Young Men Who Feel That Wife Beating Is Sometimes Acceptable Have Elevated Fertility Desires

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In a study of gender attitudes and ideal family size in five high-fertility East African countries, 15–24-year-old males who believed that wife beating is sometimes justified wanted 0.2–0.7 more children than did their counterparts who did not justify such behavior.1 Two other measures of gender attitudes—the belief that a husband has ultimate decision-making authority in a household and has a right to sex—were less consistently associated with elevated fertility aspirations, but one or both were positively linked with fertility desires in two of the five countries.

In East Africa, the mean ideal family size is high, and total fertility rates are among the highest in the world. Numerous studies have found that males’ fertility aspirations are associated with actual fertility rates, and that a female’s fertility preferences are related to those of her partner. To explore the relationship between gender attitudes and fertility preferences, researchers analyzed data from the five East African countries—Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia—that had a total fertility rate greater than 5.0 children per woman (using 2008 estimates) and had had a Demographic and Health Survey with a men’s questionnaire since 2005 that covered key gender-related variables (all data were from 2005–2007). The authors focused on males aged 15–24 because most such men are entering conjugal unions and beginning their reproductive years. Analytic samples consisted of about 1,000–1,100 young men each from Tanzania and Uganda and 2,000–2,500 each from Ethiopia, Rwanda and Zambia. Linear and logistic regression analyses were used to identify associations between ideal family size and young men’s gender attitudes and demographic characteristics.

The background characteristics of the country samples varied: Some 17–48% of young men lived in urban areas, 10–53% had at least some secondary education, 81–91% were unmarried and 85–93% had no living children. The percentage of respondents’ households in which women’s mean educational attainment was a year or less ranged from 12% in Zambia to 71% in Ethiopia. Total fertility rates varied from 5.3 children per woman in Ethiopia to 6.3 in Uganda, and young men’s mean ideal number of children ranged from 3.8 in Rwanda to 4.8 in Tanzania; in every country but Tanzania, young men desired about 1.5 fewer children than the actual fertility rate.

Endorsement of the three gender attitude measures varied widely as well. The proportion of respondents who thought that wife beating was justified in at least one situation (i.e., if she burns the food, neglects the children, argues with her husband, goes out without telling him or refuses to have sex) ranged from 40% in Rwanda to 68% in Uganda. Men’s agreement that a husband should be the final decision maker in at least one of three areas (how to spend a wife’s earnings, how many children to have, and visits to family and friends) varied from 35% in Ethiopia to 83% in Tanzania. For the third gender measure, respondents were asked whether, if a wife refuses to have sex with her husband, he has the right to get angry, refuse to give her money or other support, force her to have sex, or have sex with another woman; agreement with at least one of these scenarios ranged from 32% to 66%.

In unadjusted regression analyses, men’s gender attitudes were generally associated with elevated fertility desires: In all five countries, justification of wife beating was correlated with men wanting 0.4–0.9 more children, and in every country but Uganda, agreeing that a husband has decision-making authority and a right to sex was associated with wanting 0.2–0.7 more children. Notably, for each additional year of education among women in the household, men wanted 0.1–0.2 fewer children. To assess whether justification of wife beating was a reliable indicator of other male-dominant attitudes, the authors conducted an adjusted regression analysis and found that in each country such justification was associated with the belief that a husband has sexual rights (odds ratios, 2.6–6.6) and decision-making authority (1.5–2.6, except in Uganda).

In multivariate logistic regression analyses that controlled for men’s background characteristics and women’s educational attainment, justification of wife beating was the only gender attitude that was correlated with ideal family size in all five countries. Respondents who felt that wife beating was sometimes justified wanted to have 0.2–0.7 more children than did other young men. The beliefs that a man has a right to sex and has ultimate household decision-making authority were associated with increased fertility aspirations (0.2–0.4 more children) in two countries and one country, respectively. Finally, in an analysis that pooled data from all five countries and controlled for demographic variables and country, the belief that wife beating is sometimes justified was associated with wanting 0.4 additional children.

The investigators noted a number of study limitations: the low explanatory power of the final models, possible bias from the exclusion of some nonnumeric responses and missing data on women’s educational attainment. However, they also pointed out several strengths, including the use of high-quality survey data, the inclusion of widely used fertility and gender attitude measures, and a welcome focus on young men’s attitudes and fertility desires in a selection of high-fertility countries. The researchers suggest that East African governments that want to reduce their countries’ fertility levels "may need to address the cultural transmission of traditional masculine values in younger cohorts," perhaps by employing some of the "growing number of programmatic interventions that encourage shared reflection on gender norms and values and that promote gender equality."—J. Thomas


1. Snow RC, Winter RA and Harlow SD, Gender attitudes and fertility aspirations among young men in five high fertility East African countries, Studies in Family Planning, 2013, 44(1):1–24.