Childbearing and War

Stasa Zajovic

(Or: how nationalism, militarism and sexism always go hand in hand)

Instead of a class enemy, ethnic enemies appeared; women, instead of being expected to reproduce the working class, were now assigned the role of reproducers of their nation and guardians of morality, tradition, and family.

The authoritarian pattern of producing (class) enemies and excluding the 'other' and the 'different' continued with the establishment of nationalism as the ruling ideology in Ser­bia in the late 1980's. "S. Milosevic emerged from the com­munist elite, but he gained massive sup­port for his nationalist ideas. The com­mon denominato In the period after World War Two, women in ex-Yugoslavia (SFRY) achieved a remarkable level of emancipation, pri­marily in the social and economic fields. The participation of women in the public sphere, in the sphere of labor in particu­lar, was considerable. However, the rul­ing (communist) establishment advocat­ed the principle that emancipation has no gender qualities. Namely, it was consid­ered that the emancipation of women could only be achieved through the emancipation of the working class. Although the economic and legal equality of men and women relaxed the patriar­chal social patterns, they continued to be perpetuated in the form of the patriar­chal family. The fact is that the party-state enacted, by decrees, laws that were favorable for women (abortion was legal­ized as early as 1951), yet self-managing socialism did not question the patriarchal family pattern. It is also a fact that the legal position of women changed, but at the same time, the cultural concept of women changed very slowly. In many areas, there were no changes at all. The glorification of motherhood contin­ued, and the woman was viewed through her reproductive function (the reproduc­er of the working class). The policy of reducing the woman to the role of wife and mother is not only related to the rise of nationalism, but dates back to earlier times. For example, in the time of Tito, back in the fifties, it was necessary to renew the male population (which had been exterminated during the war), preferably with baby boys. In order to boost the birth rate, women were award­ed medals. Tito was godfather to every ninth child born by the same mother.

Marriage was promoted as the only nor­mal form of partnership. All forms of women's organizing were within the pre­scribed institutional framework; autono­mous feminist initiatives that sprang up in the former Yugoslavia (SFRY) in the early 1980s were labeled "bourgeois imports from the West".

The authoritarian pattern of producing (class) enemies and excluding the “other” and the “different” continued with the establishment of nationalism as the ruling ideology in the late 1980s in Serbia. “S. Milosevic emerged from the communist elite, but he gained massive support for his nationalist ideas. The common denominator of communism (condi­tionally until 1990) and nationalism (conditionally as of 1990) is a simplified image of reality, which was a precondi­tion for the single-minded ideologies of homogeneity (and of communism and nationalism). The prejudices and stereotypes that thrived on them were the same, although the ideologies changed and the subjects of the stereotypes radically dif­fered".

Instead of a class enemy, ethnic enemies appeared. Women, instead of being expected to reproduce the working class, were now assigned the role of reproducers of their nation and of guardians of morality, tradition, and family.


Along with the deepening of the econom­ic crises, even before the conflicts broke out, appeals to women to "turn back to their homes and families" multiplied. In the early nineties, demographers and doctors, with the staunch support of the regime's institutions and media, offered legal drafts "leading to the reaffirmation of the family". For example, Ivan Knajtner, doctor and self-proclaimed demographer, advocated for the levying of taxes on unmarried persons of both sexes, and also on divorced persons over the age of 30. The author of the project pro­posed that 10% be deducted from the paychecks of such "social misfits." The aim of the project was to "prevent a cata­strophic decline in the birth rate in Ser­bia". The project was enthusiastically supported by Serbian academics. Some of them, like, for instance, Marko Mladenovic, promoted the following: "In circum­stances when the state cannot ensure full-time employment, mothers should be stimulated to bear children and to take it as a profession". In order to meet patriarchal expectations, it was insufficient that all women should only be mothers, but it was also desirable that motherhood be realized within a certain framework, and it was proposed that, from the moment of marriage, the wife should enjoy all the benefits deriving from full-time employ­ment, so that "marriage would be her place of work".

Besides attempting to prevent a cata­strophic decline in the birth rate, these and other Serb scientists were dominated by additional motives. They attempted to justify the legal draft in the following way: "These proposals would help create a large number of jobs". Of course, only for the men who had been drafted and sent to the front lines to defend the "mother-nation".

