When women cannot count on the state for protection, they are more likely to marry and have more children. That is the central finding of research by Raphaël Godefroy, which considers the cost of being single to explain why women in developing countries have more children.

His study, which is published in the April 2019 issue of The Economic Journal, suggests that for women in developing countries to have their desired number of children, the first step is to ensure that they are physically safe. This is consistent with historical changes in developed countries where increases in legal protection have seen a decrease in the birth rate.

The research analyses legal reforms in some states of Nigeria in 1999 that restricted women’s ability to defend themselves in court in certain cases. Drawing on data from a survey of 30,000 Nigerian women, the study finds that women subject to the reforms had more children – the equivalent of an extra child for every 40 women.

The impact of this, according to the research, is comparable to the largest documented decreases in the birth rate caused by better family planning and improved job opportunities.

The study shows that women living under these reforms were less likely to be divorced and, if divorced or widowed, more likely to remarry. This means that women who would otherwise have been single were more likely to have children.

These reforms also increased the power of husbands over family decisions that lead to a rise in births. The Nigerian survey asked men and women what their ‘ideal’ number of children would be.

By looking at different types of couples, the research shows that births increased among couples where the husband wanted more children than the wife. Where the ideal number was the same, there was no difference. But in couples where the wife wanted more, the number of children decreased.

According to the author, the vulnerability of women in many developing countries today is similar to that of women living in Europe during the eighteenth century. At that time extra-marital rape or violence against women was little prosecuted in Europe.

Due to a lack of public protection, women’s only protection came from family members, in particular husbands. This was accompanied by a high birth rate, comparable to the birth rate in developing countries today. This changed during the nineteenth century due to legal changes and increased police presence.

How women’s rights affect fertility: Evidence from Nigeria’ by Raphaël Godefroy is published in the April 2019 issue of The Economic Journal.

Raphaël Godefroy

Assistant Professor of Economics at the Université de Montréal | raphael.godefroy@umontreal.ca