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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1994  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 27/05/1994   
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Contents >> Population >> Population Growth: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fertility

Population Growth: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fertility

Levels of fertility among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population are considerably higher than those for the rest of the population.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has a much younger age structure than the rest of the population, a reflection of their higher birth rates and shorter life expectancy (see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people). An examination of trends in the fertility rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women provides insight into the likely future growth of the population and potential changes in its age profile.

In addition to consideration of the fertility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, including those with non-Aboriginal partners, measures of Aboriginal fertility in terms of its population growth effect should also include consideration of Aboriginal children born to non-Aboriginal women i.e. those with Aboriginal fathers. In 1991, 43% of Aboriginal couple families with children had two Aboriginal parents, 32% had an Aboriginal mother and a non-Aboriginal father, and 25% had an Aboriginal father and a non-Aboriginal mother. These latter families contained 24% of all Aboriginal children in couple families. However, higher proportions were observed among younger children (27% of children under one year) compared to older children (21% of children aged 10-14 years). This suggests that Aboriginal children with non-Aboriginal mothers comprise an increasing share of the children in Aboriginal families. Information about them is consequently an important supplement to fertility measures calculated for Aboriginal women.

Total fertility rate

The fertility of a population is usually measured by the total fertility rate. This is the average number of children that a woman could expect to bear by the end of her reproductive life span if she were to bear children throughout her lifetime according to the prevailing age-specific fertility rates. The age- specific fertility rate is the number of births in a given time period to women of a particular age group, usually expressed per 1,000 women in that age group.

Estimating Aboriginal fertility

The total fertility rate is usually derived from birth registrations data. However, most States have only recently included an identifier of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin on birth registration forms. There are thus insufficient data currently available to enable adequate estimates to be made. Calculations of Aboriginal fertility have therefore usually been based on five-yearly population census data. It has also been possible to derive estimates for some States using data from two other sources: Aboriginal birth registrations in South Australia and the Northern Territory; and data from the midwives' collections which are a set of health and demographic data on women during confinement, routinely collected by the health departments in some States and Territories. A comparison of the different methods of estimating Aboriginal fertility is presented in a recent paper by Dugbaza3.

The method of deriving fertility estimates from a population census using data on the relationships between household members is termed the 'own-children' method2. The estimates are averages for the five-year period ending at the census date. While the total fertility rate is satisfactory, the estimates understate fertility levels for the 15-19 years age group and overstate them for the 40 years and over age group. Unless otherwise stated the estimates presented in this review are based on this method.


Fertility levels and trends
Estimates from the 1991 Census3 indicate that the total fertility rate of Aboriginal women is about 3.1 children per woman, over 50% higher than the figure of 1.9 for total women. Over the last 30 years, there has been a substantial decline in fertility for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women. Accompanying this has been a narrowing of the fertility differential between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women. In the 1960s, Aboriginal fertility, at about 6.0 children per woman, was about twice the rate for total women.

Fertility declines for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women over the last 30 years have followed a similar pattern with the sharpest decrease recorded during the 1970s. However, the fertility decline for non-Aboriginal women commenced in the 1960s while for Aboriginal women fertility was largely stable in the 1960s followed by a sharp decline in the early 1970s. In the ten years to 1991, the fertility of both populations has been reasonably stable.

TOTAL FERTILITY RATE


Source: Birth Registrations; Census of Population and Housing; Gray (1983)1; Jain (1989)2; Dugbaza (1994)3


Age-specific fertility
Aboriginal women have children at younger ages than non-Aboriginal women. Fertility among 15-19 year old Aboriginal women was more than five times higher than among all 15-19 year old women in 1991. Among 20-24 year olds, Aboriginal fertility was about two and a half times higher. Aboriginal fertility peaks in the 20-24 years age group while for the total population the peak child-bearing ages are 25-29 years. The fertility of women aged 30 years and over is similar in both the Aboriginal and total Australian populations. Aboriginal women aged 15-24 years contributed over 75% of the difference in the total fertility rate between Aboriginal women and all Australian women. The earlier age at commencement of child-bearing by Aboriginal women, and the higher fertility of 15-24 year old Aboriginal women are most responsible for the higher fertility of Aboriginal women.

AGE-SPECIFIC FERTILITY RATES
Source: Birth Registrations; Census of Population and Housing


Trends in age-specific fertility
Over the past 30 years declines in Aboriginal fertility have occurred in all age groups. Older women experienced proportionally larger declines than younger women. The smallest fall in relative terms was among the 15-19 years age group, so that the contribution of this group to the total fertility of Aboriginal women has increased relative to that of other age groups. In 1961, the age-specific fertility rate of 15-19 year old Aboriginal women was 80% that of 30-34 year olds. In 1991 the fertility of 15-19 years olds was just as high as that of 30-34 year olds.

