Girl standing at a blackboard at a primary school in Ghana

The widespread education of girls has contributed to decades-long declines in fertility in countries such as Ghana. Credit: Olivier Asselin/Alamy

Society

Family size grows when girls’ education withers

Fertility rates in some African nations fell less quickly when fewer girls finished primary school.

Fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa began dropping in the 1980s. But those declines stalled between 1995 and 2000 — a trend that can be linked to disruptions in girls’ educations.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world where birth rates have not yet fallen to low levels, meaning that the region’s fertility rate will drive population growth globally. Wolfgang Lutz and his colleagues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, studied demographic data on more than 650,000 women born between 1950 and 1995 across 18 African countries. The team found that the stalled declines in fertility rates could be accounted for by cuts in education spending in the 1980s caused by economic and political turmoil. Girls who were primary-school aged in the 1980s reached reproductive age during the period when fertility declines plateaued.

After 2000, fertility rates resumed their downward trajectory in several of the affected countries. Investment in girls’ education could drive fertility rates down further, the authors say.