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The Morrow, that We are in Danger of Losing Today

People in the times past and present have always been apprehensive about their future. There is something frightening about the future, mostly because we do not know for sure what it will bring. In not so distant times, there was a lot written and said in the west about the impending overpopulation; at the same time, in the Soviet Union, the future was invariably described as bright and promising prosperity and happiness. No wonder such a future was looked forward to with great eagerness. Overpopulation did not materialize, communism proved to be just another utopia and collapsed. Most of the Ukrainians entertain a hope that tomorrow will be better than today and that things will keep changing for the better, and they try not to think what the future will actually bring.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has been hit by a demographic crisis which puts the very existence of the Ukrainian nation in jeopardy.

We are 52 Million! was the proud slogan of a political commercial that was run several years ago by one of the Ukrainian most popular TV station. It was important for Ukraine that had regained her independence only a few years earlier, to affirm herself as a sovereign European state with a big territory and expanding population. But statistical data were merciless. The first ten (that proved to be very hard) years of independence took a heavy toll according to the data obtained during the census which was held in December 2001, Ukraines population had dwindled down to 48 and half million people (of who 54 percent are women). In other words, the population decreased by more than 3 million people. As a major reason for the population drop one could cite rapid transition to the market-oriented economy which led to the drop in births and growth in deaths, and to the changes in emigration and immigration patterns.

Deaths were over births for the first time in 1991, and the decline in population numbers began in 1993. By 1995, life expectancy at birth of males dropped by 4.9 years and that of females by 2.6 years. After several years of relative stability, a further decline in life expectancy was begun to be observed in 1999 and this trend continued eventually to put Ukraine at 108th position in the world as to the length of life expectancy. At present life expectancy of males is estimated at 62.7 and of females at 73.6 years. The gap between life expectancy of males and females has continued to grow and by now it is almost eleven years.

With such death rates, the demographic stability is possible only under the conditions of the birth rate of 2.2 that is every woman during her lifetime must give birth to at least 2 or 3 children. But in reality the figure is down to about 1 child.

President Kuchma, in order to have something done about the accelerating demographic crisis, issued a decree, On Measures to Be Taken to Step up Natality, in early 2002. The decree suggested increases in the amount of money the state should pay to women for looking after their children up to a certain age, credits facilities to families with children to buy apartments, improvement of medical care and many other things, but the Decree has never been fully implemented and most of its suggestions have never been realized. The birthrates did not go up.

In fact, in 5 regions of Ukraine, a small increase was reported, and Ukraines minister of health Vitaly Moskalenko hastily said that the signs were very encouraging, and that if the trend continues, Ukraine will soon be among the European nations leading in birthrates. By the end of the year it became clear that such optimism was not grounded, and Mr Moskalenko had to admit that the number of deaths continued to be greater than the number of births. He added that in twenty-year time, if the trend was not reversed, Ukraines population would drop to no more than 40 million people.

Among reasons cited by experts to explain the falling birthrates and increasing death rates is low standards of living. Almost 80 percent of Ukrainians, according to one of the demographic surveys conducted by the International Labour Organization and Ukraines Statistics Committee, consider themselves poor. The income of more than half of the Ukrainian population is lower than the subsistence minimum. In many countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America the economic conditions are even less favourable than in Ukraine, but their populations are constantly on the rise. The fact that Ukraine lags so much behind can be explained by a high level of education of the Ukrainian population. The average Ukrainian mother wants her child to receive good education, to attain a high level of culture and have a high living standard rather than just survive and lead miserable existence. This situation can be interpreted in this way: on the one hand, the motivation to have children is similar to the one observed in the more developed countries, and on the other hand, the economic conditions are closer to those observed in the less developed nations.

The appalling ecological situation also contributes to the worsening of the demographic crisis. Young Ukrainians suffer from all kinds of diseases many of which they contract at the pre-school age (only every fourth child can be considered relatively healthy). The number of people who should not have children at all because of their own health problems is considerable and continues to grow. The health care system is far from adequate, and reflects the lack of financing and poor management. The fact that Ukraine occupies one of the leading places in the world as to the number of qualified doctors per capita of population only emphasizes poor management and poor financing.

The number of abortions is inordinately high there are 108 abortions per every 100 pregnancies which makes the number of abortions ten times higher than in most of the European countries (in 2001, for instance, every tenth young Ukrainian woman up to the age of 19 has ended her pregnancy by an abortion). Abortions not only kill the unborn babies but also adversely affect womens health which is not so good in the first place. Under such conditions, to have a child is an almost heroic deed.

Another detrimental factor is the declining wish to have many children (the average Ukrainian woman except for western regions of Ukraine does not want to have more than two children at best). The very institution of marriage is under pressure and with the growing number of men and women just living together but not registering their marriages, the women are reluctant to have children to raise a child alone, in case the unregistered couple decides to split, is a prospect that horrifies even the staunchest.

The number of women who want to pursue their careers rather than take care of their children is also growing. Quite often it happens that when they do want to have children, it is too late. One can even speak of a profound demographic transformation that the whole structure of society is going through. The number of senior citizens is growing not so much due to the lengthening of life expectancy but because of the dropping number of children born. In the countryside, it is particularly evident in some villages, practically all of the inhabitants are sixty and older. Basically, it is the result of migratory processes that began back in the 1960s when younger people, in increasing numbers, began migrating to urban areas in search of a better life. Nowadays it is a search for work that forces young people to leave the countryside and move to towns.

One thousand people of employable age have to support 800 retired people. It is a very precarious proportion; the pension fund scheme is grossly outdated and a new system is badly needed.

There are all kinds of prognostications that are made by experts in demography. Some claim that the population of Ukraine will not go through further decrease because there will be enough immigrants coming from the Asian countries; others of the opinion that the rise in birthrates is sure to come with the general improvement in the living standards. Still others say there is nothing wrong in having a population reduced by third compared to what Ukraine had in the early 1990s the main thing, they argue, is that the demographic situation will get stabilized one way or another.

The pessimists are of the opinion that the Ukrainian nation will come to an end under the pressure of new cosmopolitan culture.

Time will show which of these predictions will be realized. However, the demographic problem is to be dealt with now, and the first step has been made we have clearly understood the urgent necessity to do something about it. Now we have to start looking for the means to solve it.

Svitlana Kapitulska

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