After reading a few of the works assigned in the class, the question occurred to me: why do pronatalist policies fail? And, why do women become a matter of state policy? Pronatalism takes many forms socially, culturally, and politically. Pronatalism in conservative societies generally entails the curtailment of reproductive rights, such as restrictions on access to an abortion or campaigns to influence public opinion. In this course, we read literature that addressed pronatalist policies and articles that discussed reproductive rights in Eastern Europe and Russia.
In this essay, I briefly examine the implications of pronatalist policies implemented by the Soviets and those adopted in contemporary Russia, namely “maternity capital.” In both cases, the adoption of pronatalist polices was in response to a declining population and fertility rate. I conclude that both pronatalist policies largely failed to address the broader structural and social problems arising from childbirth and childrearing. Also, maybe some women are just not dying to become mothers.
Women will undoubtedly continue to be a matter of state policy, especially with the female empowerment movements, which are often viewed as a threat against the status-quo or “traditional family values,” as some would put it. As women pursue more demanding careers and forgo, or delay, childbearing, women can expect policy directed at them.
What is pronatalism?
Pronatalism is the promotion of childbirth through direct and indirect incentives. Generally, pronatalist policies are a response to a declining fertility rate, which has its own socio-economic implications. The consequences of pronatalist polices can be both negative and positive for women. In this short essay, I consider women empowerment efforts, such as paid family leave, tax breaks for children, and various anti-discrimination laws, to be forms of pronatalist policy that chip away at the structural and social challenges of childbearing. I consider one-time monetary incentives as forms that only address immediate challenges while ignoring the greater challenges faced by women.
Pronatalist policies are not unique to Russia or the post-Soviet region, rather they are implemented all over the world. While many states pursue policies to improve the structural challenges, such as financial cost of childrearing (paid leave, daycare, health, food, toiletries, ect.), as a means to promote childbearing, cultural norms, namely patriarchal biases, remain deeply entrenched in many societies. For example, a woman who pursues a professional career is more likely to be scrutinized for not spending enough time with her child than a man. If a woman decides to not have children, she is either not a true patriot or not a true family women: the two are often conflated. There is a plethora of other social stigmas that I will purposely not discuss for the sake of brevity.
While it is worth mentioning that not all women raise children on their own, conventional wisdom holds that women bear an unfair burden when raising children. Women often must commit a disproportional amount of time to unpaid tasks, such as childrearing and house chores.
Pronatalism in the Soviet Union
One of the greatest social experiments conducted by the Soviets is, perhaps, the reconceptualization of “motherhood.” Echoing the works of Vladimir Lenin, Aleksandra Kollontai, an early Marxist socialist writer for the Soviet Union, argued that capitalism not only fostered but fueled the fire of oppression of women. (225-231). In her writings, Kollontai ultimately advocates for greater state involvement, by making childrearing a matter of the state rather than a private family matter. She proposed the establishment of daycare centers for newborns and cafeterias for families. By alleviating the stress of early childrearing and reducing the amount of time spent on house chores, Kollontai and Lenin believed that women would then be able to be contributing members of the new socialist society.
Vasela notes, “Lenin saw the Soviet state as capable of freeing women from ‘their stultifying and humiliating resignation to the perpetual and exclusive atmosphere of the kitchen and nursery.” (Vasela 109). In this spirit, a robust social service program would encourage women to bear more children because it would reduce the financial cost of childbearing. Women would have had the opportunity to pursue careers without having to worry about the financial restraints of childcare. However, in the late 1920s through the 1950s, when Stalin came to power, a shift in women’s policy occurred.
The initial enthusiasm for the destruction of patriarchal barriers in pursuit of a more equal society among the sexes stagnated in the 1920s. Furthermore, rather than liberating women from traditional gender roles, the Soviet leadership shifted towards a policy that reinforced patriarchal norms. In the Soviet context, pronatalism was the belief that women not only had the duty to but also had the “honor” of giving birth. It was a policy response to the decline in population of the 1940s. In addition to pronatalism, traditional gender-roles were reinforced within that new paradigm, as Vesela notes, “in support of these pronatalist policies, divorce laws were tightened two years later, abortion was banned, and two provisions in 1944 put constraints on divorce and cancelled the recognition of extra-marital paternity.” (Vasela 120).
While it could be argued that Soviet pronatalist policies led to the (marginal) liberation of women, further investigation reveals that it led to development of a double and triple burden for women. The social services were largely insufficient, and that forced women to not only work but also disproportionally placed the home responsibilities on the mother, hence double burden. The triple burden is the combination of work and home life with the addition of political life, which was expected of party members for socio-political mobility. Against the backdrop of the socio-political life in the Soviet Union, pronatalist policies had a negative effect on women. (Examples of double and triple burden appear in Eastern European film and literature. See recommendation list.)
Pronatalism in Contemporary Russia
In response to a national demographic crisis in 2006, the Russian government introduced “maternity capital,” a pronatalist policy with the purpose of increasing the fertility rate. According to the agency’s website, the policy period was set to begin in 2007 and end in 2018.
