures of the two countries are […] strikingly different. Germany has three times less young people (i.e. below age 15) than Ethiopia. By 2050, Germany’s elderly support ratio will drop to two persons for every German aged 65+. Conversely, Ethiopia has a huge ‘youth burden’ since almost half of its 2010 population is below age 15.

Other demographic indicators continue to highlight the different stages of demographic transition that Germany and Ethiopia have reached. Ethiopia still has high fertility at five children per woman on average, which fuels its rapid population growth. Germany’s fertility, on the contrary, no longer ensures the replacement of generations, which will lead to depopulation. There are more deaths than births in Germany, leaving immigration as the only possibility to counter balance negative population growth. Finally, mortality conditions in Ethiopia are likely to improve: the gap in life expectancy at birth between the two countries is a whopping 25 years and there are more than 100 times more infant deaths in Ethiopia than in Germany.

The global demographic divide does challenge the convergence theory of demographic trends across the globe, which had been proposed by some demographers in the second half of the twentieth century, they based their analysis on the convergence that was observed over the past 50 years in health, wealth, and fertility and mortality trends, probably due to widespread economic and social development.

In fact, two major demographic trends have been observed in most recent decades. The first is the still ongoing decline of mortality, which may increase the natural rate of demographic growth, since more people survive. Nevertheless, mortality conditions have started to diverge, as some developed countries have experienced a worsening of their life expectancy at birth. The example of Russia comes to mind, where alcoholism disease and accidents explain past increases of adult mortality rates. The second trend is the slower than anticipated decline in fertility, particularly in the LDCs, but also in many other developing countries (Bremner, et al., 2010:2–3). Some countries, like Kenya have also experienced stalling fertility transitions (Bougaarts, 2006:3). Indeed fertility decline had been considerably uneven across the world, because fertility could have been less consistently linked to development than have other variables (Dorlet, 2004:534).

(May, 2012)

Millions of decisions made by individual women and men are contributing to these fundamental population shifts and the social and political changes being discussed in this course. For example, the unprecedented low fertility rate (fertility rate refers to the number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years and bear children in accordance with current age specific fertility rates) and longer life expectancy in some places, such as some parts of Europe and some parts of Asia, the still high but falling fertility rates in other places, such as some parts of Asia and Africa, continuing high infant mortality in some places such as parts of Africa and low birth rates (birth rate refers to number of live births per 1000 population per year), with a return to high mortality in others such as Russia.