Pro-natalism in Crisis-ridden Eastern Europe Entraps Young Women
FRIDAY FILE: A wave of shortsighted pro-natalist policies throughout Eastern Europe exposes the failures of neoliberal reform to realize rights for young women in the region.
By Masum Momaya
As another June 12
Incentives include a dedicated ‘day of copulation’ that releases citizens from work for one afternoon to have sex; an all-expense-paid summer camp for young adults complete with private tents - and no condoms - and cars and cash payments for parents with newborns.
Fears of declining birth rates and population numbers are rampant not only in Russia but throughout Eastern Europe, spurring interventions and bolstering anti-reproductive rights and nationalist campaigns by right-wing forces, who lament that that women are not fulfilling their responsibilities as child-bearers and that “native stock” are disappearing.
Right-wing forces have been gaining sway in the two decades since the fall of communist regimes in much of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Anti-reproductive rights rhetoric from these groups has been given extra backing by the interrelated currents of the 20-year-and-counting economic crisis, mass emigration for study and work, growing xenophobia, and falling birth rates, whose decline pre-dates the fall of communism.
As these currents collide, the cultural and social directive for young women – as long as they are not members of poor, ethnic minority or immigrant communities - is “to have more babies.” Such directives, though, entrap young women, who find their choices limited and their rights violated amidst persistent patriarchy, racism and xenophobia.
Declining Birth Rates and Population Numbers
Birth rates and population numbers have been declining in Eastern Europe and Russia for more than half a century and fell sharply after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Both the UN and World Bank predict that most Eastern European nations will lose between one-third to one-half of their populations by 2050, attributing this to lower birth rates; mass emigration for study and work; and shorter life expectancies associated with poverty, stress, substance abuse and disease, including cardiovascular conditions and HIV/AIDS.
Lower birth rates present further economic challenges for an already crisis-ridden region.
Governments are worried because there are fewer younger people to pay taxes and therefore finance pensions and social programs.
Yet simply boosting the numbers of young people does not necessarily result in tax revenue if there are no jobs for them, as was the case for Iran. Upon encouraging its citizens to have as many children as possible to replace those lost in the Iran-Iraq war, the country is now experiencing a youth bulge – and high poverty and unemployment rates for the young.
In Eastern Europe, many young people are leaving for education and to find work abroad. And they’re not coming back.
As Julija Mazuoliene from New Generation of Women’s Initiatives, an organization that supports young women in Lithuania puts it, “if young people have a chance to move abroad, find a good job and build a life for themselves, why would they stay in Lithuania? There is not much opportunity here”.
Incentives that allow young people in the region to study, work and raise families amidst a decent standard of living have been few and far between over the last few decades, highlighting their governments’ emphasis on economic gains for a few versus rights for all.
Young Women Most Affected by the Crisis
According to academic researcher and activist Ewa Charkiewicz, Eastern Europe was subjected to the crudest forms of neoliberal reform during the transition. So-called ‘emerging economies’ created new wealth for a few elite while dismantling social rights for many, including women, immigrants and the poor. Eastern Europe became an ideal business destination with cheap, new sources of skilled labor, tax breaks for corporations and low-cost raw materials.
Amidst these reforms, young women and men were the hardest hit due to privatization of education, housing and flexibilization of labor markets. Even today, young women form the majority of workers employed in temporary, flexible work arrangements and are the most vulnerable to job loss. Unemployment rates for women are rising faster in Eastern Europe than any other region of the world.
Given this context, childbearing choices for young women are not straightforward.
Policies to Encourage Pregnancies
Population declines have triggered interventions throughout the region. Some governments, encouraged by right-wing forces, have leaned towards more coercive forms of fertility control.
For example, under the Ceaușescu regime from 1966-1989, Romania’s aggressive pro-natalist policies included prohibiting abortions and penalizing women over 25 who did not bear children.
