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Tucked between China and India along the highest points of the Himalaya Mountains, Nepal is a land of breathtaking scenery, precipitous trekking trails and time-worn temples. Though one of the poorest countries in the world, it is heir to a rich and complex cultural history that includes its reputation as the birthplace of the Buddha, the home of syncretic Hindu-Buddhist sects and the abode of more than a dozen diverse ethnic groups and languages.
Down in the Himalayan foothills, at approximately 450 feet above sea level, lies the Chitwan district, a wide flat valley that was covered by virgin forests until the mid-1950s, when the government began to clear the land to eradicate malaria and make farm plots available to in-migrants. Approximately one-third of the original forest was preserved as Chitwan National Park, which remains home to several endangered species today, including elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, leopard and deer. Rich soils, flat terrain, and the promise of new opportunities drew many farmers into the area, but the valley remained a remote, isolated frontier until the late 1970s.
The first year-round road into Chitwan was completed in 1979. This road linked Chitwan's largest town, Narayanghat, to cities in Eastern Nepal and India. Other important roads followed, linking Narayanghat to Kathmandu, Nepal's capital city. Because of Narayanghat's central location, by the mid-1980s this once isolated town was transformed into the transportation hub of the country. This change produced a rapid proliferation of government services, such as schools, as well as businesses and wage labor jobs that spread through Chitwan.
It is here that the Population and Ecology Research Laboratory in Nepal (PERL) established the Chitwan Valley Family Study (CVFS) to investigate the influence of changing social contexts on the timing of marriage, childbearing and contraceptive use. The study focused on a 100 square mile area of the western part of the Chitwan Valley in south central Nepal, an area bordered by Nepal's East-West Highway, the Royal Chitwan National Park and two rivers.
Earlier studies have shown that education is likely to influence childbearing behavior. Education gives women new opportunities for status attainment other than childbearing, thus reducing their desire for children. Moreover, schooling decreases interaction with family members, weakening historical family values. To the extent that historical family values emphasize large families, this change reduces the demand for children. The education of children is also likely to affect their parents' childbearing behavior. The spread of mass education creates an expectation within the family and in society that youth is a period of investment. Parents are likely to limit the number of children they have in order to increase each child's educational attainment. Education also increases the costs of children by creating new expenses, while at the same time reducing the benefits of childrearing by removing children from the family's productive system.
The Chitwan Valley Family Study adds more complexity to the issue. In 1996, the CVFS collected data on educational opportunities, participation in school, and their effects on childbearing decisions, as well as many other topics. The study included the education not only of husbands and wives, but also of their parents and their children. Researchers collected information on residents of a representative sample of 171 neighborhoods, defined as clusters of approximately five to 15 households. They also gathered information about changes in the location of nearby schools. They then interviewed every resident between the ages of 15 and 59 in those 171 neighborhoods, as well as spouses (regardless of age or residence) with an overall response rate of 97 percent and 5,271 completed interviews. The analyses of education and childbearing summarized below are based on responses from women 25 to 54 years of age, who were married or had been married, with at least one child.
Three community infrastructure characteristics were included in these analyses. Women were asked, "Was there a school within a one-hour walk from your home at any time until you were 12 years old?" Similar questions were asked about the presence of a health center and a bus stop during childhood.
The analyses focus on contraceptive use aimed at stopping childbearing-measured as the time a woman or her husband becomes sterilized, or the first time a woman uses Norplant, an IUD or Depo-Provera. These contraceptive methods have been available in Nepal for the past 20 years, with sterilization being the most popular method. The vast majority of women who were using or had used these methods said that they wanted no more children.
The analyses show that the proportion of women who have ever used any contraception has increased dramatically over the past three decades. Less than five percent of those born between 1942 and 1951 (ages 45-54 in 1996) used contraception by age 25. Yet more than 35 percent of those born between 1962 and 1971 (ages 25-34) had used contraception by age 25.
The community infrastructure of Chitwan Valley also changed significantly from 1953 to 1995, providing easier access to schools and health services. The average number of minutes to reach the nearest school, health service outlet or bus stop declined dramatically during the 1950s and 60s, with change slowing in more recent decades.
One of the most interesting findings was that simply living near a school during childhood dramatically increases a couple's contraceptive use in adulthood, regardless of the educational level attained by the woman, her husband or her children. In addition, couples that live near a school after the birth of their first child have about 20 percent higher rates of contraceptive use than couples that do not.
Other factors that substantially contribute to permanent contraceptive use include husband's education and children's school attendance. Couples in which the husband attended school reported 41 percent higher rates of permanent contraceptive use. Couples that have sent a child to school have approximately 40 percent higher rates of contraceptive use than couples that have not.
These results support the argument that access to schools increase women's contraceptive use because they become more likely to send their children to school rather than because of anything specific they might learn by attending school.
Facts about Nepal
- The per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Nepal in 1992 was US$144 (relative to $23,332 in the United States).
- Life expectancy in Nepal is estimated at 53 years for women and 54 years for men.
- Nearly 100 of every 1,000 live-born infants die within the first year of life.
- In 1990, the majority of Nepalese men and women were illiterate (75 percent of men and 93 percent of women).
Axinn, William G. and Jennifer S. Barber. 2001. "Mass Education and Fertility Transition." American Sociological Review 66(4): 481-505.
William Axinn, a faculty member of the U-M's Sociology Department, is also a researcher at its Population Studies Center, the Survey Research Center and the director of PERL, the Population and Ecology Research Laboratory in Nepal. PERL was established in 1995 to conduct research on population, social change and the environment; to train social scientists in research methods; and to create institutional and technical capacity for conducting social science and demographic research in Nepal. Jennifer Barber is a researcher scientist at the Survey Research Center of the Institute for Social Research here at Michigan.