Developing world's growth slows

Trend to lower birthrates apparently led by newly assertive, aware women

March 10, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

UNITED NATIONS - For decades, experts assumed that the largest developing nations, the home of hundreds of millions in big families, would push the global population to 10 billion people by the end of this century.

Now, there are indications that women in rural villages and the teeming cities of Brazil, Egypt, India and Mexico are proving those predictions wrong. This week, demographers from around the world will meet at the United Nations to reassess the outlook and possibly lower that estimate by about a billion people. In India alone, by 2100 there might be 600 million fewer people than predicted.

The decline in birthrates in those nations defies almost all conventional wisdom. Planners once said - and some still argue - that birthrates would not slow until poverty and illiteracy gave way to higher living standards and better educational opportunities. It now seems that women are not waiting for that to happen. Furthermore, a few demographers maintain that government policies and foreign aid in family planning were not critical factors.

Joseph Chamie, director of the U.N. population division, said: "A woman in a village making a decision to have one or two or at most three children is a small decision in itself. But when these get compounded by millions and millions and millions of women in India and Brazil and Egypt, it has global consequences."

Chamie said it had been assumed that the fertility rates in developing countries - the number of births, on average, per woman - would fall at best only to what is known as replacement level. That number is 2.1, or a little more than one child for each parent. But in big countries, even that pace would add a huge number to a large population base before the trend moderates.

Demographers might now be willing to say that the fertility rates in the big developing countries might drop below the replacement level - and sooner than most would have thought possible.

That would follow the trend established in industrial countries, where the population slowdown has caused concerns about shrinking labor forces and aging populations.

As women are pushing for a larger role in economic life around the world, they are also apparently becoming more assertive within families. "We're breaking both the fertility floor and the glass ceiling," Chamie said.

In India, Gita Sen, professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, said cultural factors are at work.

"Fertility in India is declining, and it is declining faster than many people had expected," she said. One reason, she said, is "that with increasing awareness on the part of women, they are being able to control their own fertility much better."

"It seems to start in one village and then spread to other places around that area," she said. "Attitudes are changing, and people are watching what their neighbors are doing."

Declining infant mortality means mothers are more confident their babies will survive, she added, and so they can have fewer children. She and other experts said urbanization also eases familial controls on women and makes contraceptive pills or devices easier to find.

In Brazil, women have reduced fertility levels without a national family planning policy, wrote Ana Maria Goldani of the department of sociology and Latin American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles in a paper for this week's conference. Brazil's fertility rate has tumbled, from 6.15 to 2.27 in the past half-century, and it continues to fall for reasons that Goldani said are beginning to be analyzed.

Gelson Fonseca, Brazil's ambassador to the United Nations, said television played a role. Brazilians see small and apparently happy families in television programs and think about emulating the example.

In Bangladesh, family planning experts noticed a decade ago that in some of the remotest areas, information gleaned from satellite television was influencing contraceptive choices. In one case, a certain intrauterine device was rejected by many women in an area where one of them had seen it described as hazardous in a Western television program.

The United Nations identifies 74 countries in what it calls the intermediate-level fertility group, with births between 2.1 and 5 per woman.

That group includes very populous countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Some demographers question whether one trend will fit them all, and ask whether it might not be as mistaken to herald a general population decline to below replacement levels as it was to pronounce that the larger developing nations would never reach this stage.

John C. Caldwell of the Australian National University urges caution. In a paper prepared for this week's meeting, he writes of a "loss of fervor" in the developing world for further fertility decline. Countries are not homogenous, he argued, and there are some large ones in Africa and Asia where there will continue to be a preference for more children.

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