From the Hoover Institution:
Africa 2050: Demographic Truth and Consequences
by Jack A. Goldstone
Monday, January 14, 2019
However, there are huge differences in the results of women’s education and women’s employment. Outside of Africa, many factors contribute to larger birth intervals and hence to reduced fertility—Iower infant mortality, higher income, women’s education, young women’s employment, total women’s employment, and urbanization all have direct effects. The largest of those effects are through women’s employment, both for young women and total women. But in sub-Saharan Africa, the most powerful factor driving changes in the birth interval is women’s education. Women’s employment—whether for young women or for all women—has no significant impact at all! Moreover, in sub-Saharan Africa, but not other developing regions, women’s education also has a significant direct impact on desired family size. Also unusual is that in sub-Saharan Africa, unlike other developing regions, gains in income and urbanization have no direct effect on birth intervals at all; rather they act only indirectly through increasing women’s education.
In sum, Africa is different. In other developing regions, a cluster of modernizing changes work in tandem, reinforcing changes that stretch out birth intervals and thus reduce fertility. Most important is getting women into the workplace. Women’s education, however, has only a minor impact on birth intervals and none on desired family size. In sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, women’s education is absolutely central, as it is the most important driver of changes in birth intervals and a strong direct factor in reducing desired family size. By contrast, women’s employment has no significant effect at all on fertility, not through family size nor through birth intervals.
How is this possible? In most developing countries, as women move into paid work outside the home—including young women with modest education—fertility is reduced as they have to choose between spending more time working and earning income and staying home to take care of their children. Women’s employment thus has a strong impact on fertility. However, in Africa, extended family child-care systems have developed that allow women to avoid this trade-off. The basic commitment enabling this pattern is the cultural expectation that aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents, cousins, and even co-wives (where polygyny occurs) will take care of children while their mothers work. As Korotayev et al. note:
As long as extended families provide working women (not only agricultural workers, but ones in urban areas having paid employment as well) with relatives who are willing to come and assist with household tasks and child care, paid female employment may not only make a far smaller contribution to fertility decline in tropical Africa than that observed in other regions, but it may also actually delay fertility reduction in Africa by slowing the trend toward the nuclear family system.21
Korotayev et al. argue that the “right” to extended family childcare is rooted in longstanding cultural patterns distinct to tropical Africa. They note that this region (corresponding to eastern, middle, and western Africa) was characterized by hoe-based agriculture, in which women were the primary daily field workers, as opposed to the plow-based agriculture that prevailed in north Africa, Europe, and Asia. In the latter regions, men were the primary field workers, while women worked at textile and other domestic tasks that were undertaken inside the home and combined with child care. Tropical Africa thus commonly has extended families with widespread polygyny and large desired family size, all of which facilitate women working outside the home. When women shift to paid work outside the home this pattern simply continues and allows women to enter paid labor without worrying about child care.22 These cultural patterns buffer the effect of women’s employment on childbearing. Women’s employment thus should have no impact on birth spacing or fertility in tropical Africa, which is exactly what we find in the path model.