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Childbearing and war

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

samedi 30 novembre 2002, par Dominique Foufelle

Along with the deepening of the economic crises, even before the breaking out of conflicts, 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".

In the period after World War Two, women in ex-Yugoslavia (SFRY) achieved a remarkable level of emancipation, primarily in the social and economic field. The participation of women in the public sphere, in the sphere of labour 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 favourable 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, and in many segments, 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 [1].
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 1980’s were labelled "Bourgeois imports from the West".
The authoritarian pattern of producing enemies (of class) and excluding the "other" and the "different" continued with the establishment of nationalism as the ruling ideology, in the late 1980’s 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). Prejudices and stereotypes that thrived on them were the same, although the ideologies changed and the subjects of the stereotypes radically differed" [2].
Instead of a class enemy, ethnic enemies appeared ; the 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.

Projects for mothers and wives

All women are mothers, but the desirable framework for childbearing is marriage…
Along with the deepening of the economic crises, even before the breaking out of conflicts, 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 demographist, pledged for the levying of taxes for unmarried persons of both sexes, and also for divorced persons who over the age of 30. The author of the project proposed that 10% be deducted from the paycheques of such "social misfits". The aim of the project was to "prevent a catastrophic decline in the birth rate in Serbia" [3]. 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" [4]. In order to meet patriarchal expectations, it is insufficient that all women should only be mothers, but it is also desirable that motherhood be realized within a certain framework, and it is 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" [5].
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" [6]. Of course, 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 that lacked no bases ? 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 (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 homogenisation.

Ideological justification

Ideological justification of the model of sending women back to "the shelter of the family" : when the country is in danger, women have to be prepared for sacrifices…
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 colonisation 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 idealising 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" [7]. Regardless of the needs and wishes of the women, and above all, of their experience, this is a way of introducing a form of behaviour 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" [8]. 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 diplomas they could acquire at a time of general alienation" [9]. The concept of the woman as a heroine/victim, of 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.

Feminists to blame

The feminists are to blame for the decline in the birth rate in the serbian nation : The women who are striving for the right to choose, the women who overcome ethnic barriers and do no respect their hearths are traitors and enemies…
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– patriotic nature :
* They refuse to bear children out of egoism and conformism, because the women have been given too much freedom of choice, like, 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" [9bis]. Or, the reason for the depopulation is "hedonism – a wish to pursue a career and fulfil other personal desires…" as argued by Gordana Matkovic, in 1994, the then Minister for Labour and Social Care [10].
* "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 [11].
* "Feminists from here are very well connected with the feminists from Zagreb, who are trying to bring about the extinction of the Serbian people" [12].
* 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 prescribes 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" [13].
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" [14].
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…" [15].

Mobilization of mothers

All women are mothers, but childbearing is valuable only if it contributes to the expansion of a certain nation (the majority – Serb nation)…
This propaganda project and process can be divided into several phases, although they overlap, which are equally permeated with misogyny, nationalism and militarism. The regime officials, practically all the relevant national institutions, and also the 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 being 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 the 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 Congress document (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" [16]. Namely, the women of the afore-mentioned 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" [17].
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.

Patriotic mobilization
All women are mothers, but all mothers do not contribute equally to national security – national security rests solely on those women who bear sons of a certain ethnicity (of the majority – Serb ethnicity)…
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 centres of a sort : "For every young Serbian man killed in Slovenia, Serbian mothers must bear a hundred more soldiers" [18].
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" [19].
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…" [20].
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…" [21].
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" [22].
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" [23]
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.

Medals for fertile mothers
The Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) awards, 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" [24].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".

Reproductive tourism : the import of ethnically adequate material…

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" [25] ;"the SPC resents foreign daughters-in-law and would prefer to see our own" [26], 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 [27].

The mass harvest…
… or a working and entertaining action for transitional reproduction…
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 ever-lasting friendships and common households" [28]. The media covers The Mass Harvest, emphasizing that the action will bring you much more love than blisters…" [29].

The change of regime does not entail a change in the way of thinking…

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" [30].

Theocracy – alarming tendencies after the shift of power
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 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 fulfil 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 to holy communion before they repent" [32].
The SPC priests organize panels in the lobbies of state universities, which condemn the behaviour 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…

Legislation that favours "demographically in/correct behaviour"
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 organised several actions against such a policy.


Stasa Zajovic
This paper was prepared for the 9th International Women’s Health Meeting, held in Toronto (Canada), from August 12th to 16th 2002.


[1] S. Zajovic, "Trudnice i nacionalna bezbednost", in : S. Zajovic(ed.), Sene za mir, Beograd : Women in Black 1999, p. 67-74.

[2] O. Milosavljevi_, "Izbor ili nametanje tradicije", Republika, iss. 281, 2002, p.18.

[3] See sene protiv rata, Belgrade, Women in Black, 1994, p.6.

[4] M. Mladenovic "Bez beba –nema naroda", Vesernje novosti, 03.04. 1996, p.14.

[5] See sene protiv rata, ibid. p.7.

[6] Ibid., p.7.

[7] V. Milovanovic, "Mogu_a rehabilitacija rasnja", Nasa borba, 19. 03. 1996, p.3

[8] Ibid.

[9] Politika, 27.03. 1993.

[9bis] Politika, 06.06.1994

[10] Politika, 27.03. 1993.

[11] S. Adasevic, Radio Belgrade program, quotation according to sene protiv rata, ibid. p.10.

[12] S. Zajovic, "Reakcije prolazniaka/ca tokom protesta" in : sene za mir, Belgrade : Women in Black, 1998."

[13] "Pomozi Bose da se Srbi slose, obose i umnose !" (Message from Archbishop Nikolaj on the streets of Belgrade, in the fall of 1992.

[14] M. Nikolic, "Emancipacijom i do setvorki", in : Politika, 11.04. 1997, p.22.

[15] Vreme, 18.07.2002, p.28.

[16] Upozorenje, 30.06. 1990, p.2.

[17] Ibid. p.5.

[18] See sene protiv rata, ibid. (statement given by Rada Trajkovic, president of the association Postojbina).

[19] Support of the women of sisevo to S. Milosevic, 13.12.

[20] D. Kovasevic, "Za pedeset godina Srba nese biti", Demokratija, 17.07. 1997, p.5.

[21] S. Talovic, "Bez beba nema – naroda", Vesernje novosti, 27.03. 1996.

[22] V. P. "Zaustavite belu kugu", Vesernje novosti, 27.03. 1996.

[23] See sene protiv rata, ibid. p. 9.

[24] Borba, 30.06. 1993.

[25] Blic, 22.01. 1998. p. 11.

[26] Politika, 13.02. 1998.

[27] S. Zajovic "Trudnice i nacionalna bezbednost", in : sene za mir, Belgrade, 1999. pp. 67-74.

[28] Blic, 02.08. 2002.

[29] Ibid.

[30] O. Milosavljevic, ibid. p. 17.

[31] RTS, Program on abortion, 07.05. 2002

[32] M. Atli_, Danas, 20.03. 2000.

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