What was the purpose of that propagan­da and those empty promises lacking any basis? The motives are, among other things, the following: the degradation of women, by reducing their identity to that of wives and mothers as part of their patriotic duties; absorbing the shock of massive redundancies in the workplace (women have always been the first to be fired); exclud­ing women from the public sphere; and above all from making decisions concern­ing impending wars. And, of course, the aim was to thwart the formation of a civil society that could be a barrier to war and to growing ethnic homogenization.


In authoritarian societies, as Serbian soci­ety was and unfortunately still is, where women are assigned both the role of vic­tims and collaborators, the nationalist and militarist colonization of women and of the civilian population in general, would not be feasible without their participation.

All the relevant institutions participate in the propaganda that aims at idealizing the family and marriage, attempting to strengthen the retrograde and conserva­tive tendencies through their activities. For example, the Centre for Demograph­ic Research of the Institute for Social Studies in Belgrade conducted research in 1996, according to which "nowadays in Serbia, essential conditions are being met for the restoration of childbearing. This is primarily due to awareness of the demographic problems and a developed sensitivity to this subject". Regardless of the needs, wishes, and, above all, of the experience of the women, this is a way of introducing a form of behavior which serves the needs of population pol­icy, from an ethnic and patriotic perspective. The author of the aforementioned research, Mirjana Rasevic, remarked on the supposed quality of ethnic population awareness among women, which is "man­ifested in the high ranking of a pro-demo­graphic policy on the scale of social val­ues". However, women, irrespective of their ideological beliefs, including extre­me nationalist ones, are primarily gov­erned—in spite of all that propaganda—by practical morals and fail to bear chil­dren for the nation and for the state.

Entire teams of psychologists, doctors, and academics suggested that the essen­tial role of women was to be "angels of their family's hearth" and that "children are the most precious diploma's they could acquire at a time of general alien­ation". The concept of the woman as a heroine/victim, as the model of "sacrificial parenthood," is preached both by aca­demics and the media, completely ignor­ing their day-to-day existence. The reali­ty confronting the women who were being addressed by the representatives of the eminent national institutions (whose sons and daughters, as a rule, studied abroad, because they were lavishly remu­nerated by the regime for propaganda against women) was the following:

- Women were not even able to feed their existing children, and rallied in the streets protesting because they had not received allowances for their children, not even for the third child (as academics had promised);
- Women had for years been exposed to permanent stress because of job losses, poverty, having refugees in their homes—Serbia has the most refugees in Europe, over 700,000, and also the highest number of disabled persons in Europe, over 70,000—and because of the fear that their relatives could be taken away to war, etc;
- An intensified degree of domestic violence: the homeland front combined with the domestic one, whereby violence was transferred from the front line to the home. It had become the core of all relationships, both private and public; and is the norm and essence of the system;
- Women lived in extended family groups, not because they were "returning to their roots and tradition", but because they had no other choice;

- Such propagandist oppression, especially at the time of S. Milosevic, has not disap­peared with his departure. It served and is still serving the purpose of:

Buying social peace in the country, by subjecting women to patriarchal oppression: by imposing on them the role of reproducers of the nation and guardians of peace in the family, which entails buying social peace in the state;
Preventing women from participating in the public sphere, in democratic processes. Moreover, it has been suggested to women's groups that they assume the role of a state service, instead of "going into politics," and to appease social tensions, instead of engendering them.


Academics, doctors, lawyers, prominent church figures, the media have been blaming women of the majority nation for the decline in the birth rate. Here are some of the accusations of a moral, eth­nic, and patriotic nature:

- They refuse to bear children out of egoism and conformism, because the women have been given too much freedom of choice. For example "the freedom of parenthood": "Our people do not want to bear children, because the paragon of happiness for them is having a car or a cottage. That is egotistic". Or, the reason for the depopulation is "hedonism - a wish to pursue a career and fulfill other personal desires" as argued by Gordana Matkovic, in 1994, the then Minister for Labor and Social Care.
- "Feminists advocate the murder of unborn children. Fortunately, they have nothing to do with the body of the Serbian people", said Vasilije, Kacavenda, Archbishop of the Zvornik -Tuzla district;

