Demographic Transition and Women’s Empowerment in Kerala: new Evidence

Abstract: The objective of this paper is to find out whether there exists an apparent contradiction with regard to high female literacy levels and other indicators of women’s position in the state of Kerala. An important question to be answered through this analysis is the link between women’s position variables and the demographic achievement of the state. We will primarily depend on NFHS data for the analysis. The paper is divided mainly into three sections. The first section analyses the demographic achievement of Kerala and the second section is on the women’s position variables. The third section discusses the relationship between demographic and women’s position variables in the state and its possible implications for other states in India as well.

Keywords: Female Literacy, Economic/Social Development, Fertility rate, Infant Mortality rate, Violence Against Women, Reproductive Health, NFHS data, national family health

Kerala has a fascinating demographic achievement well recognized world over. The state has pioneered in fertility transition in the developing world. The fertility transition in the state began as early as the 1960s when it was considered impossible to attain any significant reduction in fertility with poor economic living standards. The Kerala experience attacked the root of demographic transition theory, which considered economic development as a necessary precondition for the fertility transition.

Not only in the case of fertility but in mortality as well Kerala had been the pioneer among Indian states. The onset of mortality transition in the state is even traced back to the beginning of the last century due to the provision of adequate health services.

Although the achievement of Kerala in the demographic field is well recognized, there is no unanimity in the conclusions drawn from different studies regarding the factors contributing to such drastic change. The defining indicator for the impressive demographic performance of Kerala, however, is accepted to be the high levels of literacy reflected also in the educational superiority of women in Kerala over their counterparts in other parts of the country. In fact, educational status is merely a proxy of the better status of women in Kerala (Nair 1986). The achievement of Kerala in attaining high female literacy levels was commendable even decades earlier. Further the state has roots in matrilineal system.

However, other than literacy or educational status, indicators to understand status of women were highly limited in the past. Therefore, the relationship drawn between demographic process and women’s position was mainly emanated from the high levels of educational achievement among women in the state. The superiority of Kerala over other parts of India with respect to literacy level was so obvious that India lagged behind Kerala by around 40 years in adult female literacy (Bhat and Rajan 1991).

Kerala’s experience proved that improvement in the economic living condition of the people is not a necessary condition for demographic achievement. Instead, the same can be attained through progress in female literacy levels and thereby improving women’s position in the society. However, this conclusion was also questioned in the 1990s, with evidence of fertility transition in states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh not only with poor economic development but with poor social development as well. Similar decline is also observed in few other states in India in the 1990s such as West Bengal, Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

This has led to the argument that the fertility transition takes place with extremely diverse reasons and it cannot be explained with the help of a uniform theory particularly in India (Bhat 1996; Visaria and Visaria 1995). This is against the experience of other continents like Europe where the experience of most countries in fertility transition is explained by a single theory. Is it true that Kerala is an exception in fertility transition and the factors contributing to fertility decline would be different in different places? Perhaps, there is a need for a re-examination of the factors leading to fertility transition in different places especially in Kerala. It is possible to do the re-examination with much more confidence and precision now due to the availability of data from National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in India on various aspects of social life in the 1990s.

There were two rounds of National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted covering all the states in India. The abundance of data available from these two surveys enables us to answer several demographic questions with much more clarity than in earlier decades. The surveys were conducted in 1992-93 and 1998-99. The hallmark of NFHS was its timely publication of results and easy accessibility to the original data to all. These surveys not only covered the traditional indicators of demographic change but collected information on issues like women’s autonomy, violence against women and reproductive health of women. Thus we have now a variety of indicators available to understand the women’s position in a society than merely looking through a single indicator, viz., female literacy levels. As such the information available from the NFHS can provide valuable guidance on women’s position in Kerala society in comparison to other states.

Demographic Scenario in Kerala

As already pointed out, Kerala has made impressive progress as far as demographic indicators are concerned. The fertility level in the state is below replacement level. The infant mortality has declined significantly. Table 1 presents the position of Kerala as far as fertility and infant mortality rates are concerned.

