Thursday, June 29, 2017

Motherhood in Macedonia



One of the most prevalent images of Macedonia in the traditional folk music and literature is that of a mother – a torn, tortured, suffering and grieving mother. Consequently, it shouldn’t come much of a surprise that the prospects awaiting most mothers here are starkly similar to this image. Apart from the fact that in recent years it has become downright dangerous to a woman’s life and health to embark on the adventure called pregnancy and childbirth, the state and society offer very little help and assistance during those tumultuous first years of raising a little member of the proverbial country’s future.
The position of women, and especially women in childbearing age who are increasingly dependent on care and support, as second class citizens is probably most apparent in the public gynecological clinics and wards. The declining state of the country’s healthcare system has paved the way for the flourishing of the private (and expensive) maternity hospitals, which offer a certain standard of services, but are unfortunately out of reach for most of the women in this country. As a result of this, women have no choice but to use the services of state-owned hospitals where the conditions are devastating (which in fact applies to all kinds of state-owned hospitals and clinics in Macedonia), yet what is even more striking is the personnel’s attitude towards their gynecological patients, which is openly condescending, patronizing and borderline insulting in the best of cases, with hidden subtexts of slut-shaming.  

Violence over pregnant women – an indicator of low esteem

The burning issue of violence during childbirth in the Balkans has been written about and Macedonia is no exception, yet somehow the blatant terror suffered by childbearing mothers fails to stir the public or provoke a reaction among the policy-makers. Could this be because of the traditional perception of childbirth as an inherently painful experience, the goal of which is to “tame and humble” the woman into submission and inferiority? There are even testimonies of women being beaten up and yelled at during childbirth, or left completely unattended while going through extreme pain and distress which has resulted in life-long trauma. The personal wants and needs of pregnant women are largely neglected, and women are routinely silenced and trained into a state of semi-slavery (often by means of restrictive abortion laws) under the pretext that they are no medical staff and therefore have no right to give any statements and opinions about their own bodies, or even ask for explicit information on the medical findings so that they can take an active part in the decisions concerning them and their children. On top of this, a recent scandal revealed that a certain gynecologist from a private gynecological clinic had been routinely lying to women trying to conceive by means of IVF that they are pregnant when they, in fact, were not. After an anonymous woman braved into revealing the doctor’s name and misdeeds (facing an avalanche of misogynistic ridicule on the social networks about how stupid she was for being lied to), a line of other women chimed in, claiming that they had also fallen prey to the same doctor, who stripped them of their money and dignity, but that they had felt too ashamed and humiliated to speak up.
In the past decade, there have been a few cases with fatal outcomes to the lives of pregnant women, some due to negligence (anesthesiologists working intoxicated in the most controversial case in Gevgelija), and others from septicemia due to poor hygienic conditions.


Second-class citizens

The statistical data available from domestic and international source indicate a deterioration in the rate of mortality of infants and childbearing mothers in the country in recent years.                According to the data from the State Statistical Office from the Statistical Yearbook for 2015, the rate of perinatal death in the country is 14.3, which is the highest marked level within the EU and almost triple the European average. In comparison, the rate of perinatal death in Serbia for 2015 was 8.9, it is 11 in Bulgaria and 5.7 in Croatia.[1] Infant deaths are most frequent among the Roma, due to the multiple discrimination that Roma women face. What is even more devastating is that despite the Government’s declarative efforts and special programs to protect and care for mothers and infants, the death rates are still going up.
Moreover, our country does not keep statistics on Post-partum Depression, nor does it have any methods of detecting it and offering possibilities for treatment, especially for those who live away from the bigger administrative centers.  In addition, seeking any kind of psychological help is still a social taboo and considered terribly shameful. Consequently, the number of mothers suffering from post-partum depression or anxiety is unknown and it is very difficult to undertake any measures, or advocate for any policies under such circumstances.
Life after the first few months post delivery is also bleak. Often living with their husband’s extended family, placed at the lowest rank of the family social hierarchy according to the Balkan patriarchal tradition and expected to listen and obey, young mothers, especially those in rural and less developed areas, are frequently forced to uphold a strict set of superstitious rites and customs related to childbirth and delivery, some of which can even be considered ridiculous in modern times and most of which are aimed at confining them to the home. The situation is only slightly better for women living in nuclear families, who may be free from the reins of the nonsensical superstitions, but are also often left to themselves work out a balance between childcare (in conditions when the country offers state-subsidized pre-school centers sufficient to cover only 26 percent of the children), household chores (which are traditionally “a woman’s duty”, and men’s engagement is considered as men offering to help the woman) and their professional life (where they often face the threat of dismissal on daily basis, especially in the private sector), which is often a reason for them to curb their ambitions and stagnate professionally. 

Single mothers against the wall
 
Single mothers are one of the most vulnerable groups in the society. Always close to the brink of the abyss of homelessness, there is no state-subsidized housing or employment to help them raise their little ones, apart from a meagre allowance awarded through a tedious bureaucratic procedure. Very often they are perceived as immoral and flawed, “the cancer of society” as a recent tweet said.  The one area where the patriarchal structure of our society may lend women some credibility (within the patriarchal division of roles)  can be traced in the divorce proceedings where they are seen as a the primary custodian, but this is now under a threat due to a new initiative to introduce “joint legal custody” or shared parenting after divorce in the law, under the pretext that single mothers alienate their children from their fathers and take advantage of the alimony (which is very low and insufficient even for our standard, and which a large proportion of fathers avoid paying by taking advantage of various gaps in the law, and even against the law, as there is no effective law enforcement in this area exists). Taking into consideration the context in this country, where women have a much lower financial and social standing than men, where they undertake 4 times more of the domestic and childcare-related chores, where there are indications that as much as 73% of the divorces are due to domestic violence perpetrated by a man and where there are no functional shelter centers and measures for economic support of survivors of violence and their children, this initiative would only cement the status of single-mothers as the outcasts of society.
I end this brief summary of the grave reality of motherhood in Macedonia and on the various (ab)uses of motherhood as an instrument for subordination and disadvantage of women, with a ray of hope because with the recent developments and teaming up of various groups of women to work for common causes we may see the glimpses of a brighter future far ahead.


[1] Source: http://www.reactor.org.mk/CMS/Files/Publications/Documents/smrtnost_na_rodilki_doencinja.pdf

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