Sending Africa’s girls to school can help slow population growth many years later, a new study suggests.

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Rise in size of African families may be tied to less schooling

Women deprived of an education in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s went on to have as many or more children than previous, more educated generations, halting a trend toward smaller families, a study published today suggests. The findings may help explain why Africa’s population has grown at an even more concerning rate than was once expected and, its authors say, emphasizes the need for investment in public education, especially for girls.

The researchers “make a strong case that had progress in schooling been maintained through the 1980s and 1990s, fertility would have declined more rapidly in many countries,” says demographer John Casterline at Ohio State University in Columbus, who was not involved in the work. Still, he says, other factors may be at play.

Since the 1980s, birth rates have been falling each year around the world—even in sub-Saharan Africa, which has the fastest growing population. As countries become wealthier and death rates decline, families eventually choose to have fewer children. But around 2000, the fertility rate leveled off or even ticked up in some African countries and did not slow again for several years. Some experts have blamed cuts in family planning programs, which provide education and contraceptives, and the HIV epidemic, which may have led women to have more children to replace those who they expected to die.

A team led by demographer Wolfgang Lutz of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, wondered about another possible factor: cuts in education in the early 1980s, a time of African economic and political upheaval when global lenders such as the World Bank required some countries to impose austerity programs and slash social and education spending, such as school food programs that gave struggling parents a reason to keep their kids in school. Many studies have shown more educated women tend to have smaller families, in part because they choose to invest more resources into each child. If fewer girls were going to school during that period in the 1980s, that could explain a rise in a country’s fertility 20 years later when those girls were grown and began having children.

Lutz and fellow IIASA demographers Endale Kebede and Anne Goujon probed data from household surveys conducted every few years in Africa. The surveys spanned 18 countries and about 670,000 women born between 1950 and 1995 who had had a total of 2 million babies.

Dropping fertility rates in some African countries stalled out roughly 20 years after the period in the 1980s when the portion of girls who attended school leveled off or fell, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “What we saw with fertility after 2000 is the consequence of the earlier education stall,” Lutz says. What’s more, in two large countries with fertility stalls, Kenya and Nigeria, fertility rates rose much more for women with no education compared with those with some education or who had finished primary school. If overall education rates had stayed constant, 13 million fewer babies would have been born in Africa between 1995 and 2010, the study estimates.

The findings underscore the need to increase investments in education, especially for girls, to curb population growth in Africa to more sustainable levels, Lutz says. Another implication is that projections for a country’s growth should factor in not only the population’s age and sex, but also educational attainment. His team says because schools became a higher priority in Africa starting in the 1990s, the current projection that the global population will increase by 2 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050 could be too high.

Yet demographer Amy Tsui of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, says Lutz has not ruled out other explanations for the stable or rising fertility in some sub-Saharan African countries around 2000. These could include better maternal nutrition and lower infant mortality, which may have led families to have more children. Lutz’s suggestion that austerity programs led a stall in education in the 1980s would be “more convincing” if his team had shown that boys’ education rates in the same region also stalled, Tsui says.

And the fact that the fertility stall was largest among less educated African women points to other factors that matter more for this group compared with more educated women, such as less access to family planning in the 2000s, Casterline says. “There is more to the story.”