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This annual event identifies and highlights leading research and scholarly findings on women’s empowerment in the field of development economics. Past conferences have focused on family planning as a tool for economic empowerment, the role of the private sector in improving the lives of women and girls, and high-impact donor interventions such as cash transfers to women. The conference series is named after CGD’s founding president Nancy Birdsall.
On International Women’s Day it is right to celebrate the huge advances in women’s rights during our own lifetimes. In almost every country in the world, women are closer to achieving equality in economic and social activity. However, even as we celebrate progress, we cannot lose sight of the road still to travel. Every day millions of women around the globe face obstacles, small and large, in being able to make decisions about their own lives and being able to do what they want to realize their full economic and human potential.
These obstacles take many forms—social norms and expectations, legal barriers, and poverty and inequality—and changing attitudes and behaviors unfortunately can take years of education and exposure to new thinking. But there are areas where concerted international action can accelerate the pace of change, and we need to make sure that these are high enough on the agenda for international development leaders.
One such area is support for family planning and contraception. In development circles, only recently is the case for modern contraception being made on the grounds of economic empowerment. Access to contraception allows women to postpone childbearing and to take up career options that were previously precluded. With the help of family planning tools, women can now envisage investing in professional training that may take several years, because they are confident that their plans will not be derailed by the unexpected birth of a child. As my colleague, Nancy Birdsall, points out in her recent blog on this subject, the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1970s led to a rapid and marked increase in the US in the number of women applying for medical and law training, not only because they were able to plan their professional training with more confidence, but because the admission committees of these universities could also rely on the same phenomenon to increase their comfort in offering places to applicants who would more likely complete their courses.
More recent evidence, which we discussed at a recent conference here at CGD, found that access to family planning in developing countries can lead to “increased schooling, labor force participation, occupational choice, and wages.” The interesting new finding is that the simple availability (not necessarily use) of family planning services has an impact on the behavior and expectations of girls and their families. In Malaysia, for example, girls living near family planning clinics remained in school six months longer on average. In Indonesia researchers have found that the presence of family planning programs when young women are making school attendance decisions increases substantially their educational attainment. The explanation is that because girls and their parents can envisage a future where the timing of their first child and the spacing of children is possible, they are willing to invest more in schooling or to make a commitment to working in the future, even if they themselves are not using these services at that time.
The gains from greater women’s economic empowerment accrue not only to women but to society as a whole. According to a McKinsey study, achieving gender parity in economic participation could add a quarter ($28 trillion) to the world economy by 2025. In the Middle East, where the gap between male and female participation in the work force is three times larger than the average for all developing countries, simply narrowing that gap to being twice as large as the average would add $1 trillion to economic activity over a decade. If you look through the economic literature there are many equally striking estimates of the gains that would come through greater economic empowerment of women at the regional, national or global level.
While these numbers are impressive and helpful in making the case for increased access to family planning services on the grounds of economic impact, I believe that they must be secondary to the fundamental issue of women’s rights. Two hundred million women who want to prevent pregnancy are not currently using modern contraception—too often because of poverty or environmental restrictions that deny them access to this essential service.
Given these facts, it is a shame to see the decline in international support for expanding family planning services in developing countries. UNFPA, the UN agency charged with ending maternal deaths and promoting family planning services, is facing a $700 million gap for funding contraceptives over the next three years. Here in the US, the administration’s budget proposals for FY19 entail a 50 percent reduction in funding for international family planning. Some countries—Canada, the Netherlands, India, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom—have maintained or stepped up their support for family planning and women’s health but overall the scale of international funding and attention to this issue falls well short of needs.
Development is about more than improved living standards or a better quality of life—it is being empowered to make choices about one’s own life. Ensuring that half the world’s population can exercise their choices about whether and when to bear children is a development goal that should be a priority for all.
This week marked a controversial anniversary in the US—that of the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that women have the right to an abortion. Add in the anniversary of the Women’s March, recent revelations of sexual harassment by men in high-profile roles, and controversial policy moves on access to family planning services, and it seems that the issue of women's empowerment and reproductive rights is more politically charged than ever.
