Educational differentials in the realisation of fertility intentions: Is sub-Saharan Africa different?

Melanie Channon, Sarah Harper

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The gap between fertility outcomes and fertility ideals is notably higher in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) than elsewhere, relating to both under- and overachievement of fertility ideals. We consider the extent to which the relationship between fertility ideals and fertility outcomes is related to educational achievement. Further, we consider if these educational differentials are the same or different in SSA, and thereby consider the extent to which increasing levels of education in SSA may decrease fertility.
We use 227 Demographic and Health Surveys (DHSs) from 58 countries worldwide to look at population- level measures of the mismatch between fertility ideals and fertility outcomes. Population level measures are used to assess whether the correspondence between fertility intentions and achievements differ by level of education. We then look at the individual-level determinants of both under- and overachieving fertility intentions. Data from the most recent DHS in 54 of the original countries is used for the individual level analysis, with five countries excluded due to the most recent available survey being out of date.
An average of 40% of women in SSA underachieve their stated fertility intentions compared to 26% in non-SSA countries. Furthermore, compared to other LMICs, higher levels of education are not related to better correspondence between fertility intentions and outcomes in SSA. In Middle/Western Africa countries, on average, 48% of women with secondary or higher education have fewer children than their ideal, compared to just 24% who have more children than their ideal.
We argue that the phenomenon of underachieving fertility ideals (or unrealized fertility) may be of particular importance for the ongoing fertility transition throughout SSA, especially as more highly educated groups do not appear to be following the patterns observed elsewhere.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0219736
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jul 2019


  • Fertility
  • Fertility intentions
  • sub-Saharan Africa
  • Demography

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