In Search of Dignity: Childbirth and Childcare in Belarus
The Belarusian all-star Olympic biathlete Darya Domracheva will have a baby in October. The news came in April from the future child’s father Ole Einar Bjorndalen, also known as the “King of Biathlon”, the most medalled Winter Olympic Norwegian.
Because Darya symbolises Belarusian pride and holds the title of “Belarusian Hero”, some have insisted she must deliver in Belarus. While this particular international couple may pick and choose the country and hospital for their future childbirth, most Belarusians have few such options.
Belarus scores well in international indices of gender equality and maternal health. But this brings little consolation to individual women who have to deliver and raise children. In search of dignity during childbirth some go to neighbouring Lithuania, while others have launched local initiatives to advocate for transparency and a human touch during such pivotal moments in life.
Impressive maternal health care and benefits record
2015 marked a modest victory for Belarusian demographic policy as cumulative fertility rate reached 1.7 children per woman. While it may not seem enough for the rapidly ageing nation to reproduce itself, this constitutes a considerable increase from 1.4 in 2010. And it fares well compared to the neighbouring Baltic states, where the highest birth rate is 1.6, in Lithuania.
Most women in Belarus both in urban and rural areas choose to have more than one child. Just like their European counterparts, women are getting married later – now at an average age of 25.5 – and give birth to their first baby at 26. Belarusian women begin families a little earlier than Polish and Lithuanian women who on average have their first baby at 26.7.
In 2015 the annual Save the Children Mother’s Index assessed the well-being of mothers and children in 179 countries and ranked Belarus 25th in their list. Belarus came right after the UK, scoring better than neighbouring Poland and Lithuania. The index considers such vital statistics as lifetime risk of maternal death and children’s mortality rate among other things.
Compared to other countries, Belarus offers rather generous maternity leave. It consists of 126 days of paid leave with 100 per cent retention of income, and a total of 165 weeks of possible time off work with an allowance of $115 per child and uncertain job security. Uncertain, because not many employers in a competitive business climate will hold a place for a woman for three years.
Generally speaking, generous maternity leave comes at the expense of benefits and compensation. The European champions in length of maternity leave, Poland and the UK, both offer 52 weeks to a woman, and compensate 87 per cent of her income and give a flat rate after the first 6 weeks. On the contrary, Lithuania offers only 18 weeks but at 100 per cent income compensation.
Statistics versus reality
The quality of health care during pregnancy and anticipated childbirth experience feed into women’s decisions about the number of children they will have. While the labour experience will almost always be painful for a woman, it does not have to be lonely and humiliating. Yet for many women in Belarus it feels exactly that way. Facilities that offer no privacy and allow no partners or relatives to be present, along with callous personnel, leave women traumatised and therefore unwilling to go through the ordeal again.
Since 2000 it has become more common to have a partner present at childbirth in Belarus. According to zautra.by every tenth couple wishes to go through this experience together, although no official data is available. In order to make this happen, the couple has to take a special paid labour preparation class, but even then there is no guarantee that the father will be admitted. Doctors and medical personnel have the final say.
The decision on admitting a woman’s partner to a childbirth depends on delivery room availability, the partner’s medical record, and certainly the whim of doctors. Women get transferred to certain rooms during active labour, which they usually have to share with two or three other women. This means no male can enter the room.
Yet according to Belarusian news outlets this is about to change, at least for those who can afford it. The Ministry of Health announced in May that one Minsk hospitals will now offer two individual rooms to accommodate pregnant and labouring women with better comfort, but most importantly to allow family members, including a woman’s partner, to be present during the labour.
Childbirth with dignity
Giving birth in neighbouring Lithuania is becoming more popular among young well-to-do Belarusians who wish to go through this experience together. Located 180km (115 miles) from Minsk, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius may as well be in a different universe in terms of the childbirth experience. The average cost of natural labour is 800-1000 euro per family, and may increase to 1,300 in case of a Caesarian. The data suggest that 60 Belarusians babies were born in one major Vilnius hospital in 2013, and 70 in 2014.
Belarusian families travel to Lithuania for three basic necessities: the importance of both parents being together for the labour, the ability to have the child stay in the same room as its mother, and friendly, well-wishing medical personnel. Daria Vashkevich and Siarhei Lisichonak, who had their first baby boy in February in Vilnius, tell their story:
In Lithuania they have already changed their approach to childbirth and delivery and view it as something very natural for a healthy woman. We wanted to be treated as normal human beings going through an important physiological and psychological act in our family, and not as those in an emergency situation. You know, the basic approach to childbirth defines the rest: procedures, protocols, environment, hospitality, and etc.
Going back to the most celebrated athletic couple – the Norwegian father in accordance with family law in Norway will have to take at least 10 weeks off to take care of the newborn. By contrast in Belarus less than 2 per cent of men take any such paternity leave. While they have the same rights as mothers to take leave, they seldom take advantage of it.
One of the obvious reasons for such decision-making lies in higher earnings. Because men tend to earn 25 per cent more than women in Belarus, it makes no economic sense to forgo a higher salary. While this rings true for most countries in the world, the Nordic countries, including Norway, made such leave obligatory for men. Belarus is about to follow suit. On 12 May a representative of the Ministry of Labour announced that it will consider the possibility of introducing mandatory paternity leave. The availability of nurseries are also important.
It seems Belarus still lags behind at adopting forward-thinking family-oriented practices. It has succeeded in keeping up the high standards of pre-natal and post-natal health care developed during the Soviet era, but with it has not questioned old fashioned rules and rigid protocols. Maybe the time has now come to add to these high-quality services a much-needed human touch.