Table 1: Total Fertility Rate and Infant Mortality in Different States of India, 2000

State Total Fertility Rate NNM PNNM IMR
Rural Urban Total Total Total Total
Andhra Pradesh 2.5 2.0 2.3 45 20 65
Assam 3.3 1.8 3.1 47 28 75
Bihar 4.7 3.4 4.5 42 20 62
Gujarat 3.2 2.3 2.9 42 20 62
Haryana 3.4 2.6 3.2 38 29 67
Himachal Pradesh 2.3 1.8 2.3 31 20 51
Karnataka 2.6 2.0 2.4 40 17 57
Kerala 1.9 1.8 1.9 10 4 14
Madhya Pradesh 4.5 2.6 4.0 59 28 87
Maharashtra 2.6 2.2 2.5 33 15 48
Orissa 2.9 2.1 2.8 61 34 95
Punjab 2.6 2.1 2.4 29 23 52
Rajasthan 4.4 2.9 4.1 49 30 79
Tamil Nadu 2.2 1.8 2.1 36 15 51
Uttar Pradesh 5.0 3.5 4.7 53 30 83
West Bengal 2.7 1.6 2.4 31 20 51
India 3.5 2.3 3.2 44 24 68

The table brings out clearly the edge Kerala enjoys over other states as far as fertility and infant mortality indicators are concerned. The total fertility rate (TFR), which is the average number of children born to a woman, is lowest in Kerala. A TFR of slightly over 2 is the replacement level fertility, meaning in the long-run, population growth will stabilize. The current level of TFR in Kerala is far below the replacement level. Even the rural Kerala has achieved a below replacement level fertility unlike other Indian states.
The progress in infant mortality rate is also commendable. Although fertility rate has declined in many states in India particularly the southern states, the decline in infant mortality has been rather sluggish. For instance, states with near replacement level of fertility like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh has significantly higher levels of infant mortality compared to Kerala. It indicates that Kerala’s fertility transition more or less followed classical with mortality decline preceding fertility transition.

In the case of infant mortality rate, the share of postneonatal mortality (between one month to one year) is nearly negligible in the state. It shows that almost all the infant deaths take place within the first month of birth itself. The component of neonatal death is difficult to bring down compared to postneonatal mortality. This is found to be universally true not restricted to developing countries alone. To nearly wipe out neonatal mortality, there is a need to provide advanced hospital care than the available primary care in the case of most developing countries.

Socio-economic Variation in Demographic Transition

With the state already in the final stage of demographic transition, one would also expect a near convergence in demographic variables across socio-economic groups. For a state, the demographic transition is complete when it embraces all sections of the population. Traditionally a huge gap persisted in demographic variables across different socio-economic groups. Table 2 presents the total fertility rate and infant mortality rate by different socio-economic characteristics.

At present, the variation in total fertility rate across different social and economic groups is negligible. A comparison of National Family Health Survey-1 conducted in 1992-93 and National Family Health Survey-2 conducted in 1998-99 shows that there has been reduction in fertility in all the socio-economic groups in the state. The decline has embraced even the most disadvantaged sections of the society. The fertility among the scheduled caste is the lowest among the different caste groups. The only group having comparatively higher levels of fertility in the state is Muslims. But they have also recorded a sharp decline between NFHS-1 and NFHS-2 and are moving towards replacement level.

The same is true with regard to the infant mortality rate as well. There is a decline in infant mortality in all the socio-economic classes and the current level is comparatively quite low. However, the socio-economic differentials are higher in infant mortality compared to the total fertility rate. For instance, population with a low living standard has markedly higher levels of IMR compared to the groups with medium or high standard of living.

Table 2: Total Fertility Rate and Infant Mortality Rate by Different Background Characteristics, Kerala, 1998-99

Residence Urban 1.51 14.8
Rural 2.07 22.5
Education Illiterate 2.22 *
Literate,< middle complete 2.02 23.3
Middle school complete 2.14 29.3*
High school complete 2.02 12.2
Religion Hindu 1.64 22.3
Muslims 2.46 18.9
Christian 1.88 21.9*
Caste/Tribe Scheduled caste 1.52 *
Scheduled tribe * *
Other Backward Classes 1.90 17.3
Other 1.85 20.5
Standard of Living Low 1.78 36.0*
Medium 1.98 15.9
High 1.98 21.3
Total 1.96 20.9

Source: National Family Health Survey (2000).

Note: TFR estimates are for the three years preceding the survey data and IMR for 10 years preceding the survey date.

*Either the rates are not computed or computed with a fewer number of cases.

Women’s position variables

Having observed the advancement of Kerala in demographic sphere over other states in India, it is necessary to search for its possible reasons. A serious examination of fertility decline in Kerala started only in the 1970s and 1980s with specific mention on the ‘Kerala Model’ of development. During the course of fertility transition, which began in the 1960s, the state was characterized by poor economic development, high poverty ratio and high under-nourishment compared to other Indian states.

