Wednesday, October 31, 2007

SOCIETY-BALKANS: Facing 'Extinction', Nations Seek Babies

By Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Oct 30 (IPS) - A young woman lost her job in a small town in Serbia after she gave birth to a baby boy and was to be absent from work for a year. That sacking shook up a nation.

The case stirred strong public emotions, prompted fierce reactions among women's groups, and led to outrage even among some government ministers.

The young mother was head of the municipality of Knic, 140 km south of Belgrade. She was voted out of the job by councillors who said work has to go on, "and she would be absent for a year."

The outrage was particularly strong because it is official policy to stimulate births, as the nation is among the ten eldest in the world, together with Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, San Marino (an independent enclave in central Italy with a population under 30,000), Spain and Sweden.

The Serb constitution guaranteed rights to mothers before and after giving birth under a clause introduced last year after pressure from nationalists, who said the nation of 7.5 million faced "extinction" in 50 years. The new guarantees include paid maternity leave of almost a year -- and keeping the job.

Human Rights Minister Rasim Ljajic called the sacking of the young mother a "violation of human rights and the right to work."

"The decision (by the municipal assembly) is unacceptable, a shame for a democratic society and for Serbia that says it aims for European integration," Ana Bukva from the group Women Network told IPS.

"Each year Serbia faces what can be described as the loss of a small town of 35,000 people due to the extremely low birth rates and the rate of deaths that outnumber those births," Vladimir Nikitovic from the Centre for Demography Research in Belgrade told IPS.

"The average age of a Serb is almost 41 years; in some municipalities of Belgrade it is over 44, but this is a global trend linked to fewer births in the developed countries and higher life expectancy. In a way, one can expect midwives to become redundant," he added.

The last census in Serbia in 2002 showed that a family has an average of 0.88 children. For a nation to simply reproduce the present number, a family should have at least 2.13 babies, official statisticians say. The fertility rate in Serbia is therefore put at minus 1.87.

Since 1989, 38 of the 45 municipalities in Serbia have seen a "negative demography rate".

Funds were established in 2001 for childcare centres, and to offer also 500 dollars for the birth of a first child, but to no avail.

"No state measures have ever stimulated births," Gordana Matkovic, member of the first post-communist government wrote in an article. "Serbia has witnessed the loss of several hundred thousand educated and young people who left in the 1990s and are now having children abroad. That is one of the additional reasons for the rapid aging of the population here."

The average age of the parents of these children born abroad is 33. The big youth drain from Serbia began in 1992 after the wars in Bosnia and Croatia broke out and the country was put under strict international economic sanctions. Official statistics say that some 5,000 babies are born to Serb parents outside of Serbia each year.

Within Serbia, 72,180 babies were born in 2005, with estimates that in 2006 there were 6,000 fewer births, a trend that has continued in 2007.

The situation is similar in neighbouring Croatia, where the average age is 40.3 years and the fertility rate minus 1.7. Croat nationalists too say that the nation is in danger of becoming "extinct". And like Serbian women, Croatian women are not listening.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the average age is 35.5. The population policy is a sensitive issue in a country that consists of Muslim Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.

The trend in Serbia and Croatia has all sorts of consequences. The growing number of elders and the small number of the young could ruin the tradition of children taking care of their parents when they grow old. Serbia has almost no custom of homes for elders. There are only 38 state-owned centres of this kind, with a total capacity of 9,500.

Private care centres for the elderly is growing business; ten such homes have been set up over the past five years.

Research by the Belgrade-based Gerontology Centre shows that some 100,000 Serbs want to return home over the next five years after retirement. Most had sold their property when they left years ago, and so now the business of private care centres could become particularly prosperous. (END/2007)

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