ROME — Italy launched a program Thursday aimed at reversing one of the world’s lowest birthrates, but the first “Fertility Day” produced a backlash with charges of sexism, racism and comparisons to wartime dictator Benito Mussolini.
The Ministry of Health campaign focuses on measures to combat sterility, but causing the most uproar was the part encouraging women to think about having children earlier in life.
One ad, for example, showed a smug pregnant woman holding an hourglass with a tagline that reads, “Beauty doesn’t have an age. Fertility does.” Another showed the outline of a long-beaked bird reading, “Hurry up! Don’t wait for the stork.”
“It’s incredibly condescending to think that Italian women don’t understand how their biological clock works,” said Rebecca Winke, 45, a Chicago native operating a bed and breakfast in the central Italian town of Assisi. “What women here need is the same opportunities men have in the workforce, affordable child care and a generation of Italian men who can do their fair share at home.”
Alessandra Fortuna, 23, a Rome waitress, agreed: “The only thing this sloppy campaign shows is that the Ministry of Health has no idea about the challenges regular women face.”
The Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano wondered tongue-in-cheek if a “bachelor tax” was in the works, and several Italian media said the “Fertility Day” campaign smacked of Mussolini’s own policies that said women had a “national duty” to produce many offspring.
Last year was the fifth consecutive year that the average childbearing age rose in Italy, reaching 31.6 years, one of the highest in Europe. The average of 1.35 live births per woman is the lowest ever recorded in Italy and well below the average of around 2.1 needed for a population to remain stable.
“There’s a cliché about the Italian mama who stays home all day cooking tomato sauce with a house full of kids, while the husband is out working in the factory,” said Maria Rossi, co-director of the polling firm Opinioni. “But that reality died in Italy 40 or 50 years ago. Today, most Italian women have to work, which means that at best they have fewer kids, and they do so later in life.”
Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin, 44, who was behind the controversial campaign, sought to focus on health issues that had an impact on fertility like drug and alcohol abuse. But at a Wednesday news conference on the eve of the event, she was on her heels amid charges that at least one version of the promotional posters was racist, showing a dark-skinned man in an image labeled “bad companions” women should “abandon,” in comparison to a group of fair-skinned “good companions.”
The campaign is emerging as an unwelcome embarrassment to the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as it gears up for a key political vote next month that will determine the fate of his mandate. And it has sparked speculation that Lorenzin might be asked to step down.
“It’s shameful that a health minister who never graduated from college is telling intelligent women with college degrees who are forced to work in pizzerias because there are no other opportunities that they are the problem with the system,” Winke said.