This article, published originally at LevFem, a Bulgarian feminist collective, examines the changes in policies, discourses and practices regarding childcare for children up to the age of 6 and the provision of public services (nurseries and kindergartens) that have occurred since 1989 in Bulgaria. The main aim of the text is to analyze the way in which the degree of distribution of responsibility for childcare between the state and families, in particular women, has changed, since through different social, economic and political mechanisms this redistribution has consequences especially for them. The article focuses on several main themes : public services, legislation, policies, labour market and retraditionalisation. Thus, the paper traces the interrelated influences of policies, business and public attitudes under capitalism on the deepening of gender inequalities through the redistribution of childcare responsibilities.
The first transition decade
The decline in the number of kindergartens in the two decades between 1980 and 2000 was extremely dramatic. In 1980, childcare facilities (nurseries and kindergartens) throughout the country numbered 6,185. In 1995, the number stood at 3,762, showing a particularly sharp decline in the early years of transition. Closures continued apace until 2000, when the total number of kindergartens and nurseries was 3,249.
But the decline in the number of children attending kindergarten was even greater than the percentage of places. According to a series of studies carried out by Meurs & Giddings (2004, 2006), between 1986/7 and 1999/2000, demand for nurseries as a service fell more than the supply : by 38.4% and 28.8% respectively, and the factors were complex : high levels of unemployment affecting different demographic profiles differently, a severe loss of economic opportunities and a decline in the birth rate. Let us not forget the burden of migration processes: between 1989 and 1996 alone, 671,300 people left the country. The fertility rate fell from 12.65‰ in 1989 to 7.71‰ in 1997 (TRANSMONEE database), showing the radical reduction in fertility in a context of crisis, insecurity, unemployment and inflation.
As noted by Koeva & Bould (2007), access to contraception is often hindered due to rising prices, but abortion remains free. These data provide a clear picture of the social dimension of demographic problems related to lack of accessible family planning and prevention methods, social services and policies, and protection from discrimination.
The series of economic shocks through which the country has been passing has had an impact on the trends of decline and recovery in child enrolment shown in the analyses by Meurs y Giddings : from 1986/7 to 1991/2, the number of children enrolled in kindergartens fell from 72% to 58%, after which there was some increase to 66% in 1996 and a fall again to 62% in 1997/8. At the same time, as the authors note, child poverty rose headlong from 2% in 1990 to 43% in 1994, and it is important to recognise that access to nurseries and kindergartens is an important way of mitigating its effects.
The dramatic changes in child enrollment and in the supply and demand for nursery places also reflected on family relationships, responsibilities and the redistribution of care work in homes.
When parents work, the work is often undertaken by relatives, mostly women (sisters, grandmothers, aunts). This tendency is particularly evident in the early years of transition, when a significant number of women workers took advantage of the opportunity for early retirement. However, this creates new difficulties for different generations within both the family and the labour market:
A large number of unemployed middle-aged women also took on raising young children so that their mothers could take minimum maternity leave in order to keep their jobs and prevent labour problems. The use of parental help in raising children is in many cases determined by the material difficulties of young families.
The difficulties faced by elderly parents in wanting to contribute to the upbringing of the youngest generation should also be borne in mind here. These are caused by the new requirements for a higher age and length of service for retirement, and by the risk of losing their jobs if they temporarily take on childcare when the chances of finding a new job after a certain age are very limited. This should not underestimate the material difficulties of people approaching or already in the ‘third age’ and their growing need for income from work (Mihova, 2007: 106).
The situation thus described reveals intra-family solidarity as one of the main guarantees of social reproduction in a market economy producing a massive lack of stability and job security, insufficient income and the normalization of gender and age discrimination.
Changes in employment and the labour market
Stoilova (2010) recalls the critique by feminist researchers who analyze the specific losses and harms suffered by women during the transition to a market economy. They focus on the violation of reproductive rights (Daskalova, 2000), physical and sexual violence, human trafficking, as well as on specific problems related to employment and labour rights: the feminisation of non-prestigious occupations, of unemployment and poverty, and frequent participation in the informal economy.
Showing how labour-related problems affected men and women differently in the early transition years, Glass (2008) recalls the widespread adoption of four different theories on levels of female-specific unemployment : two of them predict a milder loss of jobs for women, on the one hand due to segregation in sectors not primarily affected by the closure of industries and industrial complexes, and on the other due to the presence of educational and cultural capital that would enhance their value as potential workers In the diametrically opposite direction are studies which predict that women will be the big losers on the labour market because of the additional devaluation and loss of prestige of the professions they hold, and because of the withdrawal by the state of specific measures to protect against discrimination.
