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.” Read more
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.
Minsk Police Cracks Down On Prostitution in Elite Clubs
On 20 August, a special police unit arrested two employees of the famous Shangri La Сasino. Investigators suspect them of organising a prostitution services to the casinos' VIP clients.
A similar case happened in 2012, when employees of the elite entertainment centre Dankoff Club were arrested on the same accusations and soon the owner himself also appeared in jail.
Belarusian authorities officially consider prostitution a blatantly illegal activity. Yet despite the high capacity of the state, they are still unable to do away with the problem. The reason may be quite simple: such networks could exist under the "roof" of high officials who have direct or indirect interest in this business.
Prostitution in Shangri La Casino
Shangri La presents one of the largest casinos in Minsk. It serves as a part of Storm International Holdings which runs a number of entertainment businesses worldwide. The company was one of the major players in the Russian gambling market until 2009, when the Russian government banned gambling throughout the country with minor exceptions. Minsk quickly spotted this opportunity and became one of the centres of gambling tourism for rich and venturesome Russians.
In Shangri La, a former 27-year old prostitute ran the selection of girls for intimate services. She cooperated with the manager of customer service who advertised the girls for VIP clients. The cost of such service reached up to $1,000, and organisers of this scheme took half of the sum for themselves.
Police report that they have been watching the suspects since 2009 – the year the casino opened. This fact indicates that the security services are spying on the entire gambling industry, but such arrests have been quite rare. It means that either all Belarusian casinos fully comply with the law, or they simply pay off influential officials to secure their illegal affairs. The ridiculousness of the first possibility would lead one to conclude that the latter is true.
The Sex Industry in Belarus
At first sight, the sex industry in Belarus remains rather weak in comparison to other post-Soviet countries. Although prostitution in most remains illegal (with the exception of Latvia), corrupt authorities usually maintain a blind eye to it.
In Belarus, one can hardly spot prostitution on the streets since the authorities do not tolerate it. But, as the police say, they encounter plenty of branching networks of criminal groups that secretly organise this highly profitable business. Such groups have a division of labour and their own working mechanisms and include taxi drivers, personnel and the managers of hotels, saunas and flats for rent.
The Betrayal of High Patrons
In September 2012, Minsk saw a range of events unfold that were similar to Shangri La arrest. Initially, the art director and manager of Dankoff Club were arrested and later the owner of the club himself, Jury Dańkoŭ, followed them.
Dańkoŭ himself fully realised the risks connected to his business. As he said in one of his interviews, “from a typical Belarusian bureaucrat's point of view, the gambling business should necessarily involve crime”. Authorities had already made attempts to find offences and violations by his business in 2004, but then Dańkoŭ managed to prove his own innocence.
As some people who knew Dańkoŭ personally reported, he never quarrelled with the authorities and always supported them. Moreover, he had patrons in the security services who control the gambling industry in Belarus. The club was a place where security officers liked to relax, but it is not possible that they were simply unaware of prostitution or similar issues taking place at the club. “Everyone knew that you can come to Dankoff Club and receive a full package of services”, Dańkoŭ's acquaintances say. Eventually, Dańkoŭ got into a conflict with his influential friends over some of the usual issues and they decided to show him who the sets rules in this country. The story seems rather typical for Belarus.
Policemen Also Like Intimate Services
While it comes as no surprise that prostitution exists in luxury entertainment houses, the recent arrest of a Minsk police lieutenant (whose name has not been disclosed) is rather interesting. He is accused of abuse of authority of a peculiar nature – he continuously forced prostitutes to give him their service for free. Presenting himself as an officer of the human trafficking department, he promised them safe work in exchange for free sex. Now he faces up to ten years in prison.
This is just the case of a simple street-level officer. Such practices can occur at a higher level and go unpunished, as allegedly happened in Dankoff Club. So far, no cases that involve the private lives of any high officials have been filed in Belarus. Instead, official propaganda has used sex scandals to defame “regime enemies”, as was true with the famous 2006 case of a Latvian diplomat: Belarusian TV showed a secretly-made homosexual sex video in which one person was alleged to be a Latvian diplomat, although it did not provide clear evidence.
The Belarusian authorities maintain an active policy that combats human trafficking. It remains one of the few fields where Belarus has maintained a successful cooperative relationship with the West. For instance, on 19 August an international forum on human trafficking took place in Minsk, and Lukashenka himself met UN Deputy Secretary-General Yury Fedotov to discuss further cooperation.
But despite the high state capacity, the authorities are still unable to do away with the problem domestically. The reason may be quite simple: such networks could exist under the protection of officials who have some direct or indirect interest in this business. The case of Dankoff Club appears to be exactly such a situation.