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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 March 2006, 07:43 GMT 08:43 UK
Social change slows Polish birth rates
In the latest in our series about motherhood and the role of the state in encouraging couples to have more children, the BBC's Adam Easton in Poland assesses why fertility rates are tumbling in this apparently family-oriented nation.

If you asked many people which countries are the most Catholic and traditional in Europe, they would probably answer either Ireland or Poland. And in many respects they would be right.

Anna Jurczak, who has six-month-old twin boys
Women's expectations of men are changing, says Anna Jurczak
According to surveys, around two-thirds of Poles go to church every Sunday and 70% say that family and children are the most important things in their lives.

But while birth rates have been falling steadily across the continent for decades, the fertility rate in Ireland is now 1.98, not too far off the population replacement level of 2.1. In Poland, it's just 1.23, among the bottom five in Europe. The country's population actually fell by almost half a million over the last six years. Estimates suggest there will be four million fewer Poles by 2030.

So why are family-oriented Poles having fewer babies? It is partly because there is a difference between what people say and what they do. And it is also because Polish society has been undergoing profound changes in recent decades.

'Wife, where's my dinner?'

First, more and more young people, especially women, are going to college and university.

"Women are becoming more and more demanding. They want to get a job and career first so they're not dependent on their husband later," says 34-year-old Anna Jurczak, who has six-month-old twin boys.

"Twenty years ago you had to get married young but in our generation, my friends and I, first of all we want to find a good job and then we can find someone we can love."

And women are getting more choosy when it comes to picking a suitable husband, she says.

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

"I married when I was 29. I looked for a husband for a long time. I was looking for somebody who could go to the kitchen and get his own food and find his own socks and underwear.

"I didn't want to be like my parents from the countryside. They work together in the fields and when they come back home my father just sits down and says, 'Wife, where's my dinner?' There's no partnership there. I wanted my relationship to be based on partnership."

Another dramatic change came with the transition from communism to a market-based economy. Under communism unemployment officially didn't exist. Now, at 18%, it's the highest in the European Union.

"When we got married my job wasn't stable and that's why we kept postponing a decision to start a family. But because I was getting older we decided to have a child regardless," Anna says.

Money worries

As well as concerns about job security, there is a chronic housing shortage and many young people live with their parents because they cannot afford a flat. The cost of raising a family is also increasing.

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

"I used to earn quite a good salary and my husband still does so we could get a mortgage and buy a flat in Warsaw. But we have to watch all our pennies and economise. For the time being I still have clothes handed down from my sister's children. The other day I went to a shop and bought two baby suits and I spent 52 zlotys [13 euros; $16]. It's a lot for us. Of course I can buy in second-hand shops and I do," Anna says.

Another reason why women are reluctant to break their career to start a family is because they fear they won't be able to get their jobs back after taking maternity leave.

"My friend came back from maternity leave and she was immediately sacked, allegedly because she hadn't instructed her replacement well enough before she took leave. I'll look for a job again when my children are old enough but I'm very pessimistic," says Anna.

It is a problem the new conservative government acknowledges.

"Polish women have problems keeping their jobs when they are young because employers think, 'Ah, maybe she's going to be pregnant soon', and secondly, when a woman has a child employers often think she will be a worse worker," says Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, the new under-secretary for Women and the Family.

 Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, under-secretary for Women and the Family
We have big plans. The 'baby bonus' is only the first step
Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska
Under-secretary for Women and the Family
The government has promised to build more flats for first-time buyers and introduce family-oriented legislation. To encourage people to have more children it recently introduced a new law which gives couples a 1,000-zloty "baby bonus" for each child they have.

"We have big plans. The 'baby bonus' is only the first step. We plan to extend maternity leave by two weeks, improve the running of public kindergartens, and we're discussing the possibility of introducing tax breaks for parents," Mrs Kluzik-Rostkowska says.

More help needed

Professor Irena Kotowska of the Institute of Statistics and Demography at the Warsaw School of Economics thinks the baby bonus is not "serious support".

"The first thing to do is to help parents combine work and family duties, which means improving state-run child care centres, there is a huge shortage there," she says.

Just 20% of working mothers use public kindergartens, while 40% rely on family members to care for their children.

"Then education needs to be more affordable and working practices should be organised to make them more family-friendly," she says.

Mrs Kluzik-Rostkowska admits it will not be easy to reverse Poland's falling birth rate.

"It's a very big problem and I think we have a lot of work ahead of us. I am an optimist and I think it will take about 15 years before we can start to reverse this trend," she says.

Anna says her husband does not want any more children because it is too expensive. "I'd like a daughter, so we'll see what happens," she says.


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