In the early years of the transition, job losses were particularly severe for men, as redundancies were concentrated in specific industries and sectors. But as political and economic changes progressed, between 1993 and 2000 women faced much sharper declines in their employment
(Glass, 2008). In the period with the highest unemployment rates, increasing from 14% to 33% between 1993 and 2000, the employment of men and women changed from a ratio of 76% men and 82% women in employment rates, to 61% men and 56% women in 2000.
But it is not just a matter of losing a job, but also of greater difficulty in re-entering the labour market. As data presented by Glass show, the number of long-term unemployed women doubled in 2000. This situation is further compounded in the case of mothers of young children, and the risk of unemployment has not only risen, but tripled since 1993. As Koeva & Bould (2007) show, in periods of incipient economic recovery, timid growth, and new hiring (1994-1995 and 1998), men were more likely to get jobs.
On the other hand, studies that present evidence on the impact of attitudes toward women in the workplace on fertility and caregiving are particularly important. In this regard, the study “Working hours, working conditions and demographic behaviour” (2004), conducted by a team led by G. Mihova draws attention to the compliance in practice with specific measures to protect the working and care conditions of women caring for young children. Although according to the Labour Code they should not work overtime or be sent on business trips, the report reports that 64.9% and 76.3% of the women surveyed did not benefit from these rights. Even assuming that the refusal was voluntary in some cases, the results indicate the existence of power relations in which women workers act against their own interests in order to keep their jobs.
The study also draws attention to another severe problem linking violation of labour rights and reproductive health, as 15.5% of respondents cited heavy physical labour at work (15.5%), unhealthy working conditions (10.6%) and workplace stress (10%) as the cause of miscarriage. Domestic work is also significant as a risk (19.8%). At the same time, 14.5% of the female respondents admitted that they did not use sick leave when ill by choice.
Another feature of the processes taking place in the 1990s was the direct intervention of a number of international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the influence of others such as the United Nations. While the former two have been instrumental in bringing about neoliberal structural reforms, they have also insisted on a lesser burden of motherhood within a framework of protection from specific discrimination against women.
The UN, on the other hand, offers definitions of gender-based inequalities that relate primarily to the workplace (Ghodsee, 2014; Glass, 2008). The effect achieved by these two trends has been a devaluation of social reproduction: a reduction and closure of social services provided by the state and, at the same time, an increasingly dislocated analysis of gender-based inequalities from care work, which focuses mostly on the pay gap and access to leadership positions, along the lines of liberal feminism.
Despite the important argument for not accepting women solely and/or primarily as mothers, focusing solely on productive work continues to help ensure that care work remains not only invisible but also unproblematized in its distribution.
Retraditionalising gender roles
Various processes of retraditionalization and a turn towards patriarchal models of societal organization were observed during the period under review. These have several main dimensions: firstly, they represent a process of rethinking and at the same time transforming the memory and narrative of the past, negotiating the socialist model of full employment and equality in various professional spheres as artificially imposed and forcibly setting up frameworks of behaviour and life that contradict ‘natural’, especially as far as women are concerned, patterns and roles (Stoilova, 2010).
The advances related to the provision of a wide range of public services such as public kitchens, laundries, kindergartens, as well as the rethinking of care work and child rearing and education within the framework of social reproduction is undeniable and constitutes a crucial feature of the socialist period (Tetevenski, 2022). On the other hand, the end of the 1960s marked the beginning of a period of gradual rethinking of care work and ideas about its return to the confines of the family as part of a nationalist and conservative turn in demographic policy. In this regard, the beginning of the transition witnessed particularly harsh criticism of the previous regime’s policy of ensuring economic and professional emancipation, but without significant progress in the equal distribution of care work and work performed within the family and home (Daskalova, 2000).
Secondly, the type of family in which the woman is the homemaker is beginning to be touted as a successful model (Glass, 2008), although traditionally this ideal is less common than in Western countries (Todorova, 1994).
Its circulation is accomplished through the sacralization of women, family and motherhood (Gal & Kligman, 2000) as a manifestation of public opinion, as well as through the presentation of the role of housewife as a valid choice that each woman could make for herself individually, negating the concept of the “double burden” of work in and outside the home imposed during socialism (Glass, 2008).
This context, as Stoilova (2010) notes, has been highly conducive to the displacement of women’s employment and working conditions issues as a priority in public policy and discourse, as well as the downplaying of the shortage of public social and health services such as nurseries and creches. The public view of the domestic sphere and the family rarely problematizes the unequal distribution of care work but, on the contrary, reinforces the notion of women’s ‘natural’ care work, especially for children.
