Population and Gender Essay

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Gender is socially constructed and represents the roles, rights, and obligations that culture and society attach to individuals according to whether they are born male or female. Gender:

  • is not ”value” neutral. Male roles and rights are valued more highly than female roles and rights socially, culturally, economically, and legally. This translates into a greater value being placed on the health and survival of males than of females;
  • involves differences in power, both power to and power over. Differences in ”power to” encompass legal and informal rights, resource access, and pursuit of knowledge and personal goals; differences in ”power over” encompass issues of control, including control of household and societal resources and decisions, cultural and religious ideology, and own and others’ bodies. In general, men have greater power than women in most domains and, in some domains, even have power over women;
  • is not static or immutable. Being socially constructed, gender roles, rights, and expectations change as societal needs, opportunities, and mores change.

Gender affects the main building blocks of population – fertility, mortality, and migration. Gender norms that value women mainly in the role of mothers, value sons more than daughters, and emphasize women’s dependence on men promote high fertility and excess female mortality and limit female mobility.¬† Under such gender regimes, parents have little to gain from educating daughters and delaying their marriage, and adults have little incentive to limit their number of children. For men, the non-substitutability of gender roles ensures that the non-economic costs of bearing and rearing children are largely borne by women; for women, children, particularly sons, are a major source of status and a form of insurance. Strong son preference manifests in excessively male sex ratios at birth through the use of sex-selective technologies and abortions and higher female than male childhood mortality through female infanticide and neglect of the female child.

With limited education and exposure, women are unlikely to have the knowledge, means, or authority to control their fertility or avoid infant mortality. Polygamy, dowry, bride price, and domestic violence reinforce gender inequality, thereby providing indirect support to higher fertility and infant mortality. Very early ages at marriage contribute to higher mortality because both maternal and infant mortality have a U-shaped relationship with maternal age at birth. Maternal mortality is also higher where women’s access to proper nutrition, effective means to space births, and timely and appropriate antenatal, delivery, and postnatal care are limited. While poverty curtails the availability of resources, the amount that societies and households invest in keeping women and girls alive is reflective of the roles, rights, and perceived worth of women. Gender norms that condone marriages between young girls and much older, sexually experienced men, emphasize women’s subservience to the sexual needs of their husbands, and tolerate physical and sexual abuse of women reduce the likelihood that women will seek care for infections such as HIV, leave an infected partner, or insist on condom use or other ways to protect themselves. Because the social construction of ”manhood” is consistent with male risk-taking and violence, gender can also adversely affect men’s health and mortality.

Finally, traditional gender roles, by limiting women’s mobility and marketable skills, decrease the likelihood that women will migrate for jobs or education, but are consistent with women’s forced migration to their husbands’ homes at the time of marriage and female trafficking. However, changes in gender roles, increases in female access to education, delays in marriage and childbearing, and the gradual whittling down of occupational barriers are changing the sex composition of even voluntary migratory streams to include more women.


  • Presser, H. B. & Sen, G. (eds.) (2000) Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Processes. Oxford University Press, New York.

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