Today we hear from a country that's taken a strong stand in favor of women by creating a feminist international assistance policy. Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, visited CGD to speak at our recent conference on family planning and women’s economic empowerment, and joined me on the podcast to discuss Canada’s new policy.
“From now on, at least 15 percent of our bilateral contributions must be for women-targeted projects,” Bibeau tells me in the podcast, adding that almost all the others are requred to have a women’s empowerment component.
The new policy underscores the importance of focusing on women and family planning in global development efforts. For many girls around the world, Bibeau says, early pregnancy comes with gender-based violence and reduced access to education. “If we want to empower women economically, we have to take care of the girls,” Bibeau says. More on that in the clip below.
At a time when other countries are pulling back support for family planning services, Canada is proud of its new policy. “This is our strong belief and we do not shy away and we talk about it honestly with evidence to support our policy, our priorities,” Bibeau says. “We really intend to be bold on the importance of women's empowerment, including sexual and reproductive health and rights.”
In my presentation I gave a preview of ongoing work with colleagues here at CGD to define and measure an unobservable variable likely to affect women’s empowerment: the “reproductive ecosystem.” We define it as some combination of social norms, economic realities, laws and customs, and access to contraception that in developing countries affects girls’ and women’s “agency” on reproductive matters, and invites or not women to plan whether and when they will have children.
The reproductive ecosystem includes elements of both demand for contraception on the part of individual women (Is it socially acceptable to delay marriage and childbearing?), and supply (Is there a health clinic with contraceptive products nearby?). I think of it as something that a 10-year-old girl can “see” about the world she inhabits, with respect to her future roles in the family, community, and society—roles that for all women, whether they have children or not, are affected by the social expectation that they can.
Our objective is to develop a measure of the reproductive ecosystem across developing countries and over time (since about 1990), and ask whether differences across countries and changes within countries can be associated (subsequently) with women’s empowerment. For example, does a law prohibiting marriage before age 18 affect current or subsequent changes in girls’ education and women’s participation in the formal, paid labor force?
As a summary measure of the social context that matters peculiarly for women, the reproductive ecosystem helps define what the 10-year-old girl—whether in New York, Cairo, Bogota, or Dakar—can imagine about her future, and in addition what her parents and her community can imagine. What combination of children and “career” (or own-earnings) is open to her? How close is that imagined future to the one her brother can imagine? How does that affect her own and her parents’ decisions about investing in her future?
In the United States, the “power of the pill” was mostly about supply of a new technology
In the United States, the reproductive ecosystem changed dramatically in the late 1960s with the introduction of the contraceptive pill. Take-up of the pill grew rapidly in the 1970s, and an increase in women’s enrollment in professional education followed suit almost immediately (see chart). Jay Lindo, in this conference presentation (a tour de force, IMHO) referring to his own and others’ work using US data over the last five decades (“power of the pill” studies), explained how economists have used data on variation in access and cost to contraception (and abortion) to tease out causality—from greater access to greater empowerment of women—including higher wages decades later.
But over the last 30-40 years the pill and other modern contraceptive methods have been introduced in the developing world, where women have less education on average than women in the US in the late 1960s and were and still are, on average, poorer. The conditions for rapid uptake of contraception were not and have not been as propitious as in the US. New and better contraception is not like a new vaccine, almost universally taken up to avoid disease and death, or even like the mobile phone. Fertility and family are deeply sensitive subjects in every society; the decision to use contraception is heavily mediated not only by education and income, but by religion, prevailing social norms, and culture—and of course, the status or “rights” of women to make choices in the first place. Causality from supply of a new technology that matters for women to women’s empowerment is harder to assess.
Two papers presented at the conference may be among the first to do so rigorously, using household survey and other data from Malaysia and Colombia. In Malaysia, the authors use the natural experiment of differential access over time in different communities to show that greater (earlier) access is associated with greater schooling for girls. They emphasize the “indirect” or “incentive” effect at the community level; in communities where family planning became a known option, girls stayed in school longer, independent of whether their own mothers used contraception.
