Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Vojvodina’s provincial government has announced a package of measures to stimulate the low birth rate, which demographers say could slash the population by mid-century and wipe whole villages off the map.
But opinions are divided over whether the incentives, due to take effect in October, will reverse a decades-long trend towards having smaller families.
Under the deal, from October 1 every family in Vojvodina will receive a reward of 30,000 dinars, worth just over 400 euro, when their first child is born.
The sum, worth just over an average month’s salary, is expected to benefit some 10,000 families by the end of the year.
It is just part of a wide-ranging package of measures that make up the government’s Programme for the Demographic Development of Vojvodina.
The provincial government is also offering to subsidise pre-school nurseries for mothers and to construct a new provincial maternity hospital with a sterility treatment centre.
As of 2007 mothers with three or more children will also have a guaranteed monthly income until their children reach their first birthday.
The measures are a response to the dramatic problem of depopulation in Serbia’s northern province, which has divided politicians, sociologists and psychologists.
Over the past few years, 9,000 more people have died each year than been born in Vojvodina, which has a population of 2.3 million.
Serbia as a whole ranks ninth in the world in terms of negative birth rates and the average age of the Serbian population is highest in Vojvodina.
Novka Mojic, Vojvodina’s Secretary for Demography, Family and Social Child Care, says all the municipalities in the province have been recording negative birth rate trends for some time.
By 2050 every fourth inhabitant of Vojvodina will be over the age of 65, she added. This will mean the province may have half a million fewer inhabitants then than now.
The rising number of abortions suggests that many people in Vojvodina are able to have families but do not wish to.
Mojic said that official reports indicted some 45,000 abortions were performed in Vojvodina each year.
But she believes the real figure may be 100,000 - 200,000 a year, as private clinics often do not report the abortions they carry out.
A study by Dr Ilija Gardasevic, a specialist in social medicine at the Zrenjanin Health Centre, showed some municipalities had larger populations in the mid-19th century than they do today.
Over the past three years, for example, she said, Banatsko Visnjicevo has not had a single birth, while the village of Hetin on the border with Romania did not have a single marriage in 2004. These and similar villages could eventually die out.
The age at which women give birth has also risen in Vojvodina over the past few years from 20-25 to 25-29.
Sociologists and psychologists agree that one factor is many people’s uncertain livelihoods in a period of economic transition.
Milica Velimirovic, a psychologist at the Mastaliste Children’s Creative Centre in Zrenjanin, said, “When security is shaken, as it is now in the transition period, it creates stress and people cannot plan families because everything seems difficult.”
She added, “Young parents think they don’t have enough money because a child costs a lot.”
Observers and politicians are not all confident of turning the process around and are divided on the success of the measures proposed by the provincial government.
However, Bojan Pajtic, the head of the provincial government, said rewarding parents of firstborn children was a crucial step.
“The biggest financial shock is the birth of the first child,” he said, “because the second or third often inherits the things bought for the first.
“The situation is tragic but we have to do everything we can to alleviate a situation that we’ve inherited.
“We face a situation in which we are losing not only the population capable of reproduction but also the working population.”
One the other hand, Milica Velimirovic doubted it would be easy to reverse a deep-seated negative trend by grants of money alone.
“We have to turn around the system of values,” she said. “We have to tell parents that the shoes they buy their child are not important, because once it grows up it won’t remember the shoes but the good times it had with its parents.”
She added, “Good parenting costs nothing.”
Velimirovic said what was really needed was a system whereby mothers with three or more children received a permanent monthly income.
Dr Gardasevic said he was also in two minds about the package. The measures were fine in themselves, he said, but material aid was not as important as reawakening people’s desire to have several children.
“Every effort should be welcomed … and followed by future steps to effect a revolutionary biological-reproductive renewal of the nation,” he said.
“All new-born children need to be welcomed warmly in society.”
These days, few parents seem willing to raise large families. Statistics show 50 per cent of newborn babies are firstborn children, 27 per cent are second children and 13 per cent are the third child.
Demographers say the percentage of third children needs to rise to 18 per cent for the province to balance its births and deaths.
Mojic maintains that other countries have already shown that financial inducements can have an effect.
“Scandinavian countries have recorded a rise in birth rates and have achieved a far better demography since they gave women and children wide-ranging benefits,” she said.
“Only measures that are matched with money can lead to an improvement in demographics.
“I want to see one measure from our Programme for Demographic Development of Vojvodina taking effect every year.”
But the Scandinavian countries have much bigger resources than Serbian’s provinces and can throw huge funds at the problem.
It is very different in Vojvodina, where the local government budget for next year – after a substantial rise – stands at 550 million dinars (around 6.5 million euro).
It is enough to launch a campaign, for sure. But it may not be enough to reverse a societal trend that has been gathering momentum for decades.
Darko Sper is a correspondent of BETA News Agency.
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