Alanna Armitage

Gold Medals and Motherhood: Demographic Security and Reproductive Rights in Eastern Europe

The fear of shrinking populations in Europe is not new. From the infamous pronatalist policies under Ceausescu’s Romania and the eugenic pronatalist propaganda of Nazi Germany to the more recent examples of encouraging births through family policies in France and Sweden, there is long history of direct state intervention in the reproductive lives of its citizens.

Concepts such as demographic depression, dying nations and destruction of the gene pool remain present in the media and in government statements. Nevertheless, upon taking up a position to head UNFPA’s office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, I was still surprised to learn about a new generation of pronatalist population policy – ‘demographic security’ that is currently dominating national discourse in several countries of the region.

Demographic security policies, although varied in content, focus on bringing birth rates back to replacement levels and promoting population growth through generating the demand for more children, strengthening the institution of “the Family” and ‘protecting motherhood’. These policies may include laws restricting access to contraception and abortion, the introduction of generous family allowances and child welfare benefits, or even explicit measures to increase fertility rates of a country’s national ethnic majority. In several countries, they include presidential orders and gold medals for women with over five children. The growth in number of these policies in the past decade, to confront what demographer Ralph Hakkert (2016) calls “apocalyptic visions of death and oblivion”, has failed to attract much international attention. These policies are not reflected in UN databases on population policies and have not been on the radar of the international population and development community. Because of shrinking civil society space for women’s and reproductive rights in Eastern Europe, they are not being sufficiently monitored through research attention.

My PhD project is engaging critically with these emerging trends and bringing an anthropological perspective to the concept of demographic security.  The focus is on the country of Belarus and its demographic security policies as a microcosm. My research explores the genealogy of demographic security as an ideology in the country, and the broader Eastern European region, and the impact it may have on women’s present and future reproductive rights. It also analyses the disjunction between political rhetoric and reality around demographic change. For example, why do governments fail to design adequate measures to address the out-migration by the younger, skilled or well-educated generation or the high rates of male mortality and secondary infertility due to STIs which are also among the causes of declining demographic growth? Why do they focus instead on boosting fertility, stemming immigration, promoting the traditional family and protecting motherhood? By turning reproduction into a national security issue, nation states can rapidly displace the conflated burden of nationalism and pronatalism on women’s bodies.” (Adi Bharadwaj 2016).

My research is also providing a platform for a personal and institutional journey to better understand and address demographic trends in the region. Given UNFPA’s role in supporting countries to elaborate evidenced and human rights based laws and policies, the research is providing a platform for common analytical exchange between people, institutions and policies to inspire open ended, co-construction and coproduction of knowledge by bringing “Para-Sites of reflection” (Markus 2000) to current population policies in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region.