- "Feminists from here are very well connected with the feminists from Zagreb, who are trying to bring about the extinction of the Serbian people"
- You are not Serb women, because if you were, you would be bearing Serb sons for Serbian vengeance... you are barren Yugoslavs and you want, as the communists did, to destroy the Serbian nation" or "Child murderesses, barren women, sterile lesbians..." (Insults directed at Women in Black by passers-by during the protests);

In addition to hatred and condemnation, the church describes a natural castigation for childless women: 'Women who bear children seldom get cancer. The more children they have, the more immunity they build up against that terrible dis­ease. Old maids and women who use con­traception develop 40% more cases of cancer, especially breast cancer, com­pared to those who bear children".

Marina Blagojevic, perhaps the only femi­nist demographer in Serbia, sees the birth rate problem in a completely different light: "Egocentrism and feminism are not the cause of the decline in the birth rate, it is because of the low standard of living and the abject position of women".

A large part of government representa­tives, after the fall of S. Milosevic (Octo­ber 5th 2002), do not differ in the least bit from their predecessors on a great num­ber of issues, using the same discourse of hatred and the practice of vilifying the 'other' and the 'different'. Here is an excerpt from a comment made by Marijan Risticevic, deputy to the Assembly of Ser­bia, and in the Federal Assembly: "Lesbians are the most dangerous, because they are to blame for the decline in the birth rate. Unlike gays, who are a social evil but do not endanger the birth rate, I would persecute them...".


This propaganda project and process can be divided into several (overlapping) phases, which are equally permeat­ed with misogyny, nationalism, and mili­tarism. The regime officials, practically all the relevant national institutions, including churches, figures from show business, war volunteers, and criminals are together in this venture: in brief, the so-called national workers.

The first phase began in the mid-eighties and consisted of formulating projects which would wipe out the "white plague".

At the beginning of the first phase, the demographers adhered to the territorial principle, insisting that in some regions (central and eastern Serbia), the birth rate was sharply decreasing, while in Kosovo, it was increasing dramatically. The ethnic criterion had not been intro­duced yet, and the imbalance in demo­graphic growth was being explained either by economic factors or by changes of the system of values. Certain adminis­trative measures were proposed, the model of the "ideal family with three children" was launched, etc. However, along with the consolidation of national­ist ideology, the demographic discourse acquired oppressive, racist features. Ever since January 1990, all the legislative proposals have contained an ethnic prin­ciple. The Resolution on Renewal of the Population, adopted in January 1990, as well as the legal amendments of May 1990, proposes a dual population policy: a pro-demographic one for Serbia and Vojvodina and an anti-demographic one for Kosovo. The number of official docu­ments on demographic issues is constant­ly rising, but they are all neo-Malthusian in character. One of them deserves special attention: it is the Warning, adopted by the Socialist Party of Serbia as a Con­gressional document in 1992 and later endorsed by nine national institutions, including the Serbian Orthodox Church. This document openly warns of the threat that the minority nations pose to the majority (Serbian) nation, because "The Albanians, Muslims and Romany people, with their higher birth rates, deviate from any rational, humane repro­duction, thus endangering the rights of other peoples". Namely, the women of the aforementioned peoples are part of the "global conspiracy against the Ser­bian people," bearing children "for sepa­ratist, fundamentalist reasons, and therefore Serbian women ought to have children for patriotic and moral reasons: motivation for childbearing should be boosted".

The differing demographic situations within the territory of Serbia have been used as part of the psychological prepara­tion for war, and not for improving con­ditions, which would offer women a reproductive choice. This type of propa­ganda is not only an instrument for the economic degradation of women, but it also represents a very dangerous instru­ment of discrimination against women on ethnic grounds, a tool for generating hatred among peoples and among women.


Propaganda for childbearing in order to stop the "white plague" overlaps with propaganda for bearing sons who will defend the fatherland from "enemy nations."

In the early nineties, simultaneously with the first military campaigns of the JNA (Yugoslav People's Army), and with the forced mobilization of young men for war, the nationalists and militarists demanded that maternity hospitals become recruitment centers of a sort: "For every young Serbian man killed in Slovenia, Serbian mothers must bear a hundred more soldiers".

