South African Apartheid Spurred Women To Adopt Contraception

December 11, 1997

NEW YORK -- As South Africa prepares for its first Demographic and Health Survey, a Population Council researcher has released a report that highlights the ironies, injustices, and hard truths of the country's past population policies. In her analysis, researcher Carol Kaufman posed then answered the question: If family planning in the apartheid era was so politically charged, what caused its success? According to Kaufman, in South Africa's case, oppression fostered pragmatism: decades of injustice created a social landscape barren of financial and familial security that proved fertile ground for contraception. Her study was published as a monograph this month, and an article summarizing her findings will appear in the December issue of Population Briefs, a quarterly newsletter published by the Council.

In 1974, in response to white concern about comparative population growth trajectories for blacks and whites, the apartheid Republic of South Africa implemented a family planning program. Fifteen years later, 44 percent of the country's black women were using modern methods, and the total fertility rate dropped from more than six children per woman of reproductive age to an estimated 4.6 per woman -- the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa at that time.

"This was an extraordinary decline, both in absolute terms and because it was achieved in the midst of adverse conditions," Kaufman says. In a series of laws that entrenched racial inequality, the government removed black people from their homes in cities to areas called homelands. These regions became reservoirs of cheap labor, channeled to white farmers, industries, and mines. Workers were mostly men, and their jobs were located far from their families. Their prolonged absences left women to fend for themselves and their children.

Kaufman's report, which is based on demographic records, and supplemented by historical and anthropological sources, suggests that South African black women needed family planning and so disregarded the government's racial motivation. "Black women assumed management of their fertility because they found themselves in precarious circumstances," Kaufman explains. Black farmlands were depleted. Most husbands were migrant workers; they earned little and sent even less back to their wives. Women workers who became pregnant could be fired. "The fear and economic desperation stirred by the thought of another child should not be underestimated," Kaufman says.

Although Depo-Provera had not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the government offered the hormone injection and made it readily available to black women. Although critics accused the government of abrogating the rights of women -- blacks in particular were offered few choices -- women used the method. Depo-Provera was long-lasting and enabled them to prevent pregnancy without the consent, cooperation, or knowledge of their partners and in-laws.

In 1994, the Republic of South Africa began intensively dismantling apartheid; the government has since legalized abortion and made women's reproductive health one of its priorities. In 1998, the country will undergo its first Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), an internationally standardized survey of population wellbeing. DHS questionnaires are designed to elicit information on family planning knowledge, attitudes, and practices; maternal and child health; nutritional status of women and their children; and social and economic background indicators. On average, 4,000 to 8,000 women of childbearing age are interviewed.

Kaufman sees the introduction of the DHS as a sign of progress. "The racial politics surrounding family planning are subsiding in South Africa, and the transformation is very exciting," she says. "There is a comprehensive and ambitious vision for integrating family planning with primary health care services, for example. If this succeeds, it will greatly improve women's lives."

For a copy of this working paper, or for subscription information on Population Briefs, call (212) 339-0514 or fax (212) 755-6052. For further information, contact Christina Horzepa, (212) 339-0520 or Sandra Waldman, (212) 339-0525.

The Population Council is an international, nonprofit, nongovernmental institution that seeks to improve the wellbeing and reproductive health of current and future generations around the world and to help achieve a humane, equitable, and sustainable balance between people and resources. The Council conducts biomedical, social science, and public health research and helps build research capacities in developing countries. Established in 1952, the Council is governed by an international board of trustees. Its New York headquarters supports a global network of regional and country offices.

Population Council

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