Saddled with the lowest birth rate in Europe, Germany is toddling towards shifting the trend. Earlier this year the government passed a law to increase both the quality and quantity of child care opportunities.
Germany needs more daycare
A law is a law, but that's not enough for Germany's Minister for Family Affairs, Renate Schmidt. Vigorously waving the flag for working mothers, she has launched an information campaign entitled "More Care for Kids - Germany gets Family Friendly", in a bid to make parents aware of both the law and the childcare opportunities on offer across the country. In many ways, her battle is against a relatively new tradition.
"I think that for at least the last three, if not four decades, our priorities have been wrong. By "our", I mean the national, regional and local approaches," Schmidt said. " Locally, community halls were three times more important than child care facilities. Regionally, everything was important except investing in children, and nationally we concentrated on material support, forgetting what else families need."
Minister for Family Affairs, Renate Schmidt
Schmidt (photo) went on to say that the time has come to change tack, and is hopeful that the new campaign is a step in the right direction.
"By the year 2010 we want to create at least 230,000 new child care places for children in western Germany, and of course maintain the good day care situation in the eastern part of the country. Passing a law is not enough, it has to be followed through to make sure that action is taken, and that is why we started this campaign," the family affairs minister added.
Birth rates and the working woman
For Schmidt it is crucial to provide parents with the chance to combine a professional life with the desire to have children. Sociology professor Ute Gerhardt, who is also president of the Evangelical action community for family issues says there is a close link between working women and birth rates.
German women are often frowned upon for putting babies in daycare
She cites France and Sweden as countries with high numbers of professional women but which also have high birth rates. Renate Schmidt would like to encourage fathers to help prompt a shift.
"Here in Germany, we need to finally realise that it is not necessary to have done everything one can do in a lifetime by the time one reaches the age of 40 or 45. In other words, that there are career opportunities at the far side of 45. And that means that maybe more fathers will decide to take a career break in order to take care of their children themselves. And of course we want to provide the best possible day care, meaning that children should not only be taken care of in nurseries or kindergartens, but also by nannies, who should have the necessary qualifications, because there have to be very different forms of care."
There are some signs that the winds of change have already begun to blow, with large employers heeding the call to help their parenting staff. The cell phone company "E Plus", which has some 3,000 employees, is an example of a company committed to helping its employees. And in this instance, that does not equate to wage increases or company cars, but to the creation of a company kindergarten.
Children stand to benefit from days spent among playmates
Volkswagen is another top German name prepared to help its employees in childcare matters. But instead of providing support on the premises, VW sponsors existing day car facilities in and around Wolfsburg and helps its employees to find places for their children. Such projects might be small steps, but each one takes the country that bit closer to the ultimate aim of stimulating birth rates.