SWAF: A Comparative Study of Women’s Status and Fertility in Five Asian Countries

In the early 1980s, fertility theory was in something of a lull. The completion of the World Fertility Survey had created an enormous set of comparative micro-level fertility data, but they had also shown that established theories of fertility and fertility decline, based on socioeconomic determinants, were insufficient to explain much of the variation that existed. An increasing number of theorists, researchers, and commentators began calling attention to remaining fertility differentials that they attributed to women’s status. In places where women’s status was high, Thailand was a frequently cited example, fertility was lower than might be expected on the basis of developmental indicators alone (Freedman, 1979).

To foster more research in this area, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Population Sciences Division sponsored several years of grant competition in the area now known as the Status of Women and Fertility (or SWAF). This competition began to crystallize research in this area, but it also highlighted some theoretical weaknesses. What was women’s status anyhow? Some analysts focused on standard socioeconomic characteristics of individual women, education, whether they worked or not, occupation (United Nations, 1985), while others focused on ecological characteristics such as women’s economic dependence on men (Cain, 1984). An influential paper by Karen Oppenheim Mason reviewed the status of women as a theoretical construct and emphasized (a) its multidimensionality and (b) that women’s status is best understood as a property of systems of gender stratification, that the status of women is defined in relation to that of men.

The theoretical clarification in Mason’s work brought into focus the limitations of existing survey data for the study of the status of women and fertility. Most surveys with good data on fertility and fertility-related behavior lacked measures of female autonomy and the roles played by women within households and communities. In an effort to redress this gap in the available data base, a team of researchers was assembled in the late 1980s to do a set of comparative studies. These researchers were Napaporn Chayovan (Thailand), Shireen J. Jejeebhoy (India), Lin Lean Lim (Malaysia), Corazon M. Raymundo (Philippines), and Zeba A. Sathar (Pakistan). After some preliminary studies and consultation, it was resolved to do larger scale surveys in each country, with samples of women and their husbands drawn from purposively selected communities, defined in different ways in different countries. The focus on communities was motivated by a recognition that many of the most salient theoretical ideas concerning the status of women and fertility were best operationalized at this macro level (Smith, 1989). The studies themselves were fielded in 1993 and 1994, with Shyamala Nagaraj having replaced Lin Lean Lim as the principal investigator for Malaysia.

This web site contains much of the product of these surveys, datasets and codebooks, but also the questionnaires themselves and country reports, which are essential for understanding the setting and circumstances of each country’s survey. Although the surveys were designed collaboratively, they were executed country by country, and are similar but not identical across countries.

We also provide a listing of research papers, unpublished, presented at conferences and published in journals, that have used the SWAF data. They address an array of research questions on whether and how fertility and contraceptive behavior and other socioeconomic and cultural features of women and communities covary with the status of women. Recent work also evaluates the measurement properties, or the validity, of many of the survey measures of female status in the surveys. In some cases, copies of these papers are available for download in PDF form. We encourage users to read these papers, as they provide valuable discussion of the data, sampling design and in their own right often contain interesting findings. To keep the listing up to date, we ask that researchers who use the SWAF data email us at with reference information on and copies of their papers so that we may add them to the website.

We make these data available on the basis of caveat emptor: These are the cleanest, most up-to-date data files that we have available. But, as we do our own work, we are continually uncovering new aspects of the data and it is possible that errors still exist. We would appreciate it if other users who encounter problems let us know; and we shall try to provide what guidance we can; but, alas, we cannot provide ongoing technical support and advice. Questions, opinions, etc. involving these data can be addressed to

If you use these data in published material, please cite them as follows:
Smith, Herbert L., Sharon J. Ghuman, Helen J. Lee, and Karen Oppenheim Mason. 2000. Status of Women and Fertility. Machine-readable data file (

Study design and data collection were supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Data analysis and dissemination, including this web site, are supported by Grants R01 HD33757 and R01 HD33791 to the East-West Center and the University of Pennsylvania. This web site was designed by Helen Lee and Sharon Ghuman.


Cain, Mead. 1984. Women’s Status and Fertility in Developing Countries: Son Preference and Economic Security. World Bank Staff Working Papers, Number 682. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

Freedman, Ronald. 1979. “Theories of Fertility Decline: A Reappraisal,” Social Forces 58:1-17.

Smith, Herbert L. 1989. “Integrating Theory and Research on the Institutional Determinants of Fertility,” Demography 26:172-184.

United Nations. 1985. Women’s Employment and Fertility: A Comparative Analysis of World Fertility Survey Results from 38 Developing Countries. Population Studies No. 96. New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.