Exploring Belarus’s massive gender longevity gap
The Belarusian gender debate understandably focuses on women’s rights, but in reality, men deserve as much attention. Belarusian men have a far lower life expectancy than women; lower even than North Korean men.
Both men themselves and state authorities bear responsibility for this. Belarus remains one of the most alcoholic nations in the world and Belarusian men generally treat their health with indifference.
This has painful consequences. Families lose a parent and a money-maker, while the state loses a taxpayer. Even before death, poor health among men leads to low productivity and hence holds significance for the economy. The Belarusian government undertakes some efforts to promote healthy lifestyles but it fails to do so systematically.
The short lives of Belarusian men
Worldwide women live longer than men on average. For example, in 2015, life expectancy in Sweden for women stood three years longer than for men (84 years and 80.7 respectively) according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In other countries, like in the United States, this gap may be even larger (81.6 and 76.9 years respectively).
Belarus differs from Western countries because it has a much larger difference in life expectancy between men and women. A Belarusian girl born in 2015 can expect to live 11.5 years longer than a boy (78 and 66.5 years). The difference turns out so great that Belarusian women rank 66th in the world by life expectancy, while men sit in 119th place. Only Russia has a larger gender longevity gap larger (76.3 and 64.7 years).
But today’s reality remains much sadder and does not only affect those who have just been born. Currently, many men die before they reach retirement age, especially those who live in rural areas. In the 1990s and 2000s life expectancy occasionally dropped below 60 years for rural men. Belarusian males have lives as short as butterflies.
Why do men die so early?
The achievements of Belarusian men in cutting short their own lives look quite logical. Belarus remains one of the world leaders in alcohol consumption according to the WHO data from 2014. Belarusians drink 17.5 litres of pure alcohol per capita, but that refers to the national average. Belarusian males consume 27.5 litres per capita. Meanwhile, the world average consumption is 6.2 litres. Despite government attempts to set up a programme for the prevention of alcoholism and rehabilitation of alcoholics, Belarus has so far failed to combat heavy drinking.
According to the chief expert in narcology at the Ministry of Health, Belarus has 160 thousand alcoholics on record, and 85 thousand remained under preventive supervision in 2016. That equates to almost 4% of the population, although in reality one may double or triple this figure since the state authorities fail to record everyone who has problems with alcohol.
Smoking remains another big reason why Belarusian men live so few years. According to a sociological study by the Belarusian state university, a third of the Belarusian adult population smoked in 2016.
Most smokers are men, who often start the habit even before the time at which the statistics start taking them into account. Belarusian youth remains one of the biggest smokers in the post-Soviet space. The author tried smoking at the age of 7 and became a habitual smoker by the age of 12.
In addition, Belarus has a set of further reasons determining short male life expectancy, similar to those found elsewhere in the world. For instance, men tend to avoid doctors and take bigger risks. Men more typically work in hazardous occupations, such as those associated with mining or construction. Moreover, a Ministry of Labour provision practically prohibits women from working in dangerous jobs such as blacksmith or long-haul driver. Belarusian feminists see this as discrimination.
Belarusian men remain much less socialized and this influences their psychological stability. Therefore, for example, they are more likely to commit suicide – in 2016, 386 women killed themselves, while 1,656 men committed suicide according to official figures.
Men’s earlier deaths affecting society
Actually, the Belarusian authorities do not seem concerned about low male life expectancy. The issue remains absent from officials’ public speeches and so far it is difficult to find any mentions in media or academia about the matter. Yet the problem affects not only men, but it has painful consequences for society as a whole.
Belarusian men earn more than women, so their loss means a significant fall in total income. Raising two children with a single Belarusian average monthly salary of $250 is difficult even to imagine. Those children without a father (or, to a lesser extent, a grandfather) will have far fewer chances of professional and personal success in life.
A more common example, when a woman in retirement has to pay for housing utilities alone this amounts to around $40 per month for a small flat, which previously she shared with her husband. In fact, this puts the woman at risk of poverty since the average pension in Belarus remains around $150 per month.
The state also loses, although some may cynically believe that the state benefits from so many men not reaching their retirement. However, in practice, this means a premature withdrawal from the labour market of qualified and experienced personnel. Moreover, men’s poor health means that their productivity remains below their potential and slows down the whole economy.
It remains in the interests of Belarus to lengthen the lives of men, but the authorities seem unprepared to take steps to achieve this. The government takes half-hearted measures to promote a healthy lifestyle, such as putting social advertisements on billboards, but it fails to raise prices on alcohol and cigarettes, fearing that it will increase illegal alcohol production and smuggling from Russia.
Moreover, an unhealthy lifestyle still serves as a tool of authoritarianism because it helps Belarusians forget their problems. Unless this attitude of the authorities changes, nothing is likely to prevent Belarusian men from dying early.
The crisis of Belarusian youth sport: can we expect a new Domracheva?
At the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, Belarus finished 15th in the medal table with two golds and one silver. The result represents a true sporting achievement for a country with a relatively small GDP. Yet, despite the triumphs of Darya Domracheva and Hanna Huskova, the Belarusian team failed to repeat its success at the 2014 games in Sochi when Belarus finished 8th in the medal standings. Belarusian youth sport faces several problems which reduce expectations of victories at Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022.