Victory Day: Between Remembrance and Militant Memory
9 May 2016 in Minsk started with a procession “Belarus Remembers,” which marched through the heart of the city, carrying pictures of the veterans.
Too frail to walk over longer distances, they joined the procession at the Victory Square for the official part. Festivities continued with president Lukashenka laying wreaths at the Monument of the Victory.
Belarusian Victory Day looked more modest and appropriate in contrast to the lavish Russian military parade, which took place in the same morning in Moscow. On the other hand, celebrations of the victory over the Nazi Germany in Minsk differ from the European commemorative practices. Belarusian authorities still pay tribute to the military aspect and focus on the Great Patriotic War, instead of the entire WWII.
The actual commemoration of the victims and coming to terms with the war remains in the background of the patriotic state-sponsoured celebrations, although in 2016, quite symbolically, the Victory Day fell on the eve of Radaunica. It is the ancient Ancestors Remembrance Day, the ninth day after the Orthodox Easter, when people traditionally travel across country to visit the cemeteries and remember their loved ones.
Victory Day: connecting past and present
Along with the Victory Square, major festivities on 9 May take place near the war monument of the Minsk Hero City, by the museum of the Great Patriotic War, which re-opened in the new location in 2014. In many ways this museum reflects official memory of the war and approaches to the Victory Day in Belarus. Its 22-meter glass dome reminds of the German Reichstag. Lukashenka pointed out this reference specifically, emphasising Belarusian contributions to the victory in the war.
On 9 May 2016, president addressed the crucial role of the Belarusian people in the Great Patriotic War in the same vein. He noted that “we will not allow to distort the truth about this victory, falsify it or take it away from our children and grandchildren.”
Such rhetoric along with the traditions of grand celebrations of the Victory Day date back to Soviet times. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, its successor states reinvented commemoration of the victory in different ways, yet glorification of the victory remains the universally positive reference point.
Drawing on the images of the partisan republic, the Great Patriotic War, and heroism, current Belarusian regime benefits from the Soviet-inspired approach with minimal adjustments. Modern memory culture still centers around the Great Patriotic War during 1941 – 1945. By contrast, legacies of the WWII and fates of Belarusian veterans, who fought on its fronts since 1939, remain in the background.
Patterns of remembrance
Family histories of almost every Belarusian feature tragic stories of fighting, self-sacrifice, and privations during the war. The number of WWII Belarusian casualties makes up about 2.2 million people: soldiers, civilians, and victims of the Holocaust.
More than 1.3 million Belarusians fought in WWII, yet the time takes its toll on the veterans. On the eve of the 71th anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany, only 13,700 former soldiers and partisans were the major protagonists in the celebrations of the Victory Day. Its unequivocally positive message will likely define collective memory patterns for years to come.
Recognising this immense mobilising potential, Belarusian authorities use the memory of the war to legitimise current political regime. Yet the side-effect is that the actual history moves to the background, while the commemorative practises encourage the cult of the war.
The Great Patriotic War is an undisputed part of the school curriculum in Belarus, while some schools diligently enforce the “military-patriotic” theme for their students in a more straightforward manner.
Along with humanities or sciences, high-school students have an option to choose this specialisation for their last two years in school. If they do, they get to wear military-style uniforms and can study military-related subjects.
Militarised memory: war myths and cults
The theme of Belarusian contributions to the victory and crucial role of partisan movement create a certain counter-narrative to the memory politics in contemporary Russia. The latter is actively developing its own version of the sacred Great Patriotic War, prioritising exclusively Soviet/Russian role in the defeat of the Nazi Germany.
Appropriation of the victory in the war became especially important with the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014, as Russia started to assert its dominance in the post-Soviet region. One of the recent images of Russian war cult are the black-orange striped St. George's ribbons, which replaced the red flags as major war-related symbols.
The ribbons appeared in 2005 in reaction to the Orange revolution in Ukraine and firmly took hold in the public sphere during the recent Russian-Ukrainian confrontation. Along with the portraits of Stalin, military posters, and anti-German car stickers these ribbons became more prominent in public and virtual space as tools of aggressive memory construction.
This merchandise gradually appears to find its way to Belarus, yet the state attempts to counteract the trend. Both Belarus and Kazakhstan developed their own versions of a special ribbon for the Victory Day. Babrujsk municipality recently prohibited to use St. George's ribbons and Russian flags during the Victory Day themed car rally.
In contrast to Belarus, the war cult in Russia assumes more assertive forms. In one of the recent incidents, people wearing WWII uniforms and St. George's ribbons threw raw eggs and disinfectant at the high school participants of the annual research contest “The Individual in History. Russia in the 20th Century,” organised by the human rights group Memorial. Protesters accused it of falsifying history, labelling students as “fascists” and “traitors.” Among the victims of this attack was the Russian writer Liudmila Ulitskaia.
By comparison, Belarusian version of war memory is less aggressive, as the state is not actively involved in any ongoing military conflicts. Yet Victory Day commemorations in Belarus show how war cults in essence prevent coming to terms with the war trauma, especially when the state deliberately upholds military-oriented patriotic education, inspired by Soviet approaches.
In this respect, Victory Day celebrations might better fulfil their purpose, if they genuinely focus on the message of peace and encourage historical reflection, rather than military grandeur. The main challenge is to shape collective memory in a less artificial way, avoiding trivialisation of the immense human sacrifice, that Belarusians paid during the war.