(A review of the new Soviet law on Parenthood, Marriage and Divorce)
By Beatrice KingThis pamphlet is published by the Women’s British-Soviet Committee, whose aim is to strengthen and develop the friendship of British and Soviet women.
Women want children. Women want homes. But women want more than just children and homes. Women want healthy and happy children. They want homes that are comfortable and easy to work. They want social services which will free them from the unnecessary drudgery in housework and family care, which wastes so much of a woman’s energy today. They want, above all, to be sure that their family will not go short of necessities in food and clothing.
The Soviet Government understands these desires very fully. They
believe that women are right to demand these things: believing this
they take the necessary practical steps. The new decrees follow and
replace earlier decrees, all with the same object of helping the mother
and child and of strengthening the family bonds.
The Soviet State
To understand fully the meaning and possibilities of the new law we have to remember that the U.S.S.R. is a Socialist State. Production is for use and not for profit. Unemployment was finally abolished in 1932. No one has to worry about the future. Social security has long been accepted and put into practice. The questions which are argued about today are not whether there should be family allowances, but what form they should take; not whether there should be pregnancy leave, but how long it should be. They do not argue whether the country can afford enough nurseries and kindergartens. They argue as to the best type of nursery and kindergarten. Family, through their factory committees, through the full political and economic equality that they have, it is the ordinary people who have the say in the way their borough or town is run.
The Position of Women
Every woman in the U.S.S.R. is able to keep herself. The rate for the job is paid and a woman has the same chances of a responsible executive post as a man. Every woman is encouraged to play her as a citizen as well as a wife or mother or worker. That is, she is encouraged to serve on her local council, or her factory committee or collective farm committee, or on any of the numerous other organisations that exist. There are no limits set to the possibilities of her activities or to the scope of her interests. Married or single, whatever she is, artist, scientist, factory worker or farmer, her life can be very full. Those women who are not interested in some outside activity begin to feel shut off from life. The background in which the Soviet woman has been living for the last twenty-five years is changing her attitude to life.
The Child in the U.S.S.R.
Children hold a unique position in the U.S.S.R. Quite apart from politics and principles, Russians have a deep affection and, what is equally important, a deep respect for children. The Soviet society has given this affection and respect full play. When civil war was still being waged, when hunger was widespread and industry almost completely at a standstill, plans for the care of children were being drawn up and as far as possible put into practice. When peace came, and industry and agriculture developed, more and more provision was made for the child, until in 1940 the Soviet child, whosever it be, the professor’s, or the director’s, or office-cleaner’s, was the best cared for anywhere in the world. It will be readily understood that the war brought great hardship to children as to adults, but every step has been taken to minimise these hardships.
One of the early measures taken by the Soviet Government in 1918 was the legislation of abortion; another was the introduction of easy divorce. (Both met with severe criticism in Britain and elsewhere.)
Soviet leaders were wise enough to know that people are not made moral by laws or by punishment. It is first necessary to have conditions which make morality possible and attractive; then education and public opinion can be brought into play. But both education and public opinion, to bear fruit, must be planted in the right soil.
In the early years of the revolution the country was poverty-stricken, housing conditions were appalling, and the people were mostly illiterate. Birth control appliances were not only scarce but regarded with fear and suspicion by the peasants. Under such conditions no law or fear of punishment prevents women from practising abortions. Until conditions improved it was, therefore, better that abortions should be carried out by qualified people under strictly hygiene conditions.
Although abortion was legalised, a tremendous educational campaign was waged against its practice, and to teach women the use of birth control. Measures were also taken to set up maternity homes, nurseries, and children’s clinics. Three months pregnancy leave with full pay was introduced for factory and office workers. The trade unions had special committees which looked after the women’s health.
In 1936 the U.S.S.R. had nearly completed its second Five-Year Plan. Unemployment had been permanently abolished and living conditions were greatly improved in every way. Soviet education under Soviet conditions bore fruits. A generation was growing up which took serious matters like marriage and morality, very seriously. A greater responsibility and a higher moral standard could be demanded from everyone.
