Madina Taurbaeva recently renounced her Hero Mother status, and the gold medal that came with it. She is keeping her personal retirement plan -- a dozen offspring aged six months to 21 -- but wants the Kazakh state to provide better benefits and a bigger apartment.
Taurbaeva says Kazakhstan, a sparsely populated country of 18 million that has encouraged women to have more children, has failed to provide the support it pledged to supermoms like her.
As a Hero Mother, an award given along with the Altyn Alka (Golden Ring) medal to women who have seven children, she is entitled to around $40 a month. She gets another $55 a month for her newborn, but that will end when he turns one. She receives free housing, but her one-bedroom, 29-square-meter flat in southeastern city of Taldiqorgan makes for cramped quarters.
There are other smaller benefits, like tax breaks and certain discounts, but it's hardly a hero's life, and she is suing -- and winning -- to get what was promised.
Population On The Rebound
The world's 9th-largest country by area, Kazakhstan experienced a population decline following the fall of the Soviet Union.
The downward trend has since been reversed, thanks to high birth rates, the repatriation of ethnic Kazakhs, and immigration. But the state wants to keep the momentum going -- and has maintained the Soviet-era practice of rewarding citizens who deliver.
Under Kazakh law, a woman who raises at least four kids -- including adopted children -- is considered a mother with a large number of children. Women who raise at least seven children are awarded the gold medal, the Altyn Alka, while those with six get silver, the Kymis Alka.
In 2013, when Kazakhstan's population reached 17 million after falling to under 15 million at the turn of the century, President Nursultan Nazarbaev said that the "demographic situation of the country had improved thanks to the government's support and our women."
Taurbaeva and other Hero Mothers feel that era of support has passed, however. In Taldiqorgan some 10 of them returned their Altyn Alka and Kymis Alka medals in late December in protest. One reportedly had to rent as she awaited the free housing she had been promised. Others, like Taurbaeva, said they had spent years in apartments that were much too small for their growing families.
"When one person gets sick, everyone gets sick in our home, because we all live in one room," Taurbaeva told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.
Aside from a crib and a small bed for the littlest ones, most of her children sleep on the floor. Furniture is sparse: there is "simply no space for anything," she explains.
Taurbaeva recently sued the local government and won the case, with the court ordering authorities to provide her a bigger apartment. They have offered her several housing options outside the city, but Taurbaeva doesn't want to move out of Taldiqorgan, where she has lived all her life and has friends and relatives nearby.
Taldiqorgan officials say they are doing everything they can to help Hero Mothers like Taurbaeva, but that the problem can't be resolved overnight and many others have needs. According to the mayor's office, some 15,000 people are awaiting public housing, including 1,000 mothers classified as having a large number of children.
Adding to the problem is that, while the monthly stipend for Hero Mothers has gradually increased to adjust for inflation and other factors, the national government in Astana recently amended its welfare policies in an effort to prevent able-bodied families from becoming too dependent on social benefits.
New regulations are aimed at encouraging mothers to work, and offer state support for childcare and help finding employment as an incentive. The government plans to provide preschool education for all children by 2020.
Monthly allowances for large families -- as well as low-income households -- are calculated on the basis of the subsistence minimum. The Kazakh government established that the subsistence monthly minimum per person, as of January 2019, is 29,698 tenge (about $78).
For example, if the family brings in less than $39 per month, per family member -- a little over half of the subsistence minimum -- the government pays the rest.
Hero Mothers will continue to receive their $40 monthly stipend as a lifetime benefit, regardless of their other incomes or circumstances.