Motherhood in Belarus: An Example to Follow?

In May the British organisation “Save the Children” published a ranking of the most and the least favourable countries for mothers. It ranked Belarus rather highly, placing it at 26th out of 176 countries, well ahead all other CIS countries, as well as some EU member states such as Poland, Hungary and Malta.

It seems that despite acute economic situation, Minsk maintains its social guarantees for parents. Unlike in Western countries, Belarusian women can go for a long maternity leave and they receive financial support from the authorities. Paternal leave is also technically possible, but it has not yet achieved widespread popularity among Belarusian fathers.

Children, Women and Mothers’ Wellbeing

Since 2000, Save the Children has annually published its report. The publication presents the ranking of the most suitable places for mothers in the world. Its authors take into account five indicators, such as maternal health, childrens' well-being, the educational and economic situation, but also the participation of women in national political bodies.

This year the report focused on the prevention of early deaths among babies. On 14 August Sviatlana Saroka, a chief gynaecologist in the Belarusian Healthcare Ministry, commented upon the report proudly highlighting that “Belarus has a highly advanced obstetrician-gynaecological and pediatric services, which has retained the principle model of the Soviet healthcare system". According to her, this model is currently recognised by experts as the best in the world for ensuring affordable health care.  

The ranking shows that Belarus does better than many other post-Soviet republics. The report ranks Russia at 59th, and Ukraine appears even further down at 74th place.The report tells much about system of both maternal and child care in various countries. A country’s position does not necessarily depend upon its development. For example, the publication ranks the USA at 30th and has Japan ranked 31st.

Authors of this publication emphasize that the “situation with rural areas probably does not look quite as good and the national data may hide details related to less developed areas”. This certainly might be the true for Belarus and other Eastern European countries, where the health care system in rural areas remains more backward and pregnant women often cannot find professional health care when needed.     

Before the child is born

According to the law, a Belarusian woman can go for a maternal leave at the 30th week of her pregnancy. Her salary actually slightly rises at this point due to an additional allowance from the state. A woman who gave birth receives a one-off birth grant which is around 1,115 USD. Mothers in Belarus can stay on maternity leave for three years after the child is born.

This may sound very promising, particularly when comparing this practice with some other countries in the region. For example, Polish law suggests that one can take maternity leave only two weeks before estimated date of the child’s birth. After the child is born, they can stay with the child for 6 months and then are 100% paid by their workplace or a year with 80% of their salary. Polish women also can stay up to four years to look after the child, but then do not get any financial support from the state. 

In this respect post-Soviet countries seem to pay more attention to pregnant women and, later on, mothers and families. In Ukraine, pregnant women also can go for maternity leave at 30th week of pregnancy. In Lithuania and Russia it may happen around 70 days before the child is due. It seems that Belarus managed somehow to find a balance between the good quality health care for women and small children and financial support for parents.

Sviatlana Parkhimchyk, who expects her first baby in less than two months, told Belarus Digest that the one off payment should be sufficient for purchase of basic things for a child, like diapers. In her words, unless the woman cannot breastfeed, and child has some special needs, like baby milk powder, or is ill, the child benefit in addition to her husband’s salary should be enough to live on.

Women's Return to Work: not only in Theory

Women in Belarus can stay on maternal leave up to three years. During that time the state pays them around 170 USD a month. Sviatlana told Belarus Digest that she had no worries about her return to work after two or three years. She is not afraid that her position at the company might be lowered or she would fall victim to worse pay. She also shared that in the case of maternity leave, the employer was required to save a woman on maternity leave's work place.

As with many women in Belarus, she depends on help from her family or a public-run nursery, which are rather inexpensive. Sviatlana remained sceptical about the idea that her husband could stay at home on paternal leave, whereas she could return to her work. She asked: “A man looking after a child? They cannot do that.”

“A man looking after a child? They cannot do that.”

In reality,  many women in Belarus still share such an opinion, although the Belarusian law makes provisions for men who decide to look after a child, while their partner returns to work. Practice shows that only around 1% of Belarusian men decide to go on paternal leave. People in Belarus often think that looking after child remains only the women's domain and man should focus on their career.

Paternal leave, widespread in the Scandinavian countries, slowly became more popular also in other parts of the region. Interesting, Sweden and Finland through various social campaigns try to encourage the fathers to use the opportunity to look after the child and support womenąs return to work. In 2010 the Polish authorities also introduced the right for men to a fully paid parental leave. Initially it lasted for merely two weeks, now prolonged. Its introduction has a rather symbolic meaning. It shows that a man can and should also look after a small child and can actively participate in the upbringing of children.

Belarus: Finland of Eastern European countries?

A majority of the European countries are struggling to avert a course of negative trends in their demographics. In this context, Belarus is not bereft. Its fertility rate, which stands at 1.51, does not look that bad when compared with neighbouring countries. In 2011, Lithuania has reached rate at 1.8, Russia 1.54, Ukraine 1.46 and Poland only 1.3 - one of the lowest among EU countries.

The Belarus system aims at maintaining many social guarantees for mothers so they can focus on upbringing of small children. As a result it appears more suitable for mothers than other countries of the region.  At the same time the attitudes of the society remains because it excludes men from the process of brining up children. 

Paula Borowska is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. Originally from Bialystok, she studied at the University of Gdansk and the University of Bologna.

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