A law was passed making abortion illegal except for reasons of health. The divorce laws were tightened up. Chiefly because real salaries and wages had increased considerably and women could earn more, the father’s contribution to the maintenance of the child, in case of divorce, was reduced. This time there was criticism abroad from the supporters of abortion and free divorce!
At the same time as these changes were made, a great building programme was embarked upon, to improve housing conditions, and increase maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens. In 1936 a decree, similar to that of 1932, was passed, directing factories and collective farms to take more active measures in their duty of providing nurseries and kindergartens.
Children’s maintenance allowances were introduced for families of more than six children. Special grants for the expenses connected with childbirth were made. Every possible measure was taken to help women. Pregnancy leave, however, after careful consideration, was reduced to nine weeks, due to the improved health of women.
We see, therefore, that Soviet laws and decrees grow out of the needs and possibilities of the country. Their only object is to serve the people, all the people. When they become outworn, or a hindrance to further progress, they are discarded. We see, too, that as conditions of life improve, so greater demands are made on the individual for responsibility and for a high moral standard.
War always bears most hardly on women and children. The U.S.S.R. is no exception. The years of fighting on a front of nearly 2,000 miles, the colossal effort needed to drive the enemy back and to achieve his final defeat, created hardships for Soviet women such as few in this country can realise. Motherhood was again beset with difficulties and fears. Would the child have a father to help care for it?
The Soviet Government is faced with a population problem as a result of the war; a problem which has faced other Governments for many years before the war. Of the great Powers, the U.S.S.R. has borne by far the greatest losses, not only in soldiers killed, but in civilians murdered in Nazi-occupied territories. The Soviet Union particularly needs people to develop its vast resources in unpeopled places, to create the riches and the leisure which will give a good life to every citizen.
Thus the needs of the women for special provision coincided with the needs of the country. It is the practice in the U.S.S.R. to deal with needs as they arise as far as possible, war or no war. The new provision for mother and child takes its place with other social measures as part of the normal development of the Soviet Union, as well as a special recognition of a situation arising from the war.
The New Decrees
Under the new decrees children’s allowances—the lump sum—begin with the third child, and monthly payments begin with the fourth, whereas formerly they began with the seventh child. The lump sum paid at birth ranges from 400 roubles for the third child to 5,000 roubles for the tenth and each subsequent child. Monthly payments begin with the first birthday of the fourth child. Maintenance allowances range from 80 roubles a month for the fourth child to 300 roubles a month for the eleventh child.
The value of the grants and the period over which they are given is based on two considerations: the certainty that there will be no unemployment in the U.S.S.R., and that real wages will rise with the planned increase in production, so that workers will be progressively richer. Grants for the additional expenses incurred in the first year of the baby’s life are made to all mothers irrespective of the number of children.
The network of nurseries and kindergartens is to be increased still further. Once again the obligation for the provision of these for children of works and peasants falls upon the factory and collective farm. Since the war there has been a great increase in nurseries and kindergartens, fees for which are drastically cut.
There is to be an increase in children’s clinics, milk kitchens, and other institutions concerned with their welfare, as well as in home visits by nurses. Measures are being taken for a considerable expansion in production of children’s wear and other commodities, which can be bought at reduced prices in special children’s shops.
Pregnancy leave has been increased to eleven weeks, five weeks before and six weeks after childbirth. In the case of twins the post-pregnancy period is extended to eight weeks. One does not have to emphasise the importance of these eleven weeks to the woman and to the child. No overtime or nightwork is permitted after the fourth month of pregnancy or while the child is being breastfed.
The length of pregnancy leave is based on two considerations: the health of the women and the needs of the country. Today, and for some years to come, because of the war, the Soviet Union will need every pair of hands to repair the ghastly war damage and to bring the country back to prosperity. From the point of view of health six weeks after pregnancy is adequate for normal cases; and is in advance of what working-class women in most countries enjoy.
The supplementary food allowed for the last three months of pregnancy is now doubled. The same applies to nursing mothers for the first four months. There is also an instruction to those enterprises which have their own farms, to supplement pregnant women’s rations from their own stores. There is to be an increase in the homes for mother and child where they receive extended care and rest when necessary. Factories, in addition to providing nurseries and kindergartens, are obliged to provide rooms for breastfeeding the babies and for personal hygiene for women.