Finally, it is important to note the position taken by the main NGOs dealing with discrimination and women’s issues that emerged in the 1990s. They are also moving away from the sphere of social reproduction, orienting their priorities towards helping victims of domestic violence and towards an expert-legal framework for the protection of rights. That is, the promotion of civil society development in relation to gender-based inequalities is primarily oriented towards the NGO sector, relying on legal and expert discourse, which, in turn, orients its priorities towards awareness-raising and the development of mechanisms for protection from gender-based violence through legal instruments (Ivancheva, 2015).
THE NEVER-ENDING TRANSITION AS A NEVER-ENDING CRISIS OF SOCIAL REPRODUCTION
The early 2000s were characterized by the widespread use and use of the term ‘demographic crisis’. Data from the first 10 years of transition show a combination of various negative demographic factors : an ageing population (the percentage of people aged 65 and over increased from 13.4% in 1990 to 17.0% in 2002, while the percentage of children under the age of 15 decreased from 20.1% to 14.6% over the same period), combined with a low total fertility rate (1.1 -1.2 in the early 2000s) and a high mortality rate (14.1‰ in 2000 to 14.8‰ in 2007), as well as accelerated migration. At the same time, there has been some economic growth, in the conditions of which social policy has come to the fore as a public issue (Kotzeva, 2011).
In the new millennium, the number of kindergartens has continued to decline, from 3,249 in 2000 to 2,262 in 2010 (it is important to note how, after several years of minimal growth, an extremely sharp decline occurred between 2005/2006 with 3,331 kindergartens and the following school year, 2006/2007, in which only 2,470 were in operation). In the second decade, the number of kindergartens goes down again, reaching 1817 for the current school year, 2021/2022 (NSI, 2021). This accelerated closure of public care services does not correspond with the birth rate, which, after a record decline of 7.71‰ in 1997, rose to 9.02‰ in 2000 and amounted to 10.11‰ and 8.85‰ in 2010 and 2018, respectively (TRANSMONEE database). But while the number of kindergartens is decreasing, that of enrolments and, to a lesser extent, kindergarten groups, shows a gradual increasing trend (NSI, 2021).
That is, there is a need for new places and a desire by parents to attend kindergarten, as well as a shortage caused by their continuously decreasing numbers (for more detailed data and analysis on care and social inequalities for the city of Sofia, see Vaisova, 2022). In this regard, the case of Sofia is particularly significant not only because of the elimination of public services, but also because of the reduction of the physical stock, whereby kindergarten buildings are repossessed, replaced or agreements are made to convert them into private schools (Duma, 09.2018a, 2018b).
The number of nurseries, on the contrary, grows between 2000 and 2021, although this increase fails to fully cover the demand, especially in the big cities, especially in Sofia : in 2003 they were 637, and the current (2021-2022) year they number 838. It is important to point out here the specific characteristics of the demand for crèches in relation to the social benefits that mothers can currently count on.
The research conducted by Mihova (2007) shows an extremely high incidence of home-based childcare for children up to 3 years of age (70.1%), followed by nursery attendance (33.4%) and, to a lesser extent (18.4%), assistance from grandparents, although only 6% indicated that the latter was their preferred option. The low attendance at the crèche is related, on the one hand, to the long pregnancy and childbirth leave, which allows children to be raised in a family environment, as well as to some attitudes in society that consider the family to be the best place to care for children (Beleva, 2008).
On the other hand, in their report for Social Policy Network, (Bogdanov & Zahariev, 2018) mention other important reasons such as the suboptimal ratio of caregivers-children in crèches, as well as their uneven geographical distribution, which makes access to them difficult in different small and medium-sized settlements and, last but not least, the lack of services for children under 10 months.
Legal changes and new maternity-related policies
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of legal changes were adopted to influence towards achieving equality and non-discrimination on the basis of gender, especially in the employment sphere. Some of the most important are the Law on Protection against Discrimination (2003), the Law on Social Assistance (1998) and the Law on Promotion of Employment (2002), as well as the changes introduced in the Labour Code in 2004, according to which night work or travel in the form of business trips can only be permitted for women with young children with their written consent. Stricter measures are also applied in the control of non-performance of harmful work.
The changes to the Labour Code are reported as one of the activities implemented under the National Action Plan for the Promotion of Gender Equality 2008-2009. It has been renewed in the form of the Gender Equality Promotion Strategy 2009-2015. One of the highlights of the strategy is the inequalities in the distribution of domestic responsibilities. It also focuses in the difficulties of women’s access to leadership positions. Its strategic objectives include developing policies to reconcile work and family responsibilities, encouraging fathers to take parental leave and developing flexible working hours and forms of employment. Lastly, ‘Improving and expanding the range of social services (public, municipal and private) for children and dependent family members’.
