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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 March 2006, 04:58 GMT 05:58 UK
Norway's welfare model 'helps birth rate'
Birth rates in the European Union are falling fast.

In the third of a series about motherhood and the role of the state in encouraging couples to have more children, the BBC's Lars Bevanger in Oslo examines whether generous family policies explain why Norwegian women give birth to more babies than most of their European sisters.

Inger Sethov works for Norway's second largest oil and gas company, Hydro. She is pregnant with her second baby. Five-year-old Lea will have a little brother or sister in June.

For Inger, having children was never a difficult choice

For Inger and her partner Pierre, having children was never a difficult choice.

"I'm entitled to 12 months off work with 80% pay, or 10 months with full pay. My husband is entitled to take almost all of that leave instead of me, and he must take at least four weeks out.

"Economic considerations never even crossed our minds when we decided to have children. It's just not an issue. Of course that makes it easier for women to have more babies, it gives you an enormous freedom," said Ms Sethov.

A falling birth rate is a good thing. The planet is already overpopulated
Claire, London

International travel is part of her work. Very few of the women in similar jobs she meets abroad have children.

"There is just a completely different level of acceptance among employers here. It is not uncommon to put a telephone conference on hold, because you can hear a baby crying in the background."

High birth rate, high employment rate

The paid leave is guaranteed by the National Insurance Act, and dates back to 1956. Because the leave is financed through taxes, employers don't lose out financially when people take out their parental leave.

The present system of 10 or 12 months leave with 100% or 80% pay was introduced in 1993. Since then, the fertility rate has been a steady 1.8 - higher than most European countries.

It is not uncommon to put a telephone conference on hold, because you can hear a baby crying in the background
Inger Sethov

At the same time, five out of six women between the ages of 30 and 39 are in employment.

No government yet has stated that the aim of generous family policies is to increase birth rates. The main argument has always been to secure greater gender equality.

Marit Ronsen is a senior researcher with Statistics Norway. She thinks extended maternity and paternity leave, as well as state-sponsored day care facilities, probably do play a part when people choose to have children.

"We don't have a strong, statistical correlation here, but several analysis indicate a link.

"What it does mean, is that we have been able to maintain a relatively high birth rate. Many believe the family policies of this country are a necessity to keep that rate stable," she says.

'Daddy quota'

Fathers too are encouraged to take as much time off as possible, and must take at least four weeks leave or else those weeks will be lost for both parents.

This is known as the 'daddy quota', and the government has proposed to expand it with one more week.

Brage Ronningen has just finished his three months of 'daddy leave'

Mothers must take the first six weeks after birth as maternity leave, but after that it is up to the parents to share the remaining leave as they wish.

Brage Ronningen has just finished his three months of leave. He works for a small company administering recycling of electrical goods.

"For us the decision to have our first baby did not really depend on our ability to enjoy a long, financially secure parental leave. But of course now I see how enormously beneficial it has been for all of us," he said.

"And I think employers understand the benefits too. Even small companies see that they have to offer generous paternity packages to attract desirable staff. Many even offer more than they have to according to the law."

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

Still, a generous family policy programme is no guarantee for a high fertility level, says Marit Ronsen at Statistics Norway. To illustrate her point, she uses neighbouring Sweden as an example.

"Sweden's family policies have been at least as generous as ours. Yet their birth rates have not improved.

"Sweden experienced a period of slack in the economy that soon led to a sharp rise in unemployment. Soon after, fertility declined from 2.1 children per woman in 1992 to about 1.5 in 1997.

"In economically insecure times, people tend to postpone having children," Ms Ronsen says.

Norway has enjoyed a steady economic growth since the early 1990s. Marit Ronsen believes it is a combination between that growth and the family policy that has kept the birth rates here on a steady high.

Total equality not here yet

Most here agree that Norway's family policy does encourage more equality between the sexes.

Many also believe there is a direct link between the system and birth rates, even though there is room for improvement in order to reach the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.

Inger Sethov believes there is only one way forward.

"The system will not be completely fair to women until parental leave must be shared 50-50 between mother and father, by law. Only then will women be completely equal in the work market, and perhaps then we will choose to have even more children."


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