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Demographic transition and change in women’s lives

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  • Published
    14th Jul, 2023


The passage of World Population Day (July 11) is a time to look at how India’s demographic journey has changed the lives of its citizens, particularly its women. The demographic transition has become a dramatic global phenomenon. 

India’s demographic journey (Background)

  • Increased population: India’s population grew from about 340 million at Independence to 1.4 billion with the help of receding starvation, improved public health, and medical miracles brought to India.
  • Increased life expectancy: In 1941, male life expectancy was about 56 years; only 50% of boys survived to age 28. Today, life expectancy for men is 69 years, and nearly 50% live to see the ripe old age of 75.
  • These statistics mask the tectonic shift in the lives of people as they learn to adjust to a longer lifespan and fewer children. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the lives of Indian women.
  • Women’s childhood, adulthood, and old age have been transformed over the course of demographic transition, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.

How did the change demography impact women?

  • Sex-selective abortion: As families began having fewer children, ensuring at least one son became more difficult. Social norms and patrilocal kinship patterns combined with lack of financial security reinforce a preference for sons.
  • Early marriage and child bearing: While women’s educational attainment increased, with over 70% of girls enrolling in secondary education, early marriage and childbearing remain the predominant forces defining women’s lives.
  • Less participation in labour force: Early motherhood, perhaps, explains why lower fertility does not translate into higher labour force participation for women. 
  • Missed employment opportunities: By the time peak childcare demands end, they have missed the window for occupations that require specific skills; only unskilled work is open to them.
  • Decline in number of years women spend caring for children: With a fertility decline, active mothering occupies a smaller proportion of women’s lives, creating space for education and employment.

With rising life expectancy, the proportion of the female population aged 65 and above increased from 5% to 11% between 1950 and 2022, and is projected to reach 21% by 2050. 

  • Older age issues: Demographic shifts also affect women’s lives at older ages. Women generally marry men who are older and are more likely to outlive their husbands. For widowed women, the lack of access to savings and property results in dependence on children, mainly sons, bringing the vicious cycle of son preference to full circle.
    • The 2011 Census shows that while only 18% of men above age 65 are widowed, about 55% of the women are widowed.

What measures are required?

  • Changing patriarchal norms.
  • Better access to employment and assets: Enhancing women’s access to employment and assets would reduce their reliance on sons. It could break the vicious cycle of gendered disadvantage, stretching from childhood to old age. 
  • Access to safe and affordable childcare: Early marriage and childbearing remain central to Indian women’s lives. Hence, efforts should be made at improving women’s labour force participation accompanied by access to safe and affordable childcare.

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