The various instruments for protection against employment discrimination are of particular importance for women. Comparative studies between post-socialist countries in Eastern Europe show a tendency towards discrimination in the employment of women not only with young children but also of reproductive age, often considered ‘unreliable workers’.
In a survey conducted with women in Hungary, Poland, Russia and Bulgaria, 47% of Bulgarian women responded that they could not return to their old jobs after maternity leave (Glass, 2008). The study is in line with analyses by authors such as Koeva & Bould (2007), who show that in a neoliberal economy characterized by uncertainty and economic instability, combined with tendencies towards discrimination, the leading family model cannot even be called “two working parents”, but rather an income supplementation strategy involving as many family members as possible, including those working abroad.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest legal changes is the one concerning the amount of the pregnancy and childbirth allowance and the periods for which it can be claimed. In 2007, paid parental leave was increased to 315 days, and in 2009 it was increased again to 410, during which time the mother is compensated with 90% of the income she received during her last period of employment. Initially, this required period of service was a minimum of 6 months, but in 2016 it was increased to 12, making access to the benefit more difficult for young women and especially for those who do not take out insurance on their actual earnings, an all too common practice in the Bulgarian labour market that forces women to reduce their earnings by paying themselves the social security contributions that employers must pay. The benefit paid for the second year of maternity is equivalent to BGN 380 (subsequently increased to BGN 650 and BGN 710 in 2022) , and from the 9th month the mother is able to receive 50% of her entitlement in case she starts work.
The third year, however, is not linked to the receipt of a cash benefit, but is taken in the form of unpaid leave, i.e. job retention and accumulation of length of service are ensured, but not income. Through these legal changes, the State seeks to stimulate fertility and ensure a sufficient income for the first year of child-rearing, while for the second and third years the measures and policies taken are aimed at encouraging women to return to work, but, to a much lesser extent, at expanding the network of public collective services and improving the conditions for its functioning.
In addition to these changes, the early 2000s also marked the development of a series of national demographic strategies, the first of which was adopted for the period 2005-2009 and subsequently updated 2006-2020. There has been a significant increase in spending on various programmes devoted to the family and children, as well as measures to optimise the labour sphere, such as flexible forms of employment, control over employers to ensure that they respect the protection of pregnant women and mothers of young children. But although the principles of equality are declared in the strategy,
“In reality, private sector employers are not willing to compromise on providing flexible working for young mothers, rather mothers are willing to work fixed hours even to their detriment in order to keep their jobs. Moreover, in the capital and other major cities of the country there is an acute shortage of places in childcare, and private kindergartens are inaccessible to the majority of parents […] in practice, deficits in public services for children, low incomes and gender stereotypes prescribing family responsibilities mainly to women slow down the processes of modernization of gender relations (Kotzeva, 2011: 359).
The solutions offered in various programmes to stimulate maternal employment focus on cash benefits to hire caregivers to look after children while the mother works. The “In Support of Motherhood” programme, which provides a payment of 220 BGN per month for childminders, was inaugurated in 2008 (Kotzeva, 2011), and soon after its launch a specification was introduced that relatives could also apply for the job. The decision to choose a worker was made by the parents with the approval of the labour office. Often these were again women – grandmothers, aunts, etc.
In this way, both increased employment and ‘retention’ of children in a family environment are achieved, together with additional income for the family member, but on the other hand, this model again reproduces gender roles and stereotypes and relies on minimum wages.
With the help of this programme, care work once again remains enclosed within the family and valued by the state at the value of a minimum wage. The programme was discontinued in 2009, but at the same time the ‘Back to Work’ programme began to be implemented, which, in addition to providing a minimum wage for the assistant hired, provided prior training for the carers. Within the framework of the Human Resources Development Operational Programme, the programme is co-financed by the European Social Fund until 2013.
Another similar programme that links the problems of staff cuts in the feminised sectors of care, health and education and the need to care for children whose mothers work is the project “Stimulating self-employment of women in childcare services”. The programme was active between 2003 and 2009 and aimed at training unemployed female care workers to use their experience and skills to start their own business, offering childcare as an individual service. Replacing public services by promoting entrepreneurship in this way redirects redundant and skilled staff to a segment of the population that can afford to pay for individualised care, but in no way addresses the problems of the majority in terms of difficulty of access to still functioning childcare.