The net effect of this has been a decline in the average age of Aboriginal mothers at child-bearing. In comparison, the average age of women at child-bearing in the total population has been increasing. The trend towards younger ages of Aboriginal mothers may continue. On the other hand, the contribution of the different age groups to total Aboriginal fertility in 1991 is not dissimilar to that for the total population in 1971, when much higher fertility was observed in the 15-24 years age group. It is possible that Aboriginal fertility will in the future move further towards that of non-Aboriginal women.

Contribution of age groups
In 1991, Aboriginal women under 25 years contributed about half of total Aboriginal fertility, while the contribution to total fertility of all women under 25 years was only a little over a quarter. Correspondingly, in the total population, older age groups contributed more to total fertility than older Aboriginal women did to total Aboriginal fertility. For example, women aged 25-34 years contributed about 63% of total fertility compared to 41% of Aboriginal fertility.

The contribution of a particular age group to the total births in a population depends on the age-specific fertility rate as well as the relative size of the age group in the population. Not only do younger Aboriginal women have higher fertility rates but they also comprise a higher proportion of Aboriginal women of child-bearing ages relative to the total population. In 1991, 40% of Aboriginal women aged 15-49 years were under 25 years of age compared to 30% of all women aged 15-49 years.


CUMULATIVE CONTRIBUTION TO TOTAL FERTILITY, 1991


Source: Census of Population and Housing



State/Territory differences

Aboriginal fertility varies between States as does the fertility differential between the Aboriginal and the total population. The highest rates of Aboriginal fertility were recorded in Western Australia and the Northern Territory (3.6 and 3.4 respectively) and the lowest rates in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory (both 2.6). In most States and Territories the Aboriginal population represents only a small proportion of the total population (see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people), and the fertility of the non-Aboriginal population can be approximated by the fertility of the total population. In the Northern Territory, however, Aboriginal people comprise about a quarter of the total population and the total fertility rate for the Northern Territory is significantly higher than that for other States and Territories (2.3 compared to 1.7-1.9). When the total fertility rate is calculated for the non-Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory, the figure of 1.9 conforms to the Australian average.

Differences in fertility reflect differences in socio-economic factors including urbanisation, education and labour force status
4. Studies by Gray5,6 have shown that these factors also influence Aboriginal fertility which is higher in rural than in urban areas, and higher for Aboriginal women without post-school qualifications than for those with them.

The high Aboriginal fertility in Western Australia and the Northern Territory is associated with low proportions of Aboriginal people living in the capital city, low Aboriginal labour force participation and low proportions of Aboriginal people who stayed at school beyond the age of 15 years, relative to the Australian average. Correspondingly, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, where Aboriginal fertility is lowest, have the highest Aboriginal education levels and the highest Aboriginal labour force participation rates.


Overall, 30% of Aboriginal families had a non-Aboriginal mother in 1991. This proportion was considerably lower in the Northern Territory and Western Australia (13% and 20% respectively) and considerably higher in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory (45% and 42% respectively).



TOTAL FERTILITY RATES, 1991

Aboriginal population
Total population
State
no.
no.

NSW
3.0
1.9
Vic.
3.0
1.8
Qld
3.2
1.9
SA
3.0
1.7
WA
3.6
1.9
Tas.
2.6
1.9
NT
3.4
2.3
ACT
2.6
1.8
Total
3.1
1.9


Source: Birth Registrations; Census of Population and Housing; Dugbaza (1994)3


SELECTED CHARACTERISTICS OF THE ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER POPULATION, 1991

Characteristic
NSW
Vic.
Qld
SA
WA
Tas.
NT
ACT
Aust.
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%

Living in capital city
32
48
19
43
28
34
16
100
28
Left school aged 15 years or more
83
79
78
74
69
85
66
89
76
Labour force participation rate
57
61
56
56
49
63
41
69
54
Aboriginal families(a) with a non-Aboriginal mother
36
40
29
30
20
45
13
42
30


(a) Those families containing at least one Aboriginal parent or child.

Source: Census of Population and Housing



Endnotes

1 Gray, A. (1983) Australian fertility in decline Ph.D. thesis, ANU, Canberra.

2 Jain, S.K. (1989)
Estimation of Aboriginal fertility, 1976-86: an application of the 'own children' method of fertility estimation ABS Occasional Paper (cat. no. 4127.0).

3 Dugbaza, T. (1994)
Recent trends and differentials in Aboriginal fertility, 1981-1991 ABS Demography Working Paper No. 1994/1.

4 ABS (1992)
Fertility in Australia (cat. no. 2514.0).

5 Gray, A. (1990)
Aboriginal fertility: trends and prospects Journal of the Australian Population Association Vol. 7 no. 1.

6 Gray, A. (1992)
Aboriginal population prospects Paper presented to the Australian Population Association Conference, Sydney, 1992.


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