“Beauty doesn’t have an age. Fertility does.” So begins the latest campaign from the Italian Ministry of Health. Spear-headed by Beatrice Lorenzin, the 22nd of September will now be known as “Fertility Day” and, like its predecessor “Family Day”, the move has taken over social media here in Italy. Deeming it hypocritical, backwards, humiliating, sexist and even fascist, social media users have been quick to tell the ministry exactly what they think of the idea. The hashtag #fertilityday became an instant trending topic on Twitter, with users pointing out the irony of encouraging people to have more children when unemployment for young couples is so high and permanent working contracts are like gold dust.
The announcement yesterday was accompanied by images and slogans promoting the initiative. Slogans including “Young parents. The best way to be creative” and “Get a move on! Don’t wait for the stork”, as well as a website which crashed under the weight of visitors. However, the ministry seems to be ignoring the very reasons why the birth rate is at its lowest point in history or why the average age of first-time parents is increasing. Quite simply, young people cannot afford to have children. Temporary contracts mean that a woman may lose her job if she becomes pregnant. A lack of jobs for recent graduates means that many Italians find themselves unemployed and still living with their parents until their thirties. In fact, on the same day Lorenzin announced Fertility Day, ISTAT (National Institute for Statistics) put youth unemployment at almost 40%.
Nobody in Italy is against fertility or people having babies. We need it. However, this campaign seems to have taken us back in time to when women were expected to stay at home and have children. It smacks of fascism, when Mussolini’s propaganda encouraged women to give birth to mini fascists. “And so a woman has to have children or she’s not “good”. Years of female emancipation thrown down the…” are just some of the outraged comments being shared on Twitter. You see, women don’t need to be reminded that childbirth lies on our shoulders. We know this. We also know how much time, money and energy it takes to raise a child. Having a government campaign urge us to have more children when they fail to put proper support systems in place is farcical.
This was made clear to me at lunch yesterday, when friends came to visit with their 4-month-old son. The nostalgic idea of the extended Italian family all living together is simply not the case any more. Many young people have to move away from their home towns after university in order to find work, meaning any money they earn is quickly eaten up by living costs. If they then find themselves in a position to be able to afford children, they are usually without the moral and emotional support of their families. When my sister’s mother-in-law was a child, it was perfectly normal for a mother to pop next door and leave the baby with a relative or friend for a short time while she got on with the things she had to do. That is no longer the case. Our friend said there is no way she would ask her neighbours for help. We no longer have the mentality that “it takes a village to raise a child”. This leaves the only other option of childcare, which for many young couples is financially out of reach, needing both parents to be working in order to afford the costs.
Then there’s the question of the men and women who choose not to have children or who, through no fault of their own, are unable to. What are they to make of this scheme? Quite frankly, it’s an insult. A kick in the privates that people neither need nor deserve. They’re faced with being told that they are failures for not procreating; that they’re not contributing to society. As if wanting a baby that you can never have is not heartbreaking or humiliating enough.
However, there are people and organisations who are fighting back against the ministry’s rhetoric. “Act!”, a group of politically and socially active citizens, have designed a range of counter-slogans. Using the images produced by the ministry, they have redesigned them to be more befitting of today’s society, “A child is permanent, but my job isn’t” or “My pregnancy lasts a lot longer than my contract”. Instead of spending her time and money encouraging people to have children with no guarantees for their future, perhaps Lorenzin should put her energy into fighting for more jobs, more support and better pay for Italy’s young adults.