If parents (most often mothers) choose to care for their children themselves up to the age of 3 years, which is feasible due to the sufficient period of paid and unpaid leave, this choice does not always lead to financial stability and decent working and development conditions after this time. As Mihova (2007:109) notes, “Faced with the dilemma of ‘children or profession’, women find it difficult to find solutions in relation to it for a number of reasons – insufficient qualifications, lack of flexible organisation of working hours, narrowed opportunities for training and retraining, family obligations, inequality within the family”. Moreover, as Kotzeva (2011) warns in an analysis assessing the effectiveness of the policies and strategies described, there is a risk of further entrenching gender roles in the family, which may be exacerbated by continued benefits in times of economic crisis and labour market instability. On the other hand, for the author, the effect of monetary transfers on fertility growth, one of the objectives of the series of demographic strategies, is controversial. She points out that, according to a number of studies, the provision of public childcare services and flexible working hours for parents have a far greater effect, although not on increasing fertility, but on shortening the birth spacing.
Current trends and highlights
Today, gender stereotypes and inequalities, especially those related to the distribution of the burden of care work within the family, are still widespread and normalised. At the same time, it is important to note that some progress has been made in the participation of fathers in childcare (Nenova, 2019), although there are still solid barriers to it. As the Being a Father 2014-2021: Changes in Parenting report points out, attitudes towards fathers’ role in the family are still associated with some traditional views such as lack of time for children and prioritisation of work (66% in 2014, 56% in 2021).
The survey shows that the obstacles to the inclusion of fathers are of a diverse nature, but they are all linked to the hegemony of the patriarchal model of upbringing and family relations: the designation of mothers as the main caregivers, the lack of understanding and, in many cases, the reluctance (45% in 2021 “people treat men who take care of children and household chores with derision (23% compared to 15% in 2014)”.
The pandemic of Covid-19, which began in 2020, has had a particularly severe impact on parents who have had to combine paid and unpaid work in the home during quarantines and closures of nurseries and schools.
The situation has been further aggravated by the increasing shortage of places in kindergartens, mostly in Sofia and to a lesser extent in other large cities. For the first time in 2021, an attempt was introduced to compensate for the large number of children not enrolled with financial support in the form of vouchers that parents can use to cover part of the cost of private childcare. But both the amount and the number of vouchers are proving woefully inadequate – parents are receiving £296 a month, there are 440 approved applications for over 10 000 unaccompanied children, and benefits are again being diverted to the private sector. Another measure introduced during the pandemic was the Parents in Employment programme which effectively replicated the practices of Supporting Motherhood and Back to Work by providing funds to pay for individual care work.
The programme was discontinued on 1 June 2021. One undeniably positive measure is the abolition of nursery fees from April 2022, which averaged BGN 60 per month per child.
The current issues and challenges facing kindergartens today are not only related to local children, but also to refugee children from the war in Ukraine in need of care.
The notion of demographic crisis must be seen in its close relationship with the series of economic crises and the scarcity of social policies and services: understood in this way, the mutually influencing crises are expressed in women’s worsened position in the labour market (lack of protection mechanisms against discrimination, dismissal, lack of opportunities to combine care and work or employers’ failure to respect them, and pressure on women not to take advantage of insured rights in order not to risk their jobs), increased levels of poverty affecting particularly Unfavourable conditions for access to contraception are leading to an increase in the number of abortions as a means of birth control, and statistics on current and future population numbers are beginning to be circulated in political and media discourse as a demographic crisis.
However, proposals to resolve this crisis have been made through individual and collective inculcation of women’s responsibility and calls for an increase in fertility rates, without being accompanied by an increase in adequate public services and social welfare measures.
Instead, employment and child-rearing support measures focus on the individual and family levels and encourage different models of private care or the hiring of nannies.
The increase in paid maternity leave and the amounts received during the first year of motherhood are undoubtedly interesting and unique social benefits in the European context, which, however, do not have a clear impact on women’s lives. Long maternity leave may contribute to the re-traditionalisation of family care roles and patterns, and negatively affect the professional development of mothers, but at the same time economic support for women in a context of unemployment and scarcity of public services remains a measure of crucial importance.
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 This argument is considered in detail in the report ‘Care and Social Inequalities. A Study on the Impact of the Shortage of Places in Municipal Nurseries and Kindergartens in the City of Sofia on Women’s Lives 2021 – 2022″ and the article “The Personal is (Social-)Political: The Role of the Bulgarian Women’s Committee in the Socialization of Childcare under State Socialism in Bulgaria (1950-1975)”, prepared by Levfem with the assistance of the Bulgarian Women’s Fund and available at www.levfem.org.
The present text is realized within the project “Care and Social Inequalities. The impact of the shortage of places in municipal nurseries and kindergartens in the city. Sofia on the social life of women” with the financial support of the Bulgarian Fund for Women.