By Annette Chrysostomou
Cyprus has the third lowest fertility rate in the EU at just 1.31 births per woman, representing the biggest decrease in birth rates, according to the latest Eurostat report using figures for 2014.
Only Greece at 1.30 and Portugal at 1.23 had lower birth rates.
A fertility rate of around 2.1 live births per woman is considered to be the replacement level in developed countries to keep the population size constant in the absence of migration. Only France with a birth rate of 2.01 neared that goal.
Women cite lack of childcare, paltry maternity leave, the cost of a decent education and a reluctance to have children too soon as major reasons why the birth rate in Cyprus is now so low.
Only 8167 births took place in Cyprus in 2014, compared to 9258 in 2001, while the average age of women at the birth of their first child is now 29.2.
In the short term, the economic crisis has also had an impact according to Stefanos Spaneas, assistant professor for social work at the University of Nicosia.
“The financial crisis changed the mentality because people now try to predict the future and think whether they will have money to provide for their children,” he said.
“We also have less grandparent support,” he added. “Now there is more of a nuclear family which means not so much support and more expenses.”
“It is so financially costly as you want to give your children the best like to send them to the best private school,” said Anna Georgiou, 34, who has one child and does not plan on having any more.
“It is also very difficult in terms of childcare. Mothers work full time and their mothers also work, so you need to pay someone to be there and the children often grow up with strangers. My mother is 72 and she can’t take care of a baby.”
Maternity leave is another issue.
“In Cyprus we only have 16 weeks maternity leave and not one year like in other countries. And for three months of that leave women get paid only 75 per cent of their salary. This 25 per cent reduction is very important for many who can barely live on their salary,” said Georgiou.
Women leaving it later in life, when they are less fertile to have children, has an obvious impact on the birth rate. But for some older mothers it’s more about energy levels.
“I had a child when I was 36,” said 40-year-old Andria Constantinou. “Rather late because of education and a career. Children take a lot of energy. Now I don’t feel I have the energy for another one.”
For 37-year-old Yioli Ioannou, her reluctance to have more than one child is based on her experience of being one of many children.
“I grew up in a big family and I was the oldest and had a lot of responsibilities,” she said. “I wouldn’t want that for my children so I only want one child. I want to experience motherhood, but I also know how important it is to have time for myself.” But she agrees with Georgiou that the financial cost is also a major issue.
“I don’t think my salary is going to increase in order to provide for offspring so I plan to have only one child. The government doesn’t give people enough benefits for a parent to rely on. With more than seven billion people and global problems with resources like water and food I think one child is a sensible thing to do.”
Spaneas, whose research interests are in social services and local social planning and development, advocates a comprehensive plan by the government to get people to have more children.
“There is no need to panic,” he said. “At the moment jobs can be filled by other nationalities. But in the next five years a national plan has to be set up with statistics to decide which measures to take.”
The government is already concerned about the alarming drop in the birth rate. The labour ministry announced its ‘Action Plan for Population and Family Policy 2016-2017’ in December 2015.
Some of the measures, which focus on supporting mothers who work, are now starting to be implemented.
One of the suggested changes is to increase the number of nurseries and childcare centres and to increase their working hours to better serve those working in the private sector. The operation of public kindergartens could be extended throughout the year, including the summer and holidays. It is recommended to expand the all-day school programme with schools operating after 4pm.
It is also planned to promote a welfare service and encourage municipalities to create a central network for better programming and setting priorities. A medical scheme for families with three or more dependent children has already been put into practice.
Another suggestion is the provision of nursing services at home and midwifery care.
The ministry is also considering the introduction of paternity leave and promoting working hours which are friendlier to working parents.
If these measures are fully implemented then perhaps future parents will be encouraged to have more children.
Twenty-two-year-old Maria Christou certainly plans to.
“Now I have other priorities like studies and work,” she said. “But when I am 25 or 27 I want to have children, two or three. Now I don’t have the money, but later on when I have a job and my husband also works it won’t be a problem.”