How can we address the same question across many developing countries and over time? Have elements of the “reproductive ecosystem” (on both the demand and supply side of use of contraception) that have varied over time and across countries mediated the effect of access to contraception on country and time-specific measures of women’s empowerment?
Measuring and validating the concept of “reproductive ecosystem”
To characterize the reproductive ecosystem in any one place at any one point in time (across many developing countries over the last three decades), we are putting together data from multiple sources, including: attitude data about women’s roles from the World Values Survey, e.g. whether a university education is more important for boys than girls, or if men have more of a right to scarce jobs than women; Demographic and Health survey data at the country level (and urban/rural within countries) on the social acceptance of contraception, e.g. the prevalence of “opposition” to contraception that women report; and data on observable country-year behavior of adult women, e.g. the percentage of women who work outside the home for wage or salary income. Other possibilities suggested by conference participants include laws that affect women’s ability to own property, at least on paper; prevalence of female genital mutilation; and measures of media access to alternative lifestyles of women (the famous example being that of soap operas in Brazil).
One way to validate any connection from these societal/country variables to women’s empowerment is to focus on women’s apparent decisions to time pregnancies, including to delay marriage, to delay their first birth, and to use contraception before they have any births at all—something I proposed 30 years ago (!) in this article and as was the case for women in their 20s in the United States in the early 1970s. These variables are more likely to reflect women’s “agency” in reproductive behavior than do traditional variables such as overall use of contraception or average number of children. The issue for women may not in fact be how many children to have—which has been the focus of efforts to improve access to contraception for decades—but when, if ever, to get pregnant. (For a tantalizing indication that these decisions have been changing in the developing world, compare slides 10 and 12 of my colleague Rachel Silverman’s conference presentation.) The US story indicates that starting in the 1970s, young women were confident, taking the contraceptive pill, that they could combine sex (and even marriage) with a partner with going to law or medical school—assured they could put off pregnancy, and that professional education made sense for them; they could imagine combining children and career with lower risk and higher return. As in the case of an indirect effect in Malaysia, we can surmise that in the 1970s admissions committees of medical and law schools also became more willing to admit women—knowing that women had control over the timing of any pregnancies both while in school and during any resulting career. The key point is that women can be empowered simply by the prevalence of contraception, independent of their own immediate choices.
From a modelling point of view, we are attacking two questions. First, what indicators of the reproductive ecosystem measured at the country level (including the demand side and the supply side, both of which affect the total cost of women choosing to plan births) affect measures of whether women are timing (including delaying) births at that time in that place? Second: with lags of about 15 years, is there an observable association across countries and/or over time between differences in “reproductive ecosystems” and differences in measures of women’s empowerment?
Why is this work potentially policy relevant? Compared to 30 years ago, greater access to modern contraception is clearly associated with greater use (with modern method usage now as high as 63 percent in Kenya, 54 percent in Bangladesh, and 48 percent in India)—and probably to some extent with lower fertility (with the total fertility rate 3.9 per woman in Kenya, 2.1 in Bangladesh, and 2.4 in India (WDI)). But whether and why greater access is associated (or not) with increases in women’s empowerment is less clear—and if not why not? We have compelling evidence in the Malaysia case that at the community level, greater access to contraception can be causally linked to the likelihood that girls will stay longer in school. But would that be equally true in India and Senegal? What else besides “access” feeds through to measures of women’s empowerment? And over what time periods? It may be that in some settings it is patriarchy itself that matters. It may be that the next best investment for empowering women (and ultimately for development itself) is a direct effort to change aspects of what we are calling the reproductive ecosystem. Undoing laws and customs affecting property rights for women, in a virtuous circle, might itself undo the patriarchy that discourages girls from delaying marriage to finish secondary school and earning an independent living—and by undoing patriarchy, fuels growth and development.
Meanwhile, we are looking for whatever indicators are out there of the reproductive ecosystem, while exploring the potential of what is, as always, limited data to test our alternative models of reproduction and empowerment across societies. We have data challenges and statistical/econometric challenges. We welcome your suggestions (comment below) on data that would help us represent the reproductive ecosystem—and help create a better future for today’s 10-year-old girls across the developing world.
