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Population Trends: A Progressive Shift

Can changes in population trends swing a gender revolution?

Women and children walking along the beach with the waves beneath their feet, West Bengal
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The big breaking news after the release of the United Nations Population Report 2023 is taking India over the mantle of the world’s most populous country. This was long anticipated and therefore did not really come as a surprise.

Conversations around the implications for India and China have also been ongoing for some time, especially in the context of the economic consequences of China’s ageing population and India’s youthful population. Ageing itself has become a critical economic and social issue worldwide as more and more populations age and fewer and fewer children are born.

The lens through which population is viewed today has changed drastically since the decades following the 1950s when fears of the ticking population bomb in poor Asian countries were rife, resulting in a huge push towards internationally funded state-sponsored family planning measures.

India took the lead by establishing the first-ever family planning programme in 1952, soon after independence. In China, Mao was a protagonist of the view that people are a nation’s wealth; it was only in the late 1970s that fears of overpopulation and its economic consequences led the country to usher in the world’s most drastic and draconian family planning programme, known as the one-child policy.

Today, as it faces an increasingly ageing population, China is desperately trying to incentivise its women to give birth to more children but with little success. In India, outdated worries about our large numbers and the higher birth rate among the Muslim community (even as their fertility sees a rapid decline) surface now and then with proposals being mooted to enact more stringent family planning policies with attached penalties.

Women in the Population: Is there good news?

Moving away from these well-trodden debates, an aspect that has received less attention is the implications of population change for women and gender relations. Much of population theory treated women merely as vehicles of fertility, wombs through which population shifts took place. Women’s bodies thus become targets of global, national, and familial desires and goals to increase or reduce the population, subjected to technologies of population management and disciplining.

Women’s agency and their right to their bodies received limited recognition in the numbers-oriented and male-dominated discipline of demography. It is feminist scholars and activists (including feminist demographers) who must be credited for raising issues of women’s sexual and reproductive health and their autonomy vis-à-vis their bodies.

Even as we celebrate or rue our first rank in the world’s population, the steep fertility decline means that women are spending less time in child-bearing and rearing.

In 2023, as India’s population is expected to reach 1.429 billion, it is important for us to look at the gendered contours of the population. Women have always been disadvantaged in numbers in the Indian population. While globally most countries have a higher proportion of females in their population, a few Asian countries and prominently, India, continue to lag behind in this regard. According to 2021 World Bank data, men constitute 51.6% of India’s population with women trailing behind at 48.4%.

In most countries, women have forever lived longer than men; unfortunately, this was not the case in India until recently. A much-needed structural change, therefore, has been the recent improvement in Indian women’s life expectancy to 70.7 years as compared to male life expectancy of 68.2 years. While women remain largely disadvantaged in health care, improvements in health have enabled survival and longevity. Women also tend to live longer because they are less likely to die in accidents or violence.

Pitfalls Along The Way

While women may have begun to live longer, the 1980s saw a rise in technologies of sex determination. First, amniocentesis, which was quickly replaced by the non-invasive ultrasound that spread like wildfire across the northern and western states of the country, bringing down child sex ratios to cringe-worthy lows.

Yet again, it was women’s bodies being subjected to patriarchal desires to craft the perfect family­—small in size and tilted towards sons. Son preference, fertility decline, and the easy availability of ultrasound resulted in millions of female foetuses being aborted annually. Neither the unborn girls nor the hapless mothers pushed to undergo sex determination tests and abortions had much of a say in shaping the nationwide gender imbalances that resulted in setting off a chain of social disruptions such as surplus bachelors and bride shortages. In states like Punjab and especially Haryana, the mismatch in the marrying populations (known to demographers as the “marriage squeeze”) resulted in large-scale bride import from the states of West Bengal, Assam, and Kerala, among others.

Turning Points?

Has the carnage of female foetuses been stemmed? And are female infants, once born, being allowed to survive? According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5, a major historic shift is women overtaking men in the overall presence in the population. From 991 women per 1,000 men in 2015-16 to 1,020 women, in 2019-21, the sex ratio has apparently turned in favour of women. It is to be noted that the NFHS contradicts the World Bank finding on the sex ratio reported above. The divergence will only be resolved once India completes the census exercise.

There is more good news. The sex ratio at birth has improved from 919 in 2015-16 to 931 in 2019-21 (NFHS-5). This would imply a decline in sex selection with a higher acceptance of the birth of daughters. According to the Sample Registration System (SRS) Bulletin 2020, this trend is stronger in urban areas. The fact that discrimination against girls is diminishing is also proven by the equalising of infant mortality rates among boys and girls, at 28 per thousand.

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In a paper forthcoming in June 2023, scholar Isha Bhatnagar argues that son preference in India has declined steeply from 40 to 18 per cent in the last 25 years. She credits this to a widespread shift in social norms, characterised by a distribution among gender preferences between “daughter preference,” “gender indifference” and “gender balance.”

A 2020 paper by Keera Allendorf highlights the emergence of “sonless families” comprising 10% in 2015 and 20% in states with early fertility declines. These percentages will surely rise due to a slew of socio-economic and norm changes accompanied by the rise of a strong push towards gender equality.

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The Big Shift

Are there other population trends that might signify a turning point in India’s long-standing and pervasive women-adverse population statistics? It hasn’t gone unnoticed that our population is growing at a much slower rate and the emerging story is that of “below replacement level fertility,” i.e., fewer than 2.1 children per woman, resulting in 23 states and Union Territories with fertility rates below the replacement rate. Thus, even as we celebrate or rue our first rank in the world’s population, the steep fertility declines mean that women are spending less time in child-bearing and rearing, freeing them to pursue other interests.

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We know that one reason women are having fewer children is that they are having them later; many such women are in college; the All-India higher education report (AISHE 2019) documents more women than men in India’s colleges and universities. Whether women’s attainment of more education and having fewer children is sending them into the workforce is something India still needs to untangle—the jury being out on the numbers­—a story for another day!

With these nascent but progressive shifts in the gender composition of the population towards a more balanced one, can we expect women to exercise more agency? Education will surely play its part and while assertion on the part of women always faces the dangers of backlash, a predicted turning point is women quietly but competently taking over the reins in many domains.

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(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'A Progressive Shift')

Ravinder Kaur is professor of sociology and Social Anthropology at IIT Delhi

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