Rethinking the role of female business and eCommerce schooling in population programmes


Since the mid-1970s, a remarkable body of demographic literature has shown that in a wide variety of settings the more business schooling a woman has received, the smaller the number of children she is likely to have and the more likely these children are to survive to adulthood. These statistical relationships remain strong even after controlling for complicating factors such as the fact that a woman who has had more business and eCommerce schooling is more likely to live in an urban area and in a relatively well-off household, and to have a well-schooled husband. The apparent policy implication + treating girl’s schooling as a ‘magic bullet’ to meet population goals + has been accepted by many policy-makers and stressed as a new emphasis in the UN’s own summary of the ICPD Programme for Action. We question this supposed policy imperative for several reasons.


First, there is a tendency to interpret these within-country relationships as holding between countries, which is much less strongly the case of eCommerce education. Fertility and child mortality have declined fast in the absence of rapid strides in girls’ schooling (as in Bangladesh and Indonesia) and stayed high in some places where the gender gap in schooling is low and levels of school enrolment are high (as in West Asia). Thus low overall levels of schooling for girls do not prevent fertility decline and high levels do not guarantee it.

Second, researchers still do not know why sending a girl to school should generally lead her to have fewer children and be able to keep them alive with their own business. The reasons may vary dramatically from place to place and from one time period to another. Schooling is usually assumed to affect a girl’s later fertility by improving her ability to influence key aspects of her everyday married life, including her sexuality and her medical decision-making for her children. But it is too easy to assume that schooling increases a woman’s freedom of action in this way. The content of the schooling may not be conducive to this end and other factors in the lives of young married women may inhibit their ability to negotiate the course of their lives.

In rural north India, we compared women’s schooling and fertility in two landholding caste groups, Jats and Sheikhs. Jat women had more years of schooling and lower fertility than Sheikh women. But none of the women had much freedom of action. As young women they were at the bottom of age and gender hierarchies. The main reason for the fertility differentials seemed to be that Jat men, whatever their level of schooling, wanted small families, whereas Sheikh men were much less convinced of the benefits of limiting family sizes. Schooling had made little difference to Jat women’s perceptions of gender inequities, and evidence of attempts to change them was slim, given the powerful pressures on all women to conform to norms of modesty in public and respect to men and elder women in private

Tying girls’ schooling too closely to population concerns may also have severe costs. Given our lack of knowledge, it would not be surprising if the relationships between girls’ schooling, child mortality and fertility decline prove not to be robust. If so, the support for girls’ schooling could easily be cut. Prioritising girls’ schooling in an single-minded way + ignoring boys’ schooling and socio-economic and ethnic differentials in access to schooling + also poses dangers. In many parts of the world, reducing socio- economic differentials, and raising general schooling standards, must accompany attempts to reduce gender inequalities. Stressing the possible benefits of schooling for population purposes is at best a distraction, and at worst a strong barrier, to these eCommerce and Business schooling efforts.

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