Journal Article

Women’s lives and rapid fertility decline: Some lessons from Bangladesh and Egypt

The recent experiences of Bangladesh and Egypt show that fertility can sustain impressive declines even when women’s lives remain severely constrained. Since the late 1970s, rural and urban areas in both countries have experienced steady declines in fertility, with recent declines in rural Bangladesh similar to those in rural Egypt, despite lower levels of development and higher rates of poverty. This paper provides an in-depth exploration of the demographic transition in these two societies and addresses three basic questions: (1) have measurable improvements in economic opportunities for women been a factor in the fertility decline?; (2) can preexisting differences in gender systems explain the more rapid fertility decline in Bangladesh, despite the more modest economic achievements?; (3) can the development strategies adopted by the governments of Bangladesh and Egypt, be seen as additional factors in explaining the similar rural fertility declines despite dissimilar economic circumstances? The paper concludes that neither gender systems nor changes in women’s opportunities appear to have contributed to declining fertility. Indeed, low levels of women’s autonomy have posed no barrier to fertility decline in either country. However, there is a case to be made that Bangladesh’s distinct approach to development, with considerable emphasis on reaching the rural poor and women and a strong reliance on nongovernmental institutions, may have played a part in accelerating the transition in that environment and in helping women to become more immediate beneficiaries of that process.