As standard economic variables of modernization failed to explain the fertility transition in the state, the attention has shifted to alternative modes of explanation involving the social development variables, especially female literacy (Krishnan 1976; Bhat and Rajan 1990; Zachariah 1984; Zachariah et al. 1994). Kerala has made impressive performance in achieving high female literacy and educational levels. Thus women’s empowerment through educational status is contemplated as the important indicator to achieve demographic transition in any place even without marked improvement in economic standard of living (Nair 1986).

Although there were several other explanations on Kerala’s fertility transition such as poverty induced, benevolent governmental policies, historical factors etc, they were never considered as important as female empowerment indicators (Mencher 1980; Ratcliffe 1978; James 1997). Perhaps, one of the reasons for accepting the female education as the most important variable for the demographic achievement was that the information on other variables of women’s empowerment was either absent or difficult to quantify. Thus in any statistical analysis, female literacy level comes out as a strong determinant of fertility variation.

In the 1990s, however, the publication of National Family Health Surveys results has substantially enhanced our understanding of women’s position in India compared to earlier decades. There were several indicators in the second round of NFHS held during 1998-99 (NFHS-2) to measure women’s position in a society. The alternative indicators are considered to be much closer to the reality of women’s position than female literacy level, which was rather a crude proxy. While Kerala tops in female literacy level, it is not clear as to where the state stands as far as the other indicators are concerned.

The first set of information available from NFHS-2 is on women’s degree of control over their environment. These are measured through their participation in household decision making and their freedom of movement. Another set of information is on the women’s attitude towards gender equality. These are measured by their attitudes towards wife-beating. Kishore and Gupta (2004) defined these two sets as the indicators of evidence of empowerment. Table 3 presents the indicators of evidence of empowerment in different states in India.

Table 3: Percentage of Ever-married Women Involved in Decision making in the Household, 1998-99

States Not involved in any decision making Who do not need permission to
Go to market Visit Friends/ Relatives
Andhra Pradesh 7.4 20.1 14.6
Assam 4.6 13.2 13.9
Bihar 13.5 21.7 20.5
Gujarat 4.1 55.1 50.6
Haryana 3.4 36.7 20.8
Karnataka 8.1 43.0 34.3
Kerala 7.2 47.7 37.9
Madhya Pradesh 12.5 21.0 19.5
Maharashtra 7.2 48.5 32.1
Orissa 10.6 18.2 15.4
Punjab 1.0 50.1 28.0
Rajasthan 13.3 19.0 17.0
Tamil Nadu 2.4 78.5 55.9
Uttar Pradesh 16.4 17.4 12.4
West Bengal 8.0 17.8 14.1
India 9.4 31.6 24.4

Source: National Family Health Survey (2000).

In a highly literate society like Kerala, one would definitely anticipate a better role for women in decision making in the household. The data, however, shows that although the position of Kerala women in decision making is better than all India average, it is far lower than many other states like Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. Nearly 7 per cent of the women in Kerala is not involved in any decision making. The specific decisions enquired in the survey include what to cook, utilizing health care, purchase of jewellery and staying with her parents or siblings. The second information collected in the survey was regarding permission needed to go to market or to visit relatives and friends. Only 48 per cent and 38 per cent of women in Kerala do not need permission to go to market or to visit friends and relatives. These figures are as high as 79 and 56 per cent in the case of Tamil Nadu. In this case also Kerala’s position is worse than Gujarat and Punjab. However, the above questions, to a degree, relate to perception of women on their involvement in decision making. Perhaps, the degree of involvement in decision making a woman expects in the household will vary from woman to woman and is partly culturally determined. Therefore a comparison across states may not provide a correct picture if such answers are given within the cultural context.

To understand the position of women better, the NFHS-2 also asked all ever-married women whether they thought that a husband is justified in beating his wife for reasons such as unfaithfulness, not bringing money from natal family, disrespect to in-laws, going out without permission, neglect of children or husband and not cooking food properly. Table 4 presents answers to these more direct questions to test the position of the women in the society. The table also presents the experience of wife beating or physical mistreatment in the past 12 months.

