Family Planning, Women's Empowerment, and Population and Societal Impacts

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Over the past several decades, fertility rates have fallen substantially in low- and middle-income countries, and efforts to provide women with the means to control the number and timing of children, primarily through the implementation of family planning programs, have become increasingly widespread. Relatively little is known about the role played by women’s empowerment as both a determinant and a consequence of fertility decline or about the links between fertility decline and broader societal impacts, including economic and social development.

Win Brown from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided dedicated support for the workshop, provides information on the history, background, and importance of this work.

What is women’s empowerment?

There are multiple ways of conceptualizing the multi-dimensional process of women’s empowerment.

Two commonly accepted definitions include:

Empowerment as a method of using of one’s agency. Agency can take different forms: capabilities, empowerment, and citizenship. Empowerment refers to expanded ways of “being, doing, thinking, feeling, and knowing” that seek to challenge the gender inequalities of daily life. Listen to Dr. Kabeer explain the different kinds of agency.

Empowerment as the capacity to make purposive choices that achieve desired actions and outcomes. Read more here in the proceedings Chapter 5.

Can we measure women’s empowerment?

To measure an abstract conceptual construct you must first define, then operationalize, and finally validate. Read more.

To measure empowerment researchers must:

  • decide on the level of the measure (individual, interpersonal, societal);
  • decide how to capture the complex process of bargaining, negotiating, and making choices in the face of resistance
  • select an appropriate domain of empowerment
Read more.

Key challenges to measuring include distinguishing between:

  • social norms as attributes of communities versus attributes of individuals;
  • collective and individual agency;
  • empowerment vis-à-vis family members and empowerment in relation to social institutions;
  • empowerment as a dynamic process that changes across the life cycle
Read more.

What are the consequences of women’s empowerment?

A study of 45 low- and middle-income countries showed that those that invested in various dimensions of empowerment—health care, education, labor market institutions, and social protections—produced better labor market outcomes for women. Read more.

Women’s economic and reproductive empowerment intersects at three levels:

Family planning as a mechanism for empowerment.

There is mixed causal evidence on the relationship between women’s empowerment and family planning use. Read more.

Correlations between contraceptive use and specific empowerment measures may be useful in further analyzing this relationship.

  • Women’s empowerment correlates strongly with contraception (positively) and fertility (negatively)
  • Contraceptive use correlates strongly and positively with female adult literacy rates and freedom from physical or sexual violence.
  • Weaker correlation exists between contraceptive use and women’s labor force participation—perhaps due to variation in types of employment.

Read more in the proceedings.

Family planning is necessary but not sufficient to empower women.

Examples of Policy Interventions

Design policy around the norm; shift the norm by policy.

Social norms as barriers
Traditional policies to improve women’s labor market outcomes (e.g., training, microcredit, education) are important but more labor market policies could be developed that specifically operate on gender norms. Seema Jayachandran discusses her work on barriers of social norms in India.

Increasing empowerment in Bangladeshi girls
The Bangladeshi Association for Lifeskills Income and Knowledge for Adolescents (BALIKA) Program aims to impart skills and build empowerment for girls with the goal of reducing child marriage. BALIKA increased empowerment among girls: the proportion of girls belonging to the least empowered class diminished from 32 percent to 17 percent after the BALIKA intervention and child marriage was reduced substantially. Learn about a case study.

Implications of gender norms on family planning
Family planning interventions may need to operate within existing gender norms; there is scope for change even without progress on gender norms. Read more about studies of family planning interventions.

Overview of the Workshop


The Committee on Population (#PopulationResearch) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held the Workshop on Family Planning, Women’s Empowerment, and Population and Societal Impacts on September 24-25, 2020.

Download the publication

Watch the whole workshop

Learn more about this project

Sponsors: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; National Academy of Sciences W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fund