Power and Empowerment

Recently, demographers interested in understanding gender's role in fertility and mortality have focused on the issues of power and empowerment. While not all agree that this is the best way to understand gender's role in demographic behavior, this work has nevertheless produced insights into these issues, as suggested above in our discussions of Balk (1994) and Durrant and Sathar (2000). Discussion of a few pieces of research cannot do justice to all that is being done but will give the flavor and general direction of the field. In research on the determinants of contraceptive behavior in Ethiopia, Hogan, Berhanu, and Hailemariam (1999) relied heavily on conventional measures of women's position, including literacy, women's work, and age differences between spouses. They found that literacy, in particular, influences women's knowledge of and use of contraception. Those measures, as we have seen, are not particularly useful proxies of women's position, even though they help to explain contraceptive behavior. But these researchers have also included a measure that more directly gauges women's position: their involvement in household decisions. They found that rural women who are highly involved in household decisions are 36% more likely to use a contraceptive than are those who are less involved. While the mechanisms of this relationship are not fully spelled out, this research and others like it suggest that women's contraceptive and fertility behavior is linked to their role in their households.

Other researchers have delved further into the issue of women's power, either at the community or the household level, to examine the relationship between power and demographic outcomes. Unequal structures of power are present at many, and often several, layers of society, as these examples indicate. Browner's (1986) work on an indigenous community in Mexico has demonstrated how women's inability to resist community expectations of fertility can result in their having more children than they prefer. While the Mexican government pressured women to limit their births, many in their own community believed that high fertility would help to stave off ethnic elimination. In this situation, women were caught between two conflicting pressures. Even those who wanted to limit their fertility were unable to realize their desires. Not only did they have to negotiate these competing pressures, but their unequal access to decision-making power relative to village men also played a role. In this village, then, women's difficulty in navigating both the larger political tensions and structures and the household dynamics meant that fertility remained high despite government efforts and women's desires.

Kerala, India, has often been used as an example of a place where women's status has had a strong negative correlation with fertility. Many have argued that women's high levels of education are influential in Kerala's low fertility rates. Using Kerala Fertility Survey data from three Kerala districts, Rajan, Ramanathan, and Mishra (1996) found that the pathways of influence are more complicated than this simple correlation might indicate. They argue that the increase in female literacy and the rise in women's age at marriage were actually the outcome of other processes. With increases in male schooling came an increased demand for brides with higher levels of schooling. Parents were thus compelled to educate their daughters to make them more eligible marriage partners. Women's increased levels of schooling, in turn, meant later age at marriage.

Their results suggest that gender's role is best understood by examining not only women's behavior and characteristics but men's as well. They found, for example, that although higher education is associated with greater autonomy for women (defined through a series of measures related to sources of income, buying power, and independence in seeking health services for their children), Keralan women, in general, do not have a high level of autonomy. Most women do not retain control of their income or property, and most women have to seek their husband's permission when they want to make purchases. Thus, while the relationship between women's education and fertility remains robust, Rajan and colleagues concluded that, given the pathway of influence, it is better characterized as the effect of the wife's and husband's education on fertility outcome.

Marriage timing is also a key issue in recent fertility in Japan: delayed marriage age has substantially influenced falling fertility rates in that country. Here again, changes in women's position have been central to these demographic changes. Tsuya (2000) has examined marriage behavior of young Japanese women and has argued that women view marriage more negatively than do men, and unmarried women residing with their parents are particularly likely to see the negative consequences (both psychological and material) of marriage. The subordination of and constraints placed on women within marriage makes these issues particularly salient. As Tsuya has phrased it, ''the institution of marriage is not serving the needs and desires of adult Japanese, especially

Japanese women, well'' (Tsuya 2000: 343). She argued that marriage delay thus can be seen as evidence of young Japanese women's empowerment; they use their education, jobs, and living situations (often with their parents) to postpone marriage and remain independent as long as possible.

A study done in Nigeria takes a different perspective on how gender might influence demographic outcomes—in this case fertility. Renne (1993) has asked, Why do beliefs about women and men and their place in society affect decisions about reproduction? She found that men continue to dominate in most areas of this Yoruba village; men are the property owners, families are patrilineal, and ''the husband is the head of the wife,'' (Renne 1993: 346) as one respondent stated. But even within this maledominated setting, women (and men) find strategies to obtain their reproductive goals. Renne argued that now that women are receiving more education, there has been an ideational shift in that women feel an enhanced self-worth that allows them to argue that they should take part in reproductive decisions. They are more likely to discuss contraceptive use and reproductive goals with their husbands and to assert their own ideas and goals in this area of family life. Here, then, women's increased power has not resulted in changes in overall male dominance but has given women new strategies to achieve their own goals in this one important area of their lives.

Thus, in these studies we can see how gender influences demographic outcomes through women's use of power in smaller or larger areas of their lives. While researchers are still endeavoring to measure women's power and status in ways that truly capture what is happening in their lives, this research has underscored the importance of power in understanding gender's role.

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