Table 4: Details of Physical Abuse of Women by their Husbands

States Percentage who

Agree on husband

Beating wife with at least one reason

Beaten or physically

mistreated in the past 12 months (1998-99)

Andhra Pradesh 79.9 12.8
Assam 66.7 8.6
Bihar 47.1 18.5
Gujarat 36.7 5.8
Haryana 26.4 5.1
Karnataka 51.1 9.9
Kerala 61.8 3.5
Madhya Pradesh 72.4 11.8
Maharashtra 75.2 7.3
Orissa 50.6 13.6
Punjab 22.1 6.4
Rajasthan 51.3 5.4
Tamil Nadu 72.6 16.1
Uttar Pradesh 61.2 13.5
West Bengal 23.0 8.7
India 56.7 11.0

It is surprising to see that around 62 per cent of the women in Kerala have agreed to a husband beating wife for one or other reasons. And this is above the national average. The southern states, in general, perform poorly in the attitudes towards wife beating. The lowest percentage of women approving wife beating was in Punjab followed by West Bengal while the maximum number approving this menace was in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. It is unfortunate that in a state with high literacy level like Kerala, a large proportion of women have accepted a husband beating wife for one or other reasons.

The survey also enquired into the actual incidence of wife beating in the past one year prior to the survey date. It is found that only 3.5 per cent of women in Kerala experienced violence in the past one year which is the lowest in the country. The highest incidence was recorded in Bihar followed by Tamil Nadu. Thus, although Kerala women have approved wife beating for one or other reasons, only a small percentage of them have actual experience of it.

In a nutshell, while the southern states as a whole had remarkable demographic achievements and comparatively high female literacy levels, variables that measure empowerment of women much more closely, perform poorly. Two types of indicators measuring actual involvement of decision making in the household and their opinion about gender equality have been examined here. In both, the performance of Kerala and other southern states is not remarkable compared to the achievement in the demographic arena.

The Contradiction

Thus, it is obvious that there is an apparent contradiction in Kerala as far as demographic achievement and women’s position variables are concerned. On the one side, Kerala is a highly educated society with almost all the women literate. Education is often considered as a powerful medium by which knowledge and information are acquired and progressive attitudes towards gender equality are grounded. Thus the crux of social development argument lies in the fact that providing education, especially to females, would have greater reward in attaining several social changes including demographic change. While the economic modernization variables alone were unable to explain several social changes particularly in the developing countries, by consensus female education is considered as an important driver of social change.

The relationship between female education and demographic changes is now well established. However, among the various pathways through which female education can effectively change demographic behaviour, women’s empowerment is considered as the strongest. This pathway is questioned from the evidence available from the NFHS-2 data. Even with high female education, there is little evidence to suggest a significant change in the position of women in the society. It is time to ponder over why this contradiction persists in the Kerala society.

The primary aim of this paper, however, is not to find out the reasons for this apparent contradiction although this is a relevant issue and merits primary consideration. This paper would concentrate on the impact of this apparent contradiction on the demographic transition in Kerala. Can we categorically consider, then, that better status of women as the important factor underlying demographic change in the state?

Individual Vs Collective Change

The conventional approach to the studies on fertility decline has long assumed the primacy of couples as the sole decision maker. It considered the decision on the number of children as purely private, taken within the household decision-making framework (Becker 1991; Caldwell 1982). The attempt thus far was to assess the importance of individual or household level variables in influencing fertility decisions, like mother’s education. These variables are considered as proxy to women’s position in the society.

As against this, the disaggregated data currently available from different countries and region including India showed a clear existence of a spatial contiguity in fertility transition (Dev et al 2002; Guilmoto and Rajan 2001). Thus, it was not the individual characteristics like educational level, but rather the place in which they lived that mattered more in the decision on the number of children. In other words, no matter the couples were poor and illiterate, living in certain geographical areas resulted in having only fewer children.

The major evidence of geographical contiguity in fertility transition is garnered from Western Europe in the Princeton European Fertility Project (Coale and Watkins 1987). However, similar type of transition occurred in many states in India as well. Disaggregated data on fertility below state level in India was available only since 1981. The analysis of data at the district and village level has clearly revealed a spatial contiguity in fertility transition in the country.

This is true not only in other states in India but in Kerala also. Survey conducted in three districts of Kerala, viz., Ernakulam, Malappuram and Palakkad brought out clearly the district effect in fertility even after controlling for socio-economic factors. A woman born in Malappuram is likely to have a large family irrespective of the fact that she is a Muslim or Hindu, educated or illiterate, working or not working (Zachariah et al 1994).