In 2011 The Atlantic reported:
- “Compared to other countries male death rates are extraordinarily high. Currently, 14 Russians for every 1000 die per year (compared with 8 per 1,000 in the U.S.), making Russia’s death rate one of the world’s worst. The average computed by the UN Population Division for “least developed countries” is 10 deaths per 1000 people.
- While male life expectancy has improved slightly, it is still ranked about 160th among nations — lower, for example than Bangladesh or Algeria.
- Women outlive men in Russia by 13-14 years, one of the biggest gender gaps in the world.
- A significant proportion of the deaths (for women as well as men) are in the working age population, which is declining in size, leading to a bulge in the aged.”
Following the adoption of the initiative, every woman that gave birth to more than one child is issued a certificate. The value of the certificate in 2013 was approximately 11,000 USD. The guarantee was only paid in installments after the child reached the age of three. Moreover, maternity capital was only to be claimed once, meaning that a second certificate was not issued after the birth of an additional child. Furthermore, the funds can only be used for 1) housing, 2) paying for the education of a child, or 3) investing in the mother’s retirement fund. (Slonimczyk and Yurko 2).
Research found there was an improvement in the demographic crisis, with the fertility rate rising from 1.3 in 2006 to 1.7 in 2012. (Borozdina et al. 3). While Slonimczyk and Yurko found that there was an uptick in fertility, they were quick to discern the claim that maternity capital had any meaningful impact on long-term fertility. “The MC policy has had heterogeneous effects. Specifically, we find that the increases in birth rates are larger among women without a college degree and women who are married or cohabiting with a spouse. There are no significant differences between rural and urban areas or by employment status.” (Slonimczyk 4). In other words, women with a college degree (or who are on a professional track) were more likely to forgo or delay the birth of a second child. This suggest that structural and social challenges still exist. Women may view childbirth as an obstacle to their professional development.
Furthermore, drawing upon attitudinal and behavioral data, Borozdina et al, “Using Maternity Capital: citizen distrust of Russian family policy,” found that women who did give birth to a second child did not take advantage of the monetary incentive due to either distrust in the program or bureaucratic obstacles. (1) Less than a quarter of all mothers that gave birth to a second child did not cash in their certificates. (Borozdina et al. 4). In interviews conducted by the researchers, they found that respondents considered the policy to be deceptive and paternalistic. For example, a couple was unable to activate the funds for the purchase of a home because the down-payment, a substantial sum, needed to be paid by the couple. Down-payments were in the thousands, which a blue-collar family is unlikely to have. (Borozdina et al. 7).
Whether purpose of maternity capital was for political gains or increasing the fertility rate, women, when faced with the decision to whether give birth, are limited by structural barriers. In this sense, the empowerment of women is likely to result in more aggressive policies, which may lead to more restrictions on reproductive and marital rights as was the case in the Soviet Union.
Anti-abortion campaigns are one form of reinforcing traditional gender norms in post-Soviet societies. See The Nation’s article on anti-abortion movement in Russia.
Pronatalist policies need to address the structural conditions that make it difficult for a woman to raise child. Tearing down structural barriers is a large undertaking as it requires money and time. It requires a major invest in government institutions and society. In my view, one-time monetary incentives are but band-aids on a problem that requires a larger, structural fix. Changes need to happen at every level. I also think when pronatalist policies fail to increase the fertility rate, women are likely to fall victim to more aggressive measures. The political rhetoric of “traditional family values” in Russia today will consequentially reinforce patriarchal beliefs and norms, which will hinder the empowerment of women.
Borozdina, E., Rotkirch, A., Temkina, A., Zdravomyslova, E. “Using maternity capital: Citizen distrust of Russian family policy.” European Journal of Women’s Studies, 2014, pp. 1–16.
Kollontai, A. “Theses on Communist Moralist in the Sphere of Marital Relations.” Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, 1980, pp. 225-231.
HEINEMAN JR, Ben W. “In Russia, a Demographic Crisis and Worries for Nation’s Future.” The Atlantic, 11 Oct. 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/10/in-russia-a-demographic-crisis-and-worries-for-nations-future/246277/. Accessed 18 Dec. 2016
Slonimczyk, F., Yurko, A.”Assessing the Impact of the Maternity Capital Policy in Russia Using a Dynamic Model of Fertility and Employment.” Discussion Paper Series, No. 7705, 2013, pp. 1-47. http://ftp.iza.org/dp7705.pdf
Vasela, P. “The Hardening of “Cement:” Women and Modernization.” NWSA Journal, vol. 15, no. 3, 2003, pp. 104-123.
The Pension Fund of the Russian Federation. http://www.pfrf.ru. Accessed 12 December 2016.
A Woman Alone. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, performances by Maria Chwalibóg, Boguslaw Linda, and Pawel Witczak, 1986.
Baranskaya, Natalya. A Week Like Any Other: Novellas and Stories. Translated by Monks, Pieta, The Seal Press, 1993.