Projecting Population

Elizabeth Leahy and Sean Peoples

Population forecasts depend on assumptions-and can be wildly wrong.


In the Wasiko district of Uganda near Kampala, 35-year-old Yudaya and her husband, a peasant farmer, live with their six children, who range in age from 1 to 12 years old. Yudaya only attended school until her father died when she was 10, and remains illiterate. She and her husband do not use family planning. They would likely have an even larger family, but she has breast-fed each of her children for at least 18 months, a practice that suppresses fertility.

Living on a small patch of land in a two-room hut, the couple's limited resources are stretched thin. Their children are often turned away from school because their school fees remain unpaid. Although Yudaya and her husband agree that they would like no more children, unequal gender roles in her society, combined with Yudaya's scanty education and lack of accurate medical information, inhibit her use of family planning. When Yudaya tried to use contraceptives in the past, she experienced side effects and ultimately stopped because of her husband's resistance. "I had to stop using family planning because my marriage was at the verge of breaking up. In my culture, marriage is a bond, the man will use you whenever he wants and you should have no excuse to deny him your body."

Yudaya's story reflects how global demographic trends, which develop over a seemingly vast scale, are dependent on the decisions and opportunities of individual women, couples, and families. Yudaya's family of six children is actually slightly small in her country, where women average 6.7 children each. Uganda's population is growing by more than 3 percent annually and could double in less than 25 years. Yet the uncertainty of how the reproductive lives of Yudaya's children and others in future generations around the world will play out demonstrates that projections of our demographic future must always be viewed in the context of their assumptions and sometimes be considered with caution.