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reproductive health > factfile > fertility and population growth

Fertility and population growth

Posted: 21 Jun 2004

Women are having fewer children than ever before - a global average of about 2.8 children each. This number - the total fertility rate - is a key determinant of global population growth in the future.

However, there are big regional and local variations in average family size, as the table below indicates:

Fertility rates by region, 1995-2000
Region Average number
of children per
World 2.83
More developed regions 1.58
Less developed regions 3.11
Least developed regions 5.46
Africa 5.22
Asia 2.72
Latin America & Caribbean 2.72
Europe 1.42
North America 2.01
Source: United Nations: World Population
Prospects: The 2002 Revision

  • Despite the lower fertility levels projected and the increased mortality due to AIDS, the population of the world is expected to increase by 2.5 billion during the next 46 years, from 6.4 billion today to 8.9 billion in 2050.

  • The population of the less developed regions is projected to rise steadily from 4.9 billion in 2000 to 7.7 billion in 2050. Particularly rapid growth is expected among the least developed countries whose population is projected to rise from 668 million to 1.7 billion, despite the fact that their fertility is projected to decline markedly in the future (from 5.1 children per woman today to 2.5 children per woman in 2045-2050).

  • With sustained annual growth rates higher than 2.5 per cent between 2000 and 2050, the populations of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda and Yemen are projected to quadruple, passing from 85 million to 369 million in total.

  • The population of more developed regions, currently at 1.2 billion, is anticipated to change little during the next 50 years. And because fertility levels for most of the developed countries are expected to remain below replacement level during 2000-2050, the populations of 30 developed countries are projected to be smaller by mid-century than today: for example, Japan may be 14 per cent smaller, Italy may be 22 per cent smaller, and Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine may be between 30 and 50 per cent smaller.

  • Women are having fewer children than their mothers did because they have more choices - about education, employment, marriage, and reproduction.

  • The high fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa primarily reflect a desire for large families. When married women were asked to specify their ideal number of children, their answers ranged from an average of 4.1 children in Kenya to 8.5 children in Chad and Niger. South Africa was the only exception; there 3.3 children were considered ideal. In comparison, in developing countries outside of Africa, the range was 2.5 to 4.5 children.

  • Opposition to contraception and a low prevalence of contraceptive use are major contributors to the high fertility rates.

  • According to the UN's World Contraceptive Use 2003, more women are using modern methods of contraception, including 59% of women who are married or in a long-term relationship in developing countries. But vast differences exist between regions. In Latin America, for example, 71% of women are using a family planning method, but in Africa, the rate is only 27%.

  • Girls' access to education is of prime importance: among the 900 million illiterate people in the developing world, women still outnumber men by two to one. Girls constitute 60 per cent of the 130 million children who do not go to primary school.

  • Female education has a direct effect on childbearing. The length of a girl's schooling has a direct bearing on the number of children she is likely to have, and educated women are better carers for the children they have.

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