It was crisp weather on an early morning when Ahram Online was invited to Kela headquarters in Helsinki, Finland.
A smiley communication representative, Olga Gassen, expecting a child herself, was quick to introduce the place that is associated with one of Finland’s oldest traditions: the maternity box.
"In Finland, they take pride in a number of qualities, like the renowned Finnish grit, and the idea of equality," she said. "The latter has for a very long time manifested itself in many forms, on top of which comes Finland's maternity package, whose main slogan is to give every citizen an equal start to life."
Gassen explained further: "Every Finnish mother receives a maternity grant before a baby is born; around 60,000 maternity grants are given out each year,“ she said.
A choice is given between a cash grant, or a maternity package in the form of a box that functions as a crib for the baby in the early months, and contains clothing and baby care products.
There are altogether 60 different items in the box. The maternity package is not commercially available. It is available solely as a benefit offered under the Finnish social security system.
The items it contains are sourced through a competitive bidding process complying with EU law.
The story of a box
Gassen narrated the story of how maternity grants were prompted by concerns over declining birth rates and high infant mortality.
Box in the fifties( Finish labor museum)
"The story of the box started as a way to help out mothers with lesser incomes, at a time when a safe and a hygienic bed to put the baby in was not something all Finnish women could afford.
"The box goes back a long time, when the Maternity Grants Act came into effect in 1937, and about two thirds of new mothers received the grant at that time.
"Starting 1949, the benefit was granted to all expectant mothers regardless of the family's level of income,“ Gassen continued.
Gassen explained how the box through the years became a popular family staple, with expectant families of all backgrounds awaiting the announcement of the new design of the box and its contents, and with generations subsequently acknowledging that they belong to the same time phase due to similar outfits they shared from the box contents as infants.
A matter of public health
"The grant served also as a tool of public health forming a bridge between families and the maternity clinic system. As result maternity and infant health became one of the best worldwide, partly due to the maternity grant and associated health checks," she said
Olga Gassen telling the story of the box( Photo: Ingy Deif for Ahram Online)
Gassen stressed that there are many other facets to the box.
“The box remains faithful to many of its original contents like multipurpose muslin squares which are basically the same since the early years, and in line with a commitment to preserving the environment, cloth nappies were included as of 2006, whereas disposable ones were left out in 2009, reducing the number of the latter ending up in landfill sites by 700,000 a year.
"Not only does the box serve the idea of equality, which is deeply rooted in the country, and connects families with the robust maternity clinic system, it is also a platform for students to compete in design, environmentalists to implement Finland's commitment to being eco-friendly, and experts in education to help introduce into mainstream society ideas that help connect parents with toddlers through some of the contents, like books and stories to share and read.
“On top of all benefits mentioned, the idea of the box remains mainly a source of joy to the Fins, and its success prompted other countries like Ireland to implement the same idea recently,” Gassen concluded.
Finland has revamped itself in the last century, and one of its great success stories was in healthcare.
Healthcare in the country of only 5.5 million citizens is state of the art, with leading positions in terms of diagnostics, life expectancy and satisfactory universal quality healthcare.
It is in the Finnish constitution that the state is responsible to promote welfare, health and security, offering universal access to healthcare to all residents.
For several years now, the fabrics included in the maternity package have been in neutral colours, making them suitable for both girls and boys and more easily matched with other colours. Before the mid-1970s, the principal colour was typically white.
The maternity package is updated yearly in response to feedback from parents. While the range of items remains largely the same, the colours and patterns change, and some completely new items are added as well.