Since 1993, abortions have been banned in Poland under most circumstances. In Lithuania, contraception is becoming more expensive, and individuals must cover these costs themselves.
In late May this year, anti-abortion posters produced by the Hungarian government began appearing around the country.
At the same time, some governments are subsidizing the production of children.
Women in Slovakia now receive a one-time payment of 500 euros when they give birth to children and up to three years of maternity leave . Parental leave spans and salary compensation are similar in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Lithuania.
In fact, with the exception of Scandinavia, maternity benefits in Eastern Europe are some of the longest in duration and highest paid worldwide – but they are short-term benefits.
Moreover, with eroding reproductive rights and in the absence of systemic economic shifts and any changes to the social norms of gender roles that place sole or primarily responsibility for care work on women, such one-off measures do not enable genuine choices or full exercise of rights.
Young Women at the Intersection
Mazuoliene explains, “the majority of Lithuanians think very traditionally about gender roles in families and in the labor market.” Since the Catholic Church in Lithuania influences public policy, Mazuoliene points out that young women, on one hand, are encouraged to not have careers and to stay at home to care for children.
On the other hand, though, the reality is that most women in Lithuania have to work both inside and outside the home to make ends meet, and as Lithuania transitions into a market economy, women are needed in the workforce.
Concerned about this, recently, the government has been increasing mandatory paid maternity leave to entice women to have children, but, she points out, “the government is encouraging women to have babies but is not creating institutions such as affordable kindergartens for helping with child care. So a woman may have two years of partially-paid maternal leave, but after that she has nothing.”
During communist times, state-subsidized day cares were put in place so that women could fulfill their roles as workers. However, as most states transitioned from socialist to market-based economies, they cut public spending. Then, as Charkiewicz explains, “the responsibility for social reproduction, once shared between households and the socialist state (through state-provided child care facilities, education, health care and social security) was transferred to individual households.”
Simultaneously, costs of food, transportation and housing rose and have continued to rise everywhere in the region, necessitating dual-income households. This sometimes delays childbearing or causes couples to have fewer or no children.
Meanwhile, movements that question why and whether women must be involved in heterosexual relationships and whether women must have children are gaining strength, further challenging assumptions that women’s primary roles should be as wives and child-bearers.
Johanka Macekova, a young feminist who blogs for Feministky, cites a similar situation in Slovakia. Alongside increasing economic costs associated with having and raising children, she has observed a rise in reactionary discourse emphasizing the “special relationship between the mother and child” whereby the “male breadwinner” earns money and the woman stays home. As more young couples move to the capital for work, away from their families, there is no extra help and women who can afford to hire help are labeled as “bad mothers.”
In Russia, nationalists have blamed declining birth rates on the presence of women in the workplace, arguing that working women lower Russia's fertility rate and should be sent back to their homes.
Once valued, “working women” are now seen as the problem – but, ironically, also the solution as governments need more workers to pay taxes.
Ultimately, Eastern European governments’ push for young women to bear children is not only an example of shifts in responsibility for social reproduction but also the larger burden being placed on them to fix what is not working about neoliberal reforms, all the while limiting their choices and compromising their rights along the way.
Notes & References:
For the purpose of this article, the term “Eastern Europe” will be used to encapsulate the ten states in Eastern Europe that are part of the European Union: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland.
In general, birth rates have remained well below the 2.1-2.4 children per woman replacement rate needed to maintain population numbers for more than 50 years.
AWID Interview with Julija Mazuoliene, October 2010, Tbilisi, Georgia.
Verick, Sher (2009). “Who is hit hardest during financial crisis? The vulnerability of young men and women to unemployment and economic downturn”. Forsc- hungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit (IZA). Discussion Papers 4359. Bonn, August 2009.
Jansen, Marion and Erik von Uexkull (2010). “Trade and Employment in Global Crisis”. Geneva: ILO.
AWID Interview with Johanka Macekova, October 2010, Tbilisi, Georgia.