Italy has the lowest birthrate in the European Union and one of the lowest in the world, with only eight babies born for every 1,000 residents in 2015, according to EU figures released in July.
A total of 485,000 babies were born in the country last year, a record low and less than half the level of the 1960s. Mums are also getting older; the number of women over 40 giving birth doubled between 2002 and 2012, according to Eurostat, and the average age at which mothers have their first child is 31 years and seven months.
Yet a campaign from Italy’s Health Ministry to make couples aware of issues surrounding fertility – and to encourage them to have babies sooner – has been widely criticized.
Its first series of promotional material was scrapped after an outcry over ageism, with criticism levelled at a poster with the message ‘Beauty has no age. But fertility does’, and the second iteration was labelled as racist after a poster used a group of white friends to illustrate ‘good habits’ and people of different ethnicities to represent ‘bad habits’.
Though Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin quickly announced the ministry’s Director of Communications had been fired, it wasn’t just the posters being questioned, but the entire reasoning behind the campaign.
Lorenzin had organized Fertility Day to host talks, debates and health screenings promoting awareness of infertility, but in cities across the country, counter-protests with the slogan ‘Fertility Fake’ were organized.
Demonstrators held signs reading ‘siamo in attesa’, a play on the Italian term which means ‘we’re expecting’ but also translates as ‘we’re waiting’.
A Facebook group which organized the protests, which 1,400 people marked an interest in, said: “The government wants us to have children – and fast. Lots of us don’t want to, and in fact, we are waiting. For creches, welfare, salaries, benefits.”
The thing is, many Italian women do plan to have children. The average Italian woman wants to have 2.3 ‘more’ children (whether they already have any or not), data from national statistics agency Istat in 2012 showed, while three quarters of women with one children said they planned to have at least one more.
So why don’t they?
To start with, while overall in Italy the unemployment figures have declined in recent years, youth unemployment is still high, with many young Italians forced to live at home into their late 20’s and beyond.
A lack of money and a house is off-putting for many would-be parents, and there is no ‘child benefit’ scheme equivalent to that in the UK and numerous other European countries.
Working women face the added fear of losing their job if they have a child. Among Italian women who are employed when they become pregnant, one in four loses her job within a year of giving birth, according to data from national statistics agency Istat – a risk which increases with each subsequent child.
And a worrying 42.8 percent of those who had continued to work admitted to struggling to reconcile their work and family life.
In 2014, the IMF said Italy had done the least of any European country to encourage women to work, with only around half of women in the workforce and even fewer in the south.
Aside from financial concerns, a lack of childcare options is another key issue in a country which has traditionally relied on close links within the family and community to look after children. One in two Italian families regularly use grandparents as a babysitting resource, with 20 percent providing daily or almost daily care.
But those for whom this is not an option are left with limited choices.
State-run and state-subsidized pre-schools are available in Italy, but are often very over-subscribed, particularly in cities, leaving women to pay for expensive private care.
While private childcare is a preferred option for some, half of Italian women who didn’t send their children to daycare said the reason was that they couldn’t afford the cost, while almost 12 percent said they couldn’t find a place for their child, Istat data reveals.
One mother took to Twitter on Thursday to say that childcare for her two children over six years had cost her €56,000, while many other women said caring for their children without family support would have been impossible.
One said that without the help of grandparents, she and her children would be living “under a bridge”.
Most of the messages on banners at Thursday’s protests repeated these concerns, saying they were waiting for Italy to guarantee better salaries, stable work, affordable childcare and gender equality.
Others took their frustrations to social media, using the slogans ‘#siamoinattesa’ and ‘#vorreimanonparto (roughly: I’d like to, but I can’t have children).
Some people were even less optimistic, saying that they were waiting for a “miracle” or “a better country”.
No job. No money. Simple.
Women still earn less than men, and female employees lose their jobs when they become mums.
Because it takes a moment to go from ‘woman in society’ to ‘burden’ on society.
I have two children despite endometriosis. Without grandparents, in six years, nannies, creches, after-school and summer centres have cost €56,000.
A job and greater stability. Children aren’t a game.
Work, support, benefits; too much is lacking, you can’t pretend to be ‘fertile’ if you live in arid terrain.
We are waiting for salaries, nurseries, university tuition and the chance to be able to choose our own lives.