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Bump and Protest

By Svetlana Kononova Special to Russia Profile 01/11/2011 Although Russia Could Be on Course for Demographic Disaster, the Government Has Cut Incentives to Would-Be Mothers
 
Last year there was a remarkable trend in Russia: the growth and development of civil society. So often indifferent and passive, people have changed their behavior and are now sticking together to protect their interests. There was much visible public action in 2010 including numerous protests against the controversial highway through Khimki Forest, the blue bucket flash-mobs against “migalki” – the blue lights on cars that allow high-ranking officials to flout basic traffic rules, as well as many other events. Now Russia’s mothers are up in arms over cuts to maternity benefit.
 
Protests in big cities have become ordinary events of little surprise to anybody. Even so, the protest made up of pregnant women and young mothers organized at the end of December astonished even the skeptics, cynics and politicians. Young women gathered outside the Ministry of Healthcare and Social Development in Moscow holding banners which read: “Found someone to leech onto?” “Saving money on pregnant women = demographic collapse!” and “Closing budget gaps with newborns?” Similar action was taken in St. Petersburg and Izhevsk, the capital city of the Republic of Udmurtia.
 
What was it that forced pregnant women to take to the streets in the midst of frosty weather? They were protesting the reduction of benefits for pregnancy, childbirth and childcare which came into force on January 1, in line with new legalization recently approved by the State Duma and signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The legislation contains several amendments reducing benefits for many pregnant women and young mothers according to the protest’s organizers.
 
Firstly, maternity benefit will now be calculated based on a woman’s average income over the last two years. Previously it was based on an average of her income over the last year only. “It means most of us will lose money,” said Anastasia Yermakova, the organizer of the rally. “Two thousand and nine was a year of economic crisis when many women in Russia earned small salaries or even lost their jobs. Now maternity benefit will be calculated based on these small incomes.”
 
Secondly, maternity benefit will be calculated using income earned in the last 730 days, which gives women who took no time off in the last two years an advantage. The others will lose money. It is particularly disadvantageous for women who spent a lot of time in hospitals because of a high-risk pregnancy in the last year. Daily income and maternity benefit used to be calculated from the number of days when women were actually working.
 
“Officials tell us that the new legislation will affect few women only. But this is not true. Do you know many pregnant women who worked 730 days in the last two years? Or women who earned more in 2010 than in 2009?” Yermakova said.
 
She calculates her own maternity benefit by way of example. According to the old law, Yermakova would be due 140,000 rubles ($4,610) from single childbirth benefit and 14,000 rubles ($461) from childcare benefit monthly. But the new legislation cuts this amount to 35,000 rubles ($1,150) and 3,000 rubles ($98) respectively.
 
The authorities say no one will be paid less than minimum wage, which is currently 4,330 rubles ($142). This money is enough to buy five to ten packs of nappies.
 
“It seems that young mothers who have just graduated from university and do not have two years of work experience and women who had breaks in work because of illness will receive benefits amounting to not much more than minimum wage,” Yermakova said.
 
“In all probability the government hoped nobody would notice the changes to the law. But we monitor all changes,” said Diana Romanovskaya, the protest’s spokesperson. Protesters believe the new legislation was implemented to compensate for the budget deficit in the Social Insurance Fund which is forecasted to grow to 200 billion rubles ($65.9 million) in 2011.
 
“The Ministry of Healthcare and Social Development promised that it will consider delaying the implementation of the law for already-pregnant women, so that they can receive benefits under the old scheme in 2011,” said Romanovskaya. “But we will press for the cancellation of the new legislation. Everybody should be paid as they used to be.”
 
Russia’s population has been getting smaller since 1991. In 2009 Russia recorded population growth for the first time in 15 years, growing 23.3 thousand. But this was due to migration. In 2010, Russia’s birth rate was 12.4 newborns per 1000 people - not enough to maintain the population. According to the Federal State Statistics Service, 1.49 million children were born in the country, and 1.7 million people died last year.
 
Additionally, Russia still has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. In 2009 alone, 1.16 million abortions were carried out – that’s 66.7 abortions for every 100 births.
 
Since 2007, mothers in Russia who have a second child are granted so-called “maternity capital” which amounts to 365,700 rubles ($12,050). This money cannot be received in cash, but mothers can spend it on property, child education or add it to a retirement fund.
 
However, many Russian families cannot afford even to have a single child. Experts say that many women do not plan any pregnancies because of housing problems, low income, bad health and lack of support from family members. A poll conducted by the independent Levada Center found that 73 percent of Russians do not plan to have children in the next two to three years, and 11 percent say they do not want children at all.
 
Future and recent mothers plan to hold the next national protest on January 18. “We have a lot of supporters in many Russian towns and cities. Maternity benefit cuts have made people indignant. The state is behaving very cynically. On the one hand, officials call on us to have more children to prevent a demographic disaster in the country and promise to support mothers and families with children. But on the other hand, they are cutting our maternity benefits,” Yermakova said.
 
Surprisingly, even Russia’s online childfree community supported the “pregnant protest.”
 
“The state has decreased maternity payments. It seems to be an alarming trend. What will happen next? Increasing the retirement age? Increasing taxes? Cutting other social benefits?” wrote a member of this community who goes by the nickname ‘hild vindsval.’
 
“If I could choose how to spend my taxes I would sooner give this money to people who really need it than pay for Skolkovo, the Olympic Games in Sochi and other high-cost projects, which improve the image of our government worldwide but are useless for most average Russians.”
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