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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 March 2006, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Dwindling Germans review policies

In the latest in our series about motherhood and the role of the state in encouraging couples to have more children, the BBC's Tristana Moore in Berlin has been meeting women to find out why Germany has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe.

"Baby shock: Germans are dying out." This headline was recently splashed across the front page of Bild, Germany's biggest-selling tabloid.

A German playground
Some German mothers say they are thought selfish for wanting to work
It came as the Federal Statistics Office published preliminary figures showing around 676,000 children were born in Germany in 2005 - 4.2% lower than in 2004. Compare that with the figures after World War II: in 1946, 922,000 babies were born.

A German woman has on average 1.37 children during her lifetime, well below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman.

By the most widely used measure of birth rates in Germany - the number of births per 1,000 heads of population - Germany is right at the bottom of the table of European nations.

For years, demographers and politicians have warned about the dangers of a declining birth rate and ageing population. But the recent statistics make uncomfortable reading, and it's prompted a passionate debate in the German media.

Elisabeth Boele, 38, has two children - four-year-old Jonas, and Anton, who is two.

'Male workaholics'

"Children are very important. It's definitely altered my attitude towards life," said Elisabeth.

"I've just changed jobs because it was too difficult to combine my former job as a lawyer in an international law firm with my children and family life.

"It's sometimes hard to convince male workaholics that the family has priority on weekends. I'll now start a job where I get paid less and which is hopefully less demanding timewise."

And what about attitudes to women in the workplace?

The decline in birth rates parallels the decline in the traditional family
Mike, Liverpool, UK

"More employers have understood that if they don't want to do without a qualified female workforce, then they have to create the options for women to work part-time. But this doesn't necessarily mean that you can count on a lot of sympathy as a working mum," says Elisabeth.

She concedes that the government does offer financial incentives for women to have children, but questions whether they are the right ones.

"Why do you have to pay for your kindergarten but not for schools or universities [in most German states]? What kind of signal does this give for women who want to go quickly back to their job?" she says.

She also says working mothers are perceived as selfish in Germany - and suggests the situation is better in other European countries.

New proposals

Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government has pushed Germany's dwindling birth rate to the top of the political agenda. While Chancellor Merkel herself has no children, the Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Ursula von der Leyen, is a mother of seven.

Christel Champaen with her four-year-old daughter
I really wish that I could also work. I want to combine having a family with my career
Christel Champaen, 35
Little wonder then that Frau von der Leyen has announced a series of proposals to encourage more couples to have children.

They include a new form of state-funded child welfare support, whereby parents (either the mother or father) will be entitled to 67% of their previous incomes while staying at home, up to a maximum of 1,800 euros (1,240; $2,160) per month.

The scheme is intended to be flexible, and it's limited to a period of 10 months, with an additional two months for the other parent (usually the father). There are also plans to allow parents to offset up to 4,000 euros of childcare costs each year. But these measures still need to be passed into law, and they could face stiff opposition in parliament.

"It's so important to have a family. I want to bring children into this world," said Christel Champaen, 35, from Munich. She has two children, a seven-week-old baby boy and a four-year-old girl.

Christel used to work in an office, but she gave up her job when she became pregnant.

"My husband works, and I look after the children. I really wish that I could also work. I want to combine having a family with my career."

She says the government should do more to encourage women who want to have children.

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

"It's difficult to get a place for your child in a kindergarten. We were lucky and we found a place, though we have to pay 120 euros a month to have one child in the kindergarten. It's expensive. I would like to have more children, but I think it's going to be too difficult. I also don't want to give up my job for ever," she added.

The statistics are worrying politicians. According to European Union estimates, 30% of German women have not had children.

"I'd like to have children, but I can't see a way of keeping up my career and having a family," said Nikola Cordes, a 33-year-old lawyer.

"In Germany, it's still not accepted at work for a woman to be successful and for her to have children at the same time. All of my bosses are men," she said.

Regional variations

"I think many women want to combine family and work, but if society doesn't permit that, then women opt for their career," said Steffen Kroehnert, from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

"When you compare Germany with other European countries, you have a higher birth rate in, for example, Sweden or Denmark, where there is higher gender equality on the labour market."

The institute has published a report in response to the latest demographic figures.

"In our survey, we found huge regional variations," Mr Kroehnert said.

"For example, there is a declining population in eastern Germany, with only some islands of stability, for instance around Dresden and Berlin, yet there's a higher birth rate in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria.

Children playing in a sandpit in Germany
New proposals would give parents a total of 12 months' paid leave
"The hi-tech industries which have developed in eastern Germany cannot solve the problems of depopulation and unemployment because we need more low-skilled jobs."

Many demographers have different theories to explain why Germany has a dwindling birth rate.

The reasons range from poor child care and inflexible labour laws to high youth unemployment and extended higher education. But the consequences are clear: if birth rates continue to fall, then there will be a smaller workforce to support the needs of the elderly.

As Germans examine their attitudes to parenting, some may recognise that Germany has a male-dominated work environment and that perhaps a new, radical way of thinking is required.

Germany has its first woman chancellor in Angela Merkel. The question is: Will she introduce policies to help women, and is society ready for change?


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