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SARID, December 20, 2006

Demographers and population specialists from 14 Asian nations have gathered in Bangkok for a three-day conference organized by the United Nations to discuss the latest challenges and issues posed by the region’s declining fertility rates.

The good news is that Asia’s fertility rate has declined over the past three decades. Between 1965 and 1970, the average number of children per woman - the total fertility rate (TFR) - was 5.7. Three decades later, the TFR is 2.3, less than half the previous level.

However, some countries exhibit very high levels of fertility (five and more births per woman in e.g. Afghanistan and Timor-Leste) and some, at the other end of the spectrum, experience unprecedented ultra-low levels of fertility (less than 1.5 births per woman, such as in Hong Kong, China; the Republic of Korea; Japan or Singapore).

Encouragingly, the TFR in South Asia has decreased, from 6.0 in 1970, to 3.9 in 2004.

In 2004, high TFRs were seen in Afghanistan (6.7), Bhutan (4.9) and Pakistan (4.9), while Bangladesh (3), India (2.9), Maldives (4) and Nepal (3.6) were considered to have medium values. Only Sri Lanka (TFR 1.9) had a lower fertility rate than replacement level TFR - that needed to ensure the population remains constant as each set of parents is replaced by its offspring. Under contemporary conditions of mortality, replacement fertility averages out to 2.11 children per woman over a lifetime.

In India the internal differences are as pronounced as those between countries. The major southern states - Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu - exhibit an average TFR of 2.2 births per woman, close to the replacement level, and two among them, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, already have TFRs below replacement. In contrast, the big, populous northern and eastern states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. average a TFR of over four.

Many factors have contributed to the decline in fertility in Asia. In some countries, socio-economic development has been the key factor, while in others, family planning programs have contributed greatly (National family planning programs had their birth in South Asia). Sustained fertility decline has occurred in countries where both these factors have been in operation. Among the socio-economic factors, urbanization, delay in age at marriage, especially among women, better education of women and higher labor force participation of women have been the driving forces behind fertility decline.

The implications are far-reaching and profound as they affect the age structure of the population, giving rise to population ageing, labor force shortages, increased elderly dependency ratios and feminization of the aged population.

The Seminar will help provide guidelines for future directions in policy oriented research, in order to facilitate policy formulation and program implementation to improve the quality of life of people in the Asian region.

For more information about the “Seminar on Fertility Transition in Asia: Opportunities and Challenges”, 18-20 December 2006, please visit

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Sources: UNESCAP (, World Development Indicators (

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