Feature: Cuba boosts childbirth with benefits as population ages

Source: Xinhua| 2017-05-15 06:07:06|Editor: Mu Xuequan
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By Raimundo Urrechaga

HAVANA, May 14 (Xinhua) -- On the second Sunday in May, Cuba celebrates Mother's Day with unique fervor: phone lines collapse from overload, people scramble to buy flowers before they sell out, and restaurants are packed to the rafters with extended families.

For more than a decade, Kenia Coba, a young resident of the central province of Cienfuegos, about 220 km southeast of Havana, dreamed of one day being the center of that attention.

But motherhood was elusive. After several years of unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant, Coba and her husband decided to get help from their local fertility clinic.

Doctors said she suffered from polycystic ovary syndrome, an endocrine disorder that leads to the formation of ovarian cysts.

"I underwent surgery and then had several (fertility) treatments, including six artificial inseminations last year that didn' t work," Coba recalled.

"Afterwards I was put into a program for in vitro fertilization, in which I finally got an embryo to hatch and it's the baby that fills my life with joy today," Coba told Xinhua as she held her baby, Marco Antonio, in her arms.

"All those years were very painful because every time I tried and failed to get pregnant, it was frustrating. However, thanks to the revolution, today I am a happy mother," she said.

Not only did Cuba's state-run health service help Coba realize her dream of becoming a mother, but it did so free of charge.

Fertility treatments in other countries are often prohibitively expensive, with in vitro fertilization (IVF) ranging from 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. dollars. That may not sound like much, until you consider that most couples don't get pregnant on the first or even second try.

Each year, around 3,000 Cuban couples from the central provinces of Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, Villa Clara and Cienfuegos undergo fertility treatment at the Gustavo Aldereguia regional hospital in Cienfuegos, where Coba was treated, according to Dr. Praxedes Rojas, director of the institution.

"In Cuba the whole process is free of charge, from appointments to medicines and treatments," said Rojas.

"Since the assisted reproduction program began in 2010, our regional center has registered more than 500 births and we hope to continue raising that figure in the coming months and years," she said.

Three more fertility clinics in Cuba cater to the growing number of couples who are waiting until their late 30s to have children.

Cuba's socialist ideal of providing universal healthcare is coupled with the state's awareness that as the birth rate declines, the overall population is aging, potentially lowering productivity and burdening the economy.

Last year, the population of Cubans 60 and over reached 19.6 percent, while the fertility rate registered 1.6 children per woman.

At the same time, official figures showed that in 2016 the Cuban government spent 5.8 billion Cuban pesos (242 million U.S. dollars) in social security payments.

If this trend continues, by 2030, 30 percent of the Cuban population will be 60 and over and the government will have to allocate around 10 billion pesos (417 million U.S. dollars) to social security.

To reverse the trend, Cuban lawmakers approved a set of laws in December 2016 to promote childbirth by strengthening maternity rights for women in both the public and private sectors.

Xinhua recently interviewed with Haydee Franco, director of policies and projections at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, on the impact and scope of the legislation.

According to Franco, the new legislation expands existing maternity benefits, such as financial incentives received monthly by the parents, and also encourages greater family integration in the area of childcare.

"We have included in these laws the extension of those rights to the maternal or paternal grandparents, so they can enjoy the benefits that were previously exclusive to the mother or the father," said Franco.

The benefits are paid until the infant is a year old, said Franco.

If the grandparents are still employed state workers who assume the care of the baby, they have the right to be compensated with 60 percent of their average monthly salary.

"This also encourages the mother to go back to work earlier with the simultaneous social benefit of maternity leave and her normal monthly salary. Therefore, this will lead to a greater income for Cuban families," she said.

For the first time, women who work in Cuba's budding private sector also have access to the maternity benefits.

"For these workers, the new laws will consider pre and postnatal maternity leave, six weeks before the child is born and 12 weeks after. They will be guaranteed the right to receive the corresponding economic benefit and social security," said Franco.