Population Research and Policy Review 21: 275–317, 2002.
© 2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Women’s lives and rapid fertility decline: Some lessons from
Bangladesh and Egypt
SAJEDA AMIN & CYNTHIA B. LLOYD
The Population Council, One Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, New York, NY 10017, U.S.A.
Abstract. 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.
Keywords: Bangladesh, Egypt, fertility decline, gender, policy
In some of the more persistently traditional parts of the world, fertility is fall-
ing steadily, sometimes rapidly, in environments where women’s lives remain
severely constrained. The recent experiences of Bangladesh and Egypt, both
predominantly Muslim countries, are illustrative in this regard. Both societies
can be characterized as religiously and ethnically homogeneous and socially
conservative. Their rural populations (55 percent of the total for Egypt, 82
percent for Bangladesh) shared roughly the same level of fertility of about six
children per woman in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since that time, 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. A fuller exploration
of these two transitions reveals important differences in development styles
and subtle differences in gender systems that may have implications for the
future course of the transition and for the lives of women in these two settings,
as well as in other settings where women’s lives remain constrained.