Awards for Motherhood
All these measures give practical recognition of the importance of motherhood, of the realisation by society that having children is a social as well as an individual function. So far, there has been a tendency everywhere to assume that writing a book, painting a picture, or being head of an organisation was more important than having a child.
For many years there has been a strong movement in the Soviet Union to create a position of respect for the family, which forms the basis for a sound society. Awards for mothers who have brought up five or more children falls in line with the awards for other outstanding services to the community.
The criticism has been made in regard to this, that this is what the Fascists have done in Germany. It is a fact that the Nazis adopted many ideas not only from Socialist U.S.S.R. but from many other countries. But it also a fact that the Nazis have perverted these ideas, so that instead of leading towards the happiness of the people, towards freedom and creativeness, they have led towards misery, oppression, and destruction. They tried to encourage child-bearing for the purpose of having more men to deal death and destruction to other people. One of the first Nazi act was to restrict higher education for girls, to bar women from any sort of public life, and gradually to exclude them from the professions; in a word, to keep them chained to the kitchen and the nursery and to make them believe that their chief function was the “recreation of the tired warrior.” There is nothing in common between this attitude to women and that existing in the U.S.S.R. It is significant that the Nazis, in spite of all their efforts, have not succeeded rising their population as they hoped.
Tax on Bachelors, Spinsters, and Small Families
The small tax (first levied in 1941) on unmarried men women and on small families not only helps to remove economic inequalities between such people and those with large families, but is regarded as a contribution to the community, and in no way a form of punishment or pressure. A number of categories such as men in the Services and women in receipt of State assistance for a child, are exempt.
Marriage and the Unmarried Mother
Far-reaching changes have been introduced into the laws regulating marriage and divorce. Until the new law was passed registration of marriage, like the religious ceremony, was voluntary. An unregistered marriage had the same status as a registered marriage. The new law establishes that only a registered marriage carries with it legal rights and responsibilities. Opportunity is afforded to anyone who has not done so, to register their marriage. Unmarried mothers can no longer claim maintenance for the child from its father. The allowance for children of unmarried women is, in future, to be paid by the State, which is also setting up children’s homes where the child may be brought up at the mother’s wish. The mother retains the right to remove the child from the home if she so desires.
The fear has been expressed that this may lead to widespread immorality. It is a fact that there are children born out of wedlock everywhere and that during the war their numbers are greatly increased. Because registration was optional in the Soviet Union, many young people put off the ceremony till after the war, but the great many of the young men, the fathers of the children from these unregistered marriages, have died on the field of the battle, and their children will need help and care from the community.
The Soviet Government never has allowed children to suffer for the mistakes or misfortunes of their parents. But let there be no mistake. This is no encouragement to immorality. Public opinion is the strongest weapon for morality, and public opinion in the Soviet Union is on the side of morality. Every citizen of the Soviet Union is not only an individual, but a member of a collective, a co-operative, a factory, a collective farm, a school. Any loose behaviour on the part of a member of any group would bring with it serious reprimand from their fellow workers.
The object of this new law is to safeguard the child and give it an equal chance with other children.
It may perhaps be argued that the new regulations regarding divorce have gone to the other extreme and bear hardly on some people. A request for a divorce must, in the first place, be made to the People’s Court. Very often the break-up of a home can be prevented if the difficulties can be thrashed out with the help of experienced people who are outside the quarrel. Should this Court however, fail to reconcile the husband and wife then either has to apply to a higher Court.
The cost of divorce ranges from 500 to 2,000 roubles and may be required from one or each party. A good worker in a factory can earn about 800 roubles a month, a first-class skilled worker about 1,000 roubles a month, so that the fees, while serious, are not prohibitive.
If it should prove to be the case that the new conditions create hardships, there is no doubt that the law will be amended. The Soviet practice of public self-criticism quickly draws attention to any harmful laws. There is no question, however, but that these new decrees will strengthen the family.
The flexibility of the Soviet system, the speed with which the Government learns the will of the people combine in the assurance that when the time arrives that any of these laws no longer contribute to the well-being and happiness of the people, they will be discarded. It is in this light, in the light of the Soviet background, that the new decrees must be judged.
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