The billboards are hard to miss: large and plastered all over Poland, they show two blonde girls in immaculate white posing in a field of wheat.
The caption asks, “Where are these kids?”
An accompanying pictogram showing statistics of declining birth rates claims that the average Polish family had five children in the 1950s, down to three in the 80s and 1.5 today.
The signs, put up by a Catholic foundation in recent weeks, have sparked heated debate in the conservative-run country, where family and reproductive rights are an ongoing source of tension.
The campaign has already spawned parodies. One version has a billboard with a dumpling pictograph and the line: “Where are those pierogi?”
Observers were quick to point out that the figures on the original poster are incorrect: official statistics show that Polish women had fewer than four children on average in the 1950s.
Nevertheless, the current birth rate is worrying: With 1.4 children per woman, Poland is below the EU average and the threshold of generational renewal.
“Our campaign has no ideological or political aim,” said the Kornice Foundation, whose president, a wealthy businessman with Catholic ties, is one of Poland’s richest men.
“It just makes you think.”
– ‘fundamentalist undertone’ –
Kornice had previously made headlines with other controversial billboard campaigns, including those opposed to abortion and divorce.
For the women’s activist Paulina Zagorska, “the fundamentalist undertone of these posters is obvious: their authors attribute the falling birth rates to contraception and the questioning of the traditional family model”.
Many observers have seized the opportunity to denounce the near-total abortion ban introduced by the right-wing government and its family policies.
According to left-wing opposition MEP Robert Biedron, “there are not enough children because of a lack of crèches and kindergartens…insufficient wages…fear of pregnancy after inhumane anti-abortion laws”.
A study published in May by research firms SW Research and Garden of Words found that half of Polish women viewed their country as unfavorable to motherhood, particularly due to abortion restrictions and difficult access to health care.
– National Mission –
Still, the birth rate is one of the main pillars of the ruling party’s program, whose staple is a popular monthly child benefit called 500+.
The party’s family policy is intended to help young households get started and guarantee childcare in the first years of life.
However, critics argue that the guidelines are mainly aimed at promoting the traditional family model and encouraging women to stay at home.
The Ministry of Family Affairs calls fertility “an issue of life” in its official programme, adding that it must be defended “even at the cost of the temporary withdrawal of women from the labor market who prefer their children”.
For Irena Kotowska, a demographics expert at the Polish Academy of Sciences, these family policies introduced under the influence of the church were “ineffective”.
Poland currently has 38.2 million people, but its population could shrink by 2.3 million by 2040, according to a Eurostat forecast.
– Historical factor –
Historical trends are also affecting the dwindling numbers.
“Massive unemployment caused by the sudden transition to capitalism led to declining birth rates in the former Eastern Bloc countries in the 1990s,” said Kotowska.
“So there aren’t many women of childbearing age from those years, and they don’t have many children,” she added.
The Czech Republic, another ex-communist country with a similar history, was able to mitigate the trend “through progressive policies based on gender equality, institutional support and labor market adjustment”.
Kotowska doubts that the influx of Ukrainians – mostly women and children – fleeing the invasion of Russia to their homeland in Poland is enough to “reverse the population decline”.
Perhaps immigration from Africa and the Middle East could have an effect, although she said it wasn’t realistic.
“I don’t think it’s conceivable in Poland, where birth control is inseparable from nationalism and ethnicity,” she explained.
Meanwhile, in a recent official report, the government warned of the long-term danger of “the death of the Polish nation.”
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