Turkmen Offer Incentives for Big Families

Move to encourage people to have more children comes amid signs of a shrinking population.

Turkmen Offer Incentives for Big Families

Move to encourage people to have more children comes amid signs of a shrinking population.

Thursday, 12 March, 2009
Turkmenistan’s leaders have launched a campaign to encourage people to have more children. The public response to the plan has so far been sceptical.

Under a scheme announced by President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov at a cabinet meeting last month, incentives will be put in place for families who have more than two children.

“The state should shoulder all medical expenses for children up to 15 years of age,” said the president. “Mothers caring for children under the age of three must have all their needs catered to.”

These benefits would also include loans to buy homes, he said.

Under legislation dating from 2007 – the year Berdymuhammedov came to power and started reversing some of the social policies of his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov – women get the equivalent of 18 US dollars a months for each child aged under three, plus a one off payment ranging between 100 and 200 dollars for the third and subsequent children born.

Legislative amendments approved on March 6 increased the monthly benefits by 30 per cent and the one-off payments by 25 per cent. A separate benefit to cover the costs of care introduced in 2007 is being raised by 30 per cent, and importantly, this will now be provided until the child is three, as opposed to the earlier 18-month period.

The president first spoke of the need to increase the negative demographic trend last spring, when he unveiled a new award for women who have eight or more children, called Ene Mehri, or “Mother’s Love”.

The principles behind the award are reminiscent of the “Heroine Mother” medal awarded to women with at least ten children in the Soviet Union. At that time, Turkmenistan had one of the highest birth rates in the USSR and families of eight children were not uncommon.

Kazakstan, facing a shrinking population, still hands out medals to mothers with more than eight children. In Tajikistan, on the other hand, large families are so common that the government tries to discourage them.

In the absence of firm population data, it is unclear what the current position is in Turkmenistan.

The final Soviet census of 1989 gave the republic’s population as 3.5 million, while the official government figure now is close to double that – 6.8 million.

Another source, the CIA Fact Book, gives an estimate of 5.2 million. A 2007 report published by the opposition website TM-iskra came up with a low figure of 3.7 million, based on unofficial data obtained from the Turkmen statistical agency.

Analysts in Turkmenistan say there is anecdotal evidence that population numbers are falling. Economic difficulties and the erosion of Soviet-era healthcare and welfare provision, plus economic emigration, appear to be the major factors.

“Although there isn’t any [reliable] data about the birth rate or the total population, I believe that the demographic situation has reached critical stage, and that the authorities intend to boost the birth rate,” said a journalist based in the eastern Lebap region. “Over the years that Turkmenistan has been independent, hundreds of thousand of young people of reproductive age have left for many reasons, including economic considerations. Even now, many head off to other countries in search of work, and many of them won’t return.”

A journalist based in Dashoguz who has covered demographic trends in this part of northern Turkmenistan said there was a marked fall in the birth rate, even in rural areas where large families used to be the norm.

“Most young families set themselves a ceiling of two children,” he said.

A doctor in Turkmenabat in the eastern part of the country said widespread poverty, unemployment, and housing shortages were putting people off having more children. He said the government needed to do more than hand out medals if it was to turn the situation around.

“The authorities give awards to mothers with many children, but there aren’t many of those,” he said. “It hasn’t led to women having more children.”

Many argue that even an increase in welfare benefits is not going to be enough to offset the rising price of food, goods and services.

“Aside from social payments and benefits, there’s a need for wide-ranging social reforms to achieve a real improvement in living standards and welfare,” said the journalist in Lebap.

One mother in the capital Ashgabat, currently on maternity leave and looking after her four-month-old baby, said the benefits she received were only enough to buy bread and milk, with nothing left over.

“Milk costs around a dollar a litre, and I need two litres a day for the family,” she said.

Many people interviewed for this report were sceptical that life would get easier for families, however many children they had.

“I remember Berdymuhamedov talking about benefits for women with children last year, and now he’s saying it again,” said a journalist based in Ashgabat.

Housing is another concern. A university student in the capital asked “What kind of government support do you think you can count on? With prices as they are and long queues of people waiting to get on the property ladder, I doubt the state is going to be able to provide every family with a house or a flat.”

One mother in Ashgabat said she was planning to have another child because her husband had a good job with a construction company, but added, “I am not expecting any help from the state.”

However, not everyone was dismissive of the latest changes. A former government employee said, “It can be assumed that these changes to the [welfare] code will result in a rise in the birth rate. That conclusion is justified by the fact that the care benefit introduced in 2007 had, in my view, a positive effect on the birth rate.”

(The names of interviewees have been withheld to protect their identity.)
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