Such militarist colonization of women, the cult of heroic mothers offering their sons to the altar of their country, is echoed in numerous statements given by women, one of which we shall quote here: "It is inherent for Serb women to raise their children and send them to a just war. It is also inherent for Serb women to bury these children in coffins in a digni­fied way, but it is not inherent for Serb women to send their children to an unjust war. We have been encouraged by our President Milosevic, who is for us a sentinel of peace and has placed the ban­ner of Serbhood so high that our off­spring will not rally under the banners of those who are killing us".

Yet, the reality was different. Several hundred thousand young men fled mobi­lization, and received the staunchest sup­port from their mothers, so that the aforementioned statement served to pro­voke feelings of guilt amongst women and to mobilize the entire population for war.

The nationalist demographers, combin­ing childbearing and the waging of wars, calculate precisely the dates when the "the countless enemies of the Serbian people" would invade: "The last Serbs will defend themselves from the Kalemegdan terrace (the citadel and core of old Bel­grade). Such a final showdown could eas­ily happen before that date...".

The nationalist scientists, and in a differ­ent way the media too, are expressing the need for Serbia to be "ethnically cleansed," so that "the Serbs would not become a minority in their own state since nowadays already, every third inhabitant of Serbia does not belong to those who are building the state. We have to preserve our territories and sacred lands (Kosovo and Sandzak) so that the deserted lands will not be filled with Albanians, Muslims, etc".

The nationally aware women from show business are also engaged with the state-building issue and the creation of Greater Serbia: 'Unless the demographic demise is stopped in Serbia and Republika Srpska, in fifty years time the Serbs will be a minority nation in their own country".

The media offered images of apocalyptic visions of a "grim Serbia without babies: old people walking around the cities of Serbia, attending funerals, and no babies being born” or "A black plague hovers over our people—a holocaust... cradles are weeping for babies…."

Such propaganda has helped the spread­ing of "a plague of emotional fascism" (Virginia Wolf), generating enemies, incarnated primarily in other peoples, but also in all dissonant voices among their own people. In its implementation, the project did not go any further than the rhetoric of empty promises, continual conferences on "the white plague", and the multiplication of councils, committees and boards for the renewal of the popula­tion. Most of them insisted on financial assistance and subscription as the best form of "eradicating the white plague," which creates the impression that from such funds, "the entire Serbian people will rise up in arms in order to ensure that all Serbs reside in one state".

Nevertheless, some of the proposals have been applied in practice, with the aim of alleviating "the reproductive tragedy." Three examples will be given here, which are beginning to sound like comic-tragedy.


The Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) awarded, for the first time in June 1993, in Kosovo Polje, medals to warriors and mothers with four children: "In order to encourage more children to be born among our people, we have established the Medal of the Mother Jugovic." On that occasion, they awarded 16 gold and 14 silver medals. Dissatisfied with the results, one of the church dignitaries, Archbishop Artemije of the Raska and Prizren district, scorned: "Mothers used to bring up and send as many as nine sons to the King's army, to fight for the freedom of their fatherland and for their Orthodox religion. There still exist moth­ers like that, but they are extremely scarce". As early as the following year, 1994, fewer medals were awarded and since then the SPC has stopped per­forming this ritual, outraged because "Serb women bear fewer and fewer chil­dren and Serb men join the Army all the more rarely."


At the beginning of 1998, an internation­al marriage agency appeared in Serbia, called "The Village Threshold," filling the regime media with the following head­lines: "Ukrainian women, potential brides arrive in Serbia"; "the SPC resents foreign daughters-in-law and would prefer to see our own", etc. Namely, the agency was dealing with the import of Ukrainian women or Orthodox reproductive material. "Villages have become deserted and bachelors are get­ting organized there; the girls do not want to get married and live in villages, so that, according to the database of "The Village Threshold" there are 160,000 bachelors in Serbia. However, a problem arose, because the imported Ukrainian girls had been living near Chernobyl, and those were "brides contaminated by radi­ation," as the press put it. They started claiming that it was yet another conspir­acy against the Serbian people, because they wanted us to degenerate as a people. Something similar is also happening in Croatia. They, too, import Ukrainian women, but of Catholic denomination.


