There is nothing more important for policymaking, including of course population policy, than good data. If you don’t know what’s going on out there, you won’t have the ability to get things right, or keep things right. But gathering good information is expensive, and not every country can afford to produce the kinds of demographic data that allow us to know what’s happening.
Enter the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), which since 1984 have been generating data about reproductive, maternal, and child health for developing nations around the world. The surveys are funded largely by the U.S. Agency for International Development, but are always conducted in conjunction with national statistical agencies. The work is coordinated by ICF International in the U.S., and to date more than 300 surveys have been conducted in more than 90 developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The surveys include questions about a woman’s reproductive history and about her children’s health, including measures of height and weight, from which inferences can be made about a child’s physical condition.
A few years ago, questions began to be included in the surveys asking about a woman’s role in the household and her relationships with her husband, in order to generate measures of a woman’s overall status. These data have most recently been mined by demographer Tim Heaton at Brigham Young University in the U.S. His analysis has been published in the latest issue of the journal Biodemography and Social Biology. The journal requires a subscription, and I’m guessing that you haven’t read the article.
Using data for 58 different countries covered by the DHS, and adding in national level data on the status of women, over and above the questions asked in the DHS, Heaton found that:
- Key indicators of child health show improvement in the last 13 years in developing nations. Much of this improvement—90 per cent of the increase in nutritional status and over 60 per cent of the reduction in mortality—is associated with the improving status of women. Increased maternal education, control over reproduction, freedom from violence, access to health care, legislation and enforcement of women’s rights, greater political representation, equality in education, and lower maternal mortality are improving children’s health.
- These results imply that further advancement of women’s position in society would be beneficial—and there is ample room for advancement. A majority of the women in our sample have not completed primary school, over a fourth have an unmet need for family planning, fewer than half delivered with a skilled birth attendant, and nearly half say that wife beating is justified in some cases.
The bottom line here is that lower fertility and improved child health are both promoted by improving the status of women. Many demographers, including at the Vienna Institute of Demography, have been pushing this issue, but everyone who believes that population matters has to keep up the pressure for policymakers to move women’s status higher up the priority ladder.
John R. Weeks, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography
Director, International Population Center
San Diego State University
San Diego, CA 92182-4493 USA