First, numerous sports clubs lack either private sponsorship or state support. Secondly, poor salaries reduce the motivation of talented youth coaches for career advancement. Finally, an abundance of entertainment, as well as the high cost of sports equipment, prevents youngsters from attending sports schools. For these reasons, instead of investing in sports infrastructure, the Belarusian government needs to support youth coaches. An efficient approach towards youth sports will improve the results of Belarusian sports teams in future.
Belarus’s sporting triumphs
As a part of the USSR, Belarus produced numerous sporting legends, including Olga Korbut, Vital Scherba, and Alexander Miadvedz. Belarusian sportsmen and women have traditionally demonstrated impressive achievements in fencing, gymnastics, rowing, track and field, skiing, and wrestling. The Soviet period left behind strong sports traditions and an excellent coaching system. However, the rapid breakdown of the Soviet economic system took its toll on the development of sport in independent Belarus.
Nevertheless, Belarus managed to preserve strong Soviet sports traditions in biathlon, freestyle skiing, rhythmic gymnastics, rowing, wrestling, and weightlifting. In Pyeongchang, Belarus – with a GDP per capita of just $4,989.25 (2016 figure) – finished 15th among 92 competing nations.
In comparison, the GDP per capita of Norway, which topped the medals table, amounts to $70,812 (2016); the GDP of 10-million-strong Sweden – $51,559 (2016); and the GDP of Austria with 8.7 million people – $44,176 (2016). Belarus, the poorest country among the top 15 medal winners, managed to do so well despite its economic hardship. A stable medal flow leaves hope for future Belarusian sporting achievements. However, Belarusian sport faces a number of problems.
Belarusian sport vs. the market economy
After the break of the Soviet Union, Belarusian sport had to adjust to a market economy. In order to attract serious sponsors, sports events required tens of thousands of spectators. However, despite cheap tickets, sports events have never managed to attract regular crowds in Belarus. For instance, only 3,864 spectators supported the national football team in its European Championship qualifying match against Slovakia. The attendance at ice hockey matches has turned into a farce whereby students fill empty stands in exchange for better grades for years. So far, the national sport has failed to be considered first-rate entertainment among Belarusians.
Since Belarusian sport cannot provide for itself, the Belarusian government obliged enterprises to finance sports teams across the country. For instance, the Belarusian Potash Company “Belaruskali” sponsors the “Shakhtyor-Saligorsk” ice hockey club, while OJSC “Byelorussian Steel Works” sponsors another ice hockey club, “Metallurg-Zhlobin”. However, the level of financial support depends on the profitability of each particular enterprise and, in cases of bankruptcy or financial crisis, teams must survive without support for months, if not years. Financial straits have put an end to several Belarusian sports teams, including male volleyball teams from Hrodna and Homiel.
Belarusian sport vs. the entertainment industry
Aside from financial challenges, Belarusian sport faces a decreasing talent pool. At present the national sports industry competes with numerous entertainment giants. Films, concerts, clubs, cafes, the internet and computer games simultaneously fight for young Belarusians’ attention. While Soviet youngsters pursued sports activities due to the lack of entertainment, contemporary Belarusian teenagers possess plenty of it. Moreover, music idols such as Rihanna and Jay-Z score higher in teen popularity than the biggest national sports stars, including Victoria Azarenka and Alexander Hleb. As a result, many potential sporting talents do not develop their potential.
Expensive sports equipment also deters talented children. Youth hockey equipment costs between $600-800 (approximately one-and-a-half times the average Belarusian monthly salary); especially problematic for a growing teenager who requires new hockey equipment each year.
A rhythmic gymnastics suit costs $400 and lasts just half a year. A high quality tennis racquet costs about $3,000 (or nearly eight times the average Belarusian salary). Belarusian parents therefore have to think twice before investing in their child’s sports activities. In this way, the proclaimed state support for national sport looks rather hypocritical.
Belarusian sport vs. diminishing coaching talent
Belarusian youth coaches have outlined two major problems harming the development of Belarusian sport. The first problem concerns poor salaries for a highly challenging job of coaching children and teenagers. At present, Belarusian youth coaches receive between $200-350 per month, even less than the official average salary of $426. Consequently, the best specialists quickly move into better-paid roles coaching adults and prospective juniors.
The second problem relates to a decline in the quality of coaching education. The lack of professional prestige deprives sports faculties of a competitive selection. As a result, education standards also drop, as does motivation of young specialists. Aside from this, Belarusian sports specialists rarely attend international conferences or apply creative teaching approaches. Therefore, a higher education diploma in physical education does not guarantee a professional coach.
To conclude, Belarusian youth sports undergoes a crisis, which has stemmed from its slow transition to a market economy. Youth sports schools suffer a shortage of talent, sports clubs lack sponsors, and spectators are not entertained. The primary task facing Belarusian sport remains to increase its target audience. As soon as national sports become important for Belarusians, they will attract sufficient financial flows. As for state support, the major investment should be redirected into supporting youth coaches instead of building infrastructure.