Since the change of regime, international players have imposed demands that the new authorities have to meet, so that reproductive tourism has been threat­ened. The Ukrainian women, and gener­ally women from the countries of the for­mer USSR, have taken the first blow of sex trafficking. International founda­tions and development agencies finance projects (of course, predominantly for security reasons—so that the Ukrainian women would not go to the West—and much less so because of their concern for women's human rights). Instead of repro­ductive tourism, something new was devised: this summer (2002), for the first time, a Mass Harvest, or a "working and entertaining action gathering together young Serb men and women from the Diaspora and from the home country. The action is organized by the Serbian state, the Serbian Church, and the dias­pora." The aim of this working and enter­taining action is formulated like this: "The renewal of Serbian churches and monasteries at home, establishing ever­lasting friendships and common house­holds". The media covers The Mass Harvest, emphasizing that the action will bring you much more love than blis­ters...".


The new regime, installed on October 5th 2000, has not brought about the expected changes. This does not mean that the top­pling of S. Milosevic and his transfer to The Hague has not resulted in some advances. The fact that fear is no longer present in the country is an enormous change. However, the departure of one man does not mean the disappearance of the way of thinking that produced hatred, wars, and violence over the past ten years. Nationalism is the dominant pattern of a remarkable portion of the new elite. The new authorities have not discontinued the policy of war and war crimes of the former regime. "Serbia today, once again, has opted for a nationalist tradition, which is free of Milosevic".


A large number of representatives of the new authorities think that Serbia ought to be an ethnic state and that the nation state is a precondition for democracy. The SPC is become more and more of a polit­ical factor, and there is a danger that Ser­bia could become a theocratic state, because of the interference of the SPC in practically all spheres of public life, and particularly in the sphere of education, brings into question the secular charac­ter of the state. This is becoming all the more serious because all the public polls show that the SPC and the Army are the two institutions the citizens trust most. The SPC priests, led by the Archbishops' Synod, advocate over the state media the introduction of conscientious objection for "Christians at their places of work": "Religious doctors ought to fulfill their religious duties" (31), i.e. to refuse to per­form abortions because the Holy Arch­bishops' Synod of the SPC wanted, as early as the beginning of 2000, that "doc­tors and midwives who perform abor­tions not be allowed holy communion before they repent".

The SPC priests organize panels in the lobbies of state universities, which con­demn the behavior of "modern, emancipated women," lecturing about "things that every Orthodox girl should know..." from which high ranking church digni­taries and ultra-nationalist associations of "Orthodox Youth" ("The Serbian Gates", "Justin the Philosopher" etc.) preach that "the ultimate task of the Serbs is find themselves in God, to unite and to reproduce..." Some of the SPC priests, like Archbishop Pahomije for example, are proposing some sort of Serbian Lebensborn—foster homes, i.e. that the church should take care of the chil­dren without parents' care...


The policy of ethnic criteria is, unfortu­nately, dominant even on the plan of state policy. The most flagrant example is the recently adopted Law (April 2002) on financial support for families with chil­dren, i.e. support for parents for their second, third and fourth child, with the explanation that only seven communities in Serbia (consisting of 120 communities) have a positive birth rate. The fifth and every subsequent child will not be entitled to receive support: the Ministry for Social Issues (it should be noted here that Minister Gordana Matkovic has been in charge of this Ministry uninter­ruptedly from the time when she served the former regime, and has been advo­cating neo-Malthusian eugenic criteria ever since) pledges that "dysfunctional families should not be encouraged," which represents a direct continuation of the policy of ethnic resentment during the former regime. It is known that in Ser­bia, only families of Albanian, Romany and Bosnian affiliation have several chil­dren and that such measures spur ethnic hatred and discrimination.

The legislators explain the aim of this Law: bearing children for the needs of the state has an ethnic value: it is not enough for the women to bear children, but the state expects them to be desirable products of a certain ethnic quality. Pub­lic polls have shown that some women think that it "represents an attack of the state against individual freedom" and that "the state should not interfere with such things..." and feminist groups have organized several actions against such a policy.

This paper was prepared for the 9th International Women's Health Meeting, held in Toronto (Canada), from August 12th to 16th 2002.ers of their nation and guardians of morality, tradition and family.

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