Ahead of the country's first ever Fertility Day, the Italian government has announced plans to revise a controversial new campaign that encouraged women to keep an eye on their biological clock.
The poster campaign—meant to encourage parenthood and raise awareness of fertility risks—was deemed sexist and patronizing. On Wednesday, the government released the series of adverts that quickly sparked national outrage online. One of the images pictured a woman holding an hourglass in one hand—the other one on her stomach—next to the words: "Beauty has no age limit. Fertility does."
Another one stated that "Fertility is a common good"—a controversial motto that drew comparisons with the Italian dictator Mussolini's fascist propaganda, which told women that it was their social duty to have children.
Health minister Beatrice Lorenzin announced earlier this year that Italy would celebrate Fertility Day on September 22, with educational activities organized in the cities of Rome, Bologna, Catania, and Padua. The outreach day is a bid to raise the falling birthrate among an increasingly aging population.
In a bid to raise the falling birth rate across an increasingly aging country, health minister Beatrice Lorenzinannounced that September 22 would mark the country's first Fertility Day, with educational activities organized in the cities of Rome, Bologna, Catania, and Padua. In 2014, Italy had a fertility rate of 1.35 children per woman, compared to the European Union average of 1.6, according to EU statistical office Eurostat. The number of live births has been at its lowest since 1861, the year the country was founded, prompting Lorenzin to call Italy a "dying country."
But many believed that releasing "time is ticking" adverts aimed at women was not the right way of countering the falling birth rate.
"Italy's Minister of Health, has approved and promoted a campaign that treats all women as little more than walking incubators, people who should hurry up and have children for the sake of the country," wrote Italian journalist and radio host Giulia Blasi, on her blog.
Even the prime minister Matteo Renzi displayed little support for the campaign. A day after its launch, hesaid in a radio interview that none of his friends had ever decided to have children because of an advert. "If you want to create a society that invests in its future and has children, you have to make sure the underlying conditions are there," he added, suggesting that stable jobs and better childcare resources are needed to induce a higher birthrate.
In Italy, the youth unemployment rate has hit almost 38 percent, against a European average of around 22 percent. Critics say that this, combined with other factors such as low wages, weak maternity policies, and inadequate daycare support, discourages many adults from starting a family.
"I don't begrudge the government for trying to address [the issue of a low birthrate], just the way they went around it was not only wrong, but it was wrong, useless and slightly offensive," says Barbara Serra, a London-based Italian news presenter at Al Jazeera English.
"There is an issue of low birthrates everywhere in Europe. There is especially an issue of low birthrates in Italy which, to a lot of my friends here in the UK is surprising, because they say: 'Here is Italy, a country that is culturally Catholic, a country that obviously has a huge and longstanding tradition of family life and [it] actually has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe.'"
She thinks that Italy's economic crisis is curbing the nation's population growth, but she also believes that the government needs to do more to help those who would like to start a family but feel like they can't.
"What used to work in Italy or other European countries 20 to 30 years ago, doesn't really apply anymore," she argues. "You can't just rely on Grandma two minutes down the street to keep your child when you go back to work."
Instead of pressuring women into having children, she says it makes sense to first address the problems of the current system, which fail to provide the security needed to be able to start a family.
"I think what you have in Italy is a lot of people who would want kids that just feel they don't have stable jobs," Serra says. "In Italy, it is very difficult to get things like a mortgage if you don't have a stable job, so you can't get a house. If you can't get a house and you don't have a stable job, are you really going to start having kids? Some people do and some people don't," she says.
She thinks that the campaign could have been a powerful educational tool, if it had actually sought to convey any useful information about fertility. "If you're going to launch an information campaign about fertility—and I guess what they were trying to do was to remind women, especially, about the risks of having their first child when they're older—well, then give me information, don't just give me the woman with the hourglass!"
As the backlash against the campaign made international news, health minister Beatrice Lorenzin announced on Thursday that the campaign will be revised. "We do not want to offend, but to provoke, meaning we want to provoke a discussion," she said.