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Last Updated: Monday, 27 March 2006, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Italian women shun 'mamma' role
Birth rates in the European Union are falling fast.

In the second of a series about motherhood and the role of the state in encouraging couples to have more children, the BBC's Rome correspondent Christian Fraser asks why Italy - a predominantly Roman Catholic country that has always loved children - has stopped having them.

The Italian population is getting smaller and it is also getting older. The fertility rate - at 1.33 children per woman - is one of the lowest in the Western world. And more than one in five of the population in Italy is now over 65.

Laura Callura became a mother at 36, which she says is not unusual in Italy
On current estimates there will be 14 million fewer Italians by the year 2050.

The question is why? The answer is that many single women now work hard to avoid the responsibilities of childcare. An increasing proportion of educated women no longer want to be just mothers and wives.

Ten years ago women represented only 22% of the work force here - now they are 47%.

But there is another reason most young families decide against having children - they can't afford it.

The country spends just 3.8% of its GDP on child-related social spending compared with an EU average of around 8%.

Older mothers

Laura Callura, 38, who lives in Rome says she is typical of many Italian women.

"I became a mother at 36 and that's not unusual here," she says. "A lot of my friends had their first child between the ages of 33 and 38.

In Europe 2.1 children per woman is considered to be the population replacement level. These are national averages
Ireland: 1.99
France: 1.90
Norway: 1.81
Sweden 1.75
UK: 1.74
Netherlands: 1.73
Germany: 1.37
Italy: 1.33
Spain: 1.32
Greece: 1.29
Source: Eurostat - 2004 figures

"Here in Italy we start life much later than people in northern Europe. University courses take longer to finish and it's harder for young people to get into the job market.

"I started my first job when I was 25 - but that is quite unusual. Most Italians don't start their career until their late 20s."

Statistics show that an increasing number of 30-year-old Italians still live with their parents, unable to afford first-time housing.

"I lived with my parents until I was 29," says Laura. Most of my friends stayed with their parents until they were married. "It is expensive to rent property particularly in the cities and most young people can't afford it. If you can't afford to live, you are not even thinking about children."

Italy still trails behind most of Europe in providing affordable child care and family benefits. Maternity pay isn't bad - Laura had five months on full pay with her first child and six months on reduced pay.

Baby bonus

Compared with the US, where her husband comes from, she thinks that is fairly generous.

"We get tax break as well," she says "but there is no family allowance to speak of. Then, there are few nurseries. I wouldn't know how you get one of the few places in a public nursery - it is impossible. I would think you would have to pull some strings."

I have a friend who is married to someone who didn't help enough around the house - she didn't cave in to having a second child until he promised to do more
Laura Callura
As for the private nurseries, they are far too expensive. "I am lucky because I have my parents, but without them it would be much, much harder to manage."

Laura, who is now expecting her second child has a full-time contract. She says most people would not consider having two children unless they were in a stable "lifetime contract".

And therein lies one of the other major problems. There is very little flexibility in the labour market here in Italy. Contracts are "for life", which explains why there is very little part-time work for those outside the system.

"I had considered asking my employer for more flexible hours," she says, "but I wasn't hopeful. I have considered stopping but financially that is a risk. You never know what sort of pressures you are going to face with a second child."

Last year, the government introduced a "baby bonus" to try to encourage families to have more children.

Since then, more than 600,000 mothers have each received 1,000 euros from the government towards the cost of their new-born babies.

It's too early to say whether this new bonus is likely to have any dramatic effect on the birth rate here but there are many who think the money would be better targeted through the benefits system.

Men's role

Letizia Mencarini, a professor of demography at the University of Florence interviewed more than 3,000 mothers from five different cities across Italy to find out what would persuade them to have more children.

She found the more involved the father became in household chores, the more likely his wife was to want a second baby.

Last year, a "baby bonus" was introduced to try to encourage families to have more children

"A lot of Italian men do nothing around the house," she says. "I would say career women in Italy work harder than any other in Europe when you factor in childcare and household duties.

"There is sufficient evidence to show that many women here are frightened of taking on the added work and responsibility that comes with a second child."

Laura agrees: "I have a friend who is married to someone who didn't help enough around the house. She didn't cave in to having a second child until he promised - on his mother's head - that he would do more."

Professor Mencarini says children are still at the centre of family life in Italy but many mothers said they had postponed the decision - sometimes until it was too late - because they were frightened of the financial implications.

"It's a complex problem as you have seen," she says. "There is almost a sense of pessimism that has grown in this country when it comes to having children.

"If the government really wants to encourage a positive environment for bringing up children then they have to put the provisions in place. That means far more flexible work, nurseries, children's services, and the sort of things that help young families to cope.

Are falling birth rates something Europe should be worrying about? Or should countries embrace natural decline? What would persuade you to have more children? Send us your views using the link below.


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