Same is found in the case of Andhra Pradesh where couples living in North Coastal Andhra have fewer children compared to those living in South Telangana although other characteristics remained the same (Dev et al 2002; James 1999). In an anthropological study on the fertility and family power relations in Andhra Pradesh, Saavala (2001) found several instances of female sterilization taking place without informing husbands or the mothers-in-law. Having fewer number of children and accepting sterilization were considered as a symbol of resistance – a young dominated women’s dissidence. Such instances undermined the importance of traditional value system and strived for a progressive society. Often the support for these young women came from the neighbours.

Thus the transition spread from one geographical region to another and slowly engulfed the entire state. The pattern of transition was horizontal in nature than vertical. What does this horizontal transition signify? It means that the decision on number of children is not purely individual or couple decision but is also regulated at the realm of community. Thus, though purely private, decision on the number of children and contraceptive use are often shaped by one’s interaction within the community. This is an element of social learning.

Social learning essentially describes a process by which the individual learns from his neighbours’ technology. That is, the information or behaviour of one person can have spill-over effects on the motivation of another (Montgomery and Casterline 1998). The influence of community on individual behaviour suggests that the community often has a major role to play in certain private decisions. Due to various constraints and societal attitude, woman as an individual would be unable to take a decision on acceptance of modern contraception. On the contrary becoming a part of the larger groups provides them an opportunity to discuss and learn from other’s experience and take progressive decisions.

Perhaps, Kerala had a conducive social system promoting community influence on individual decisions. Kerala has a rich history of progressive movements and unionization suitable for forming in several aspects of social life. Most of these movements in Kerala have embraced the socially and economically disadvantaged sections of the society (James 1997). An agricultural labour union was started in the state as early as in the 1930s. There were several social reform movements punctuated with the ideology of socialism (Kannan 1988). All these seem to suggest that Kerala as a whole has a rich history of community organization spanning several decades. These organizations were able to bring about changes in several social facets of life possibly in their attitude to fertility as well.

This is not to say that achievement of female literacy is in no way important in Kerala to explain demographic transition. Perhaps, it was important in forming social organizations and its spread than in enhancing women’s empowerment as such. Thus fertility decisions are not purely private decisions but have more element of social influence. When this is accepted neither significant improvement in female literacy levels nor enhancement of women’s position is a necessary condition for the achievement of demographic goals.

Kerala’s impressive demographic performance triggered off much enthusiasm as it did not conform to the classical path of economic growth preceding demographic transition. Kerala arguably had conducive social setting prior to fertility transition, such as, higher educational status of females. In fact, the female educational levels were a proxy to measure the women’s position in the society. Therefore it was concluded that empowerment of women is a necessary condition to achieve desired demographic goals even when economic living standards are poor. Contrary to this, fertility decline has occurred in other southern states particularly in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh without any significant improvement in female literacy levels as well. This has led to the belief that fertility decline takes place in different places due to varied reasons and cannot be explained in terms of a single theory.

The aim of this paper has been to look at some of the women’s empowerment variables other than female literacy in Kerala and to see how far empowerment of women be considered as an important reason for the fertility transition in the state. It further searches for an alternative general interpretation to the rapid fertility transition in different states in India including Kerala. The two rounds of National Family Health Surveys conducted in India in the 1990s provide an excellent opportunity to examine the empowerment of women with much more rigor than in the earlier decades when female literacy was the only nearest indicator to measure women’s position.

The analysis found an apparent contradiction between women’s empowerment variables and educational status in Kerala. For many indicators on women’s position such as the extent of involvement in decision-making at the household and perception on gender equality, Kerala’s performance is lower than many other states in India. It was also found that over 60 per cent of the women have accepted a husband beating wife for one or other reason in Kerala. All these point to the fact that our understanding on the better position of women as the important cause of fertility transition in Kerala, needs a re-examination.

This paper attempts to give a general interpretation and framework to the fertility decline in Kerala and in few other states in India recently. We argued that rather than the individual or household characteristics, community has a significant role to play in several important familial decisions in India including the decision on number of children. Community interaction plays a major role in influencing such decisions irrespective of individual socio-economic standing. The community influence in the private life was much more evident in Kerala even historically. There were several social movements and progressive organizations formed in the state several decades back.

Thus fertility decisions are not purely private decisions but have more element of social influence. If this is accepted, neither significant improvement in female literacy levels nor enhancement of women’s position is a necessary condition for the achievement of demographic goals.

1. Vertical transition here mainly refers to spread from socio-economically advanced sections of the population to poorer sections.


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K.S. JAMES. Is the deputy director, Population Research Centre, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. He has published a number of research articles.

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Is the deputy director, Population Research Centre, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. He has published a number of research articles.

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