On December 7, 2017, Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, Government of Canada, gave a keynote address at the the third annual Birdsall House Conference on Women, "Reproductive Choices to Life Chances: The Links between Contraception and Women’s Economic Empowerment."
Researchers from many academic institutions and think tanks have studied the relationship between contraception and women's economic empowerment. In both the developing and developed world, the evidence suggests that access to contraception is not only correlated with but can even cause women’s economic empowerment and drive economic growth.
This Thursday December 7, CGD will host a group of economists and policymakers to discuss global evidence on the causal relationship between access to contraception and women’s economic empowerment (RSVP here).
Many will ask, “What’s new here? Wasn’t it already obvious that the ability to plan births was an essential part of expanding women’s life choices?” Intuitively, of course. But the empirical evidence was mostly circumstantial—correlation and not causation. And based on those correlations, some experts even argued that “development is the best contraception,” implying that contraceptive availability was not itself a key intervention to drive changes in fertility and economic outcomes.
The relative weakness of the evidence of family planning as a driver of women’s economic outcomes also played out in the more specialized field of women’s economic empowerment. Our own Roadmap for Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment with Data2X examined 136 empirical evaluations of different interventions’ effectiveness vis-à-vis these outcomes, but did not include family planning as a driver of change. And the recent Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative set up at the World Bank (with major support from the US and other governments) makes no mention of access to family planning as a barrier to the increased access of women to finance, markets, and networks that are its stated goals. Indeed, even as that fund was launching, the US administration submitted a FY2018 budget to Congress that proposed the elimination of family planning funding.
Yet we now have a body of work from a range of countries that can trace a direct line between access to family planning and women’s increased schooling, labor force participation, occupational choice, and wages, using the most rigorous economic methods to isolate the effect of the availability of contraception from other trends. And that body of work is now global. I’m excited to be part of this conference that puts together many of the experts and the rigorous evidence available. I’m also excited that we will release a new paper by CGD nonresident fellow Grant Miller and coauthors, as well as a wrap-up brief by Rachel Silverman to build the field further (watch this space). We’ll be joined by key policymakers—one of the co-creators of Canada’s new feminist development policy, Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, as well as former Malawian president Dr. Joyce Banda. And we’ll discuss the “so what” too—what does the evidence mean for policies and programs at home and abroad?
This conference is named for Nancy Birdsall, CGD’s founding president. In 1987, Nancy wrote about posited causal connections between access to contraception and women’s outcomes here. It took until today to have a body of work to discuss.
There is still much to do. Can women’s economic empowerment in low- and middle-income countries lead to the same kinds of macroeconomic impact as we see in the US? (Did you know that better occupational choices for women explain about a fifth of US economic growth since 1960? I didn’t before this conference. Here’s the link.) To know, we’ll need to invest more and learn more while doing.
On December 7th, academics, private sector representatives, and policymakers turn to an issue that affects women in rich and poor countries alike: the ability to make informed, voluntary, and autonomous choices about childbearing, and the implications of reproductive choice as a lever to expand women’s economic and life prospects. Until recently, there has been a lack of rigorous empirical evidence on the links between contraceptive access and women’s economic empowerment in low- and middle-income countries. The 2017 Birdsall House Conference features new findings on this relationship alongside existing evidence from the United States.
The Birdsall House Conference Series on Women seeks to identify and bring attention to leading research and scholarly findings on women’s empowerment in the fields of development economics, behavioral economics, and political economy. On December 7th, academics, private sector representatives, and policymakers will turn to an issue that affects women in rich and poor countries alike: the ability to make informed, voluntary, and autonomous choices about childbearing, and the implications of reproductive choice as a lever to expand women’s economic and life prospects. Until recently, there has been a lack of rigorous empirical evidence on the links between contraceptive access and women’s economic empowerment in low- and middle-income countries. The 2017 Birdsall House Conference will feature new findings on this relationship alongside existing evidence from the United States.