Drought, one of the most ubiquitous manifestations of climate change, has profound consequences on communities worldwide. In agrarian societies where people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, droughts are a matter of life and death. Given its immediate effects on agriculture and water availability, droughts can lead to food insecurity, economic hardship, and overall disruption of daily life.

Beyond these more proximal effects, drought can also reverberate throughout people’s lives, including the choices they make about reproduction. Yet, despite the interest in climate shocks on women’s reproduction, there is limited research on how drought exposure influences women’s fertility preferences and contraceptive behaviors.

Our recent study, published in Studies in Family Planning, spans  seventeen countries, and offers valuable insights into how drought exposure influences an individual’s fertility preferences1 and contraceptive practices. On the one hand, droughts may lead women to delay childbearing due to economic uncertainty. On the other hand, the uncertainty and disruptions caused by droughts could actually accelerate childbearing desires. Additionally, droughts may affect people’s access to contraception. For example, drought-induced economic hardships may hinder access to healthcare and contraceptives, while resulting domestic conflicts could restrict women’s ability to manage their reproductive health.

To examine these complex processes, using Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data, we sample married women aged 15-49 in 17 sub-Saharan African countries between 2014 and 2021. To ensure accuracy, we linked individual women’s data with geospatial data on drought episodes at the cluster level.

Our analyses included 114,780 married women from 11,417 clusters across the 17 countries. We looked at fertility preferences, categorizing them based on whether they wanted a/another child soon (within two years) or intended to avoid childbirth. We also examined women’s self-reported current modern contraceptive use, and measured by women who were currently using or not.  We assessed women’s exposure to drought using data from the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction. This data provided insights into the frequency and severity of drought episodes in each woman’s cluster of residence during the 12 months preceding the survey.

Our analysis found that drought exposure showed mixed associations with fertility preferences across countries. In some countries like Benin, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, increased exposure to drought was linked to lower odds of wanting to delay or avoid childbirth. However, in countries like Angola and Tanzania, drought exposure was associated with higher odds of delaying or avoiding childbirth.

The relationship between drought exposure and contraceptive use was similarly diverse. In some countries like Gambia, Mali, and Uganda, increased exposure to drought was associated with lower odds of contraceptive use. Conversely, in countries like Angola, Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia, drought exposure was linked to higher odds of contraceptive use.

While these associations show that drought exposure does influence women’s fertility preferences and contraceptive use, the results do not tell us whether women are able to achieve their preferences or not. That is, does drought propel women to act in ways that align with their stated preferences? Or does it disrupt women’s ability to act in ways that support them to achieve their preferences? Concerningly, in some countries, drought exposure led to a discordance between women’s stated preferences and their actual contraceptive behavior. For example, in Burundi, women who preferred to have a child soon were more likely to use contraceptives when exposed to drought—suggesting that even as women wish to have a child, they are acting in a that do not alight with their family desires. Conversely, in Gambia, Mali, and Uganda, drought-exposed women who wanted to delay or avoid childbirth were less likely to use modern contraceptives, emphasizing that drought may put women at elevated risk of unintended fertility.

Taken together, the study emphasizes the diverse ways in how women’s fertility preferences are influenced by drought. While drought exposure had mixed effects on whether women wanted to delay or avoid childbirth, in many cases, it did not significantly shape their different preferences. This suggests that other factors may have a more immediate impact on women’s reproductive decisions. Surprisingly, the study revealed that drought minimally disrupted women’s access to contraception in most countries. However, in a few countries with limited family planning access, drought was associated with lower contraceptive use. This underscores the need for targeted interventions to support women’s reproductive health in vulnerable communities.

Of greatest concern, however, is that in some countries, drought exposure led to a mismatch between women’s stated preferences and their actual contraceptive behavior. Yet, in others, women resiliently aligned their contraceptive use with their preferences, emphasizing their agency in challenging circumstances. The study’s multi-country approach highlighted the nuanced ways in which drought affects women’s reproductive health across different settings. Cultural norms, economic factors, and access to healthcare all play crucial roles in shaping reproductive decisions in the face of environmental challenges.

While this study provided valuable insights, there’s still much to explore. Future research should explore the mechanisms linking drought and fertility outcomes, including the perspectives of men in reproductive decision-making. Understanding these dynamics is essential for developing tailored interventions that support women’s reproductive health in drought-prone regions.

Drought affects intention to avoid pregnancy and contraceptive use in different ways, it is not a singular relationship, and this means we need a more nuanced approach to responding to climate shocks. By understanding the complex interplay between environmental stressors, socio-economic dynamics, and cultural norms, we can better support women’s reproductive autonomy and promote their overall well-being in the face of increasing climate challenges.

1 Fertility preferences refer to a person’s desires or intentions regarding having children, including when they want to have them, how many they want, or if they want to have children at all.

About the Authors

Oluwaseyi Somefun, Institute of Child Health, University of Ibadan, Nigeria
Bolade Hamed Banoughin, United Nations Population Fund, West and Central Africa Regional Officer
Emily Smith-Greenaway, University of Southern California, Sociology, Los Angeles, CA, USA