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Paula Villar - Université de Paris

Paola Villar (Université de Paris - LIRAES) will present "Pro-birth policies, missions and fertility : historical evidence from Congo" with Catherine Guirkinger (UNamur).

Abstract :
Did colonial powers shape fertility patterns in their colonies ? We investigate this question in the context of the Belgian Congo. Starting in the late 1920s, several colonial powers in Africa feared depopulation of their colonies and designed pro-birth policies. The Belgian state heavily relied on Catholic nuns to implement these policies in the Congo. Using a demographic survey conducted in the 1970s in six major cities, we recovered the individual birth calendars of 30,000 women born between 1900 and 1948, under colonial rule. In addition, we digitized high-quality territory level information on fertility by cohort in the 1950s. We rely on unique historical and archival material to reconstruct temporal and geographic heterogeneity in exposure to missionary presence and the type of activities performed at the station level. We find a positive effect of Catholic nuns on fertility. In contrast, Catholic male missionaries have no detectable impact on fertility and Protestant missionaries have a strong and negative impact. In terms of mechanisms, we argue that progress in general health are unlikely to explain, alone, the rise in fertility. Another likely channel for the impact of Catholic nuns was the promotion of an ideal of domesticity where women are confined to their role of mother and wife. Our results show that the colonial administration had a direct impact on the fertility behavior of colonized women, and thus potentially on the dynamics of the country’s demographic transition.