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Out of kilter

Released at: 08:37, 28/11/2015

Out of kilter

The preference for sons over daughters may see Vietnam's gender imbalance pose huge problems for future generations.

by Le Diem

Under Vietnam’s “two child” policy, which applies to employees of State-owned organizations, families who have two daughters may receive financial support from the government under a recent draft law from the Ministry of Health. They may also receive preferential policies regarding school fees, medical insurance, and other matters, while the parents may receive preferential social welfare when they become elderly. The move is an effort to reduce the country’s gender imbalance, which has become increasingly serious over recent years and shows no sign of abating. 

The average sex ratio of newborns in Vietnam is 112.4 males to 100 females, according to the latest figures from the General Office for Population Family Planning, compared to a normal ratio of 103-107 males to 100 females.

An imbalance has been seen in Vietnam later than in other countries but at a higher speed, according to Mr. Le Canh Nhac, Deputy Director of the General Office. As at 2005 Vietnam had a gender balance of 104-105 male to 100 female newborns, which had increased by an average of 0.1 per cent per year. Since 2006, however, the sex ratio at birth has grown ten-fold, by as much as 1 per cent each year, to around 110-114. This is seen in both urban and rural areas, primarily in the Red River Delta. In many places in the north the ratio is even higher, such as 121.4 in Quang Ninh, 119.5 in Hung Yen, 128.4 in Lao Cai, 117.8 in Bac Ninh, and 117.3 in Hanoi.

While the sex ratio is usually high for the last child in other countries, in Vietnam it’s found from the first child, at 109.7, then increases to 111.9 for the second and 119.7 for the third. 

With two daughters already, Mr. Xuan Cuong, a 40-year-old entrepreneur, is waiting for his and his wife’s third child with a high expectation of having a boy. “If it is a girl we will try again,” he said. “I love my daughters but I have a responsibility to have a son, because I’m the only son of my parents.”

Having been influenced by Confucianism for thousands of years, many Vietnamese prefer a boy to a girl, according to Ms Van Anh, Deputy Director of the Institute for Social Development Studies. Traditionally a son is regarded as the continuance of the family line and must care for the graves of the family’s ancestors. The son also lives with and takes care his parents when they are sick or elderly. In the past it was thought that not having a son was the most serious act of disrespect towards one’s ancestors. While less so these days, it still has deep repercussions in Vietnamese society. 

Although she prefers a daughter to a son, Ms. Thuy Ngoc, a 30-year-old sales executive of at local bank, still wants her first baby to be a boy to affirm her role in her husband’s family. “A girl is usually more close to her mother and may take care of her parents when they are old better than many boys,” she said. “But my mother-in-law told me that if I did not have a son she would allow my husband to have another woman. My husband also wants a son, too.”

For many men, having a son shows not only respect to the family but also his honor and masculinity. In the past, at important events and ceremonies of a great family, men who only had daughters could not join the elders and others who had sons. They were usually looked down upon and mocked by relatives, friends, and neighbors. It’s no longer the case but many men still lack confidence if they only have daughters. “I’ve heard many people say, both directly or indirectly, that men without sons aren’t real men,” Mr. Cuong said. “I don’t want to be one of them.” 

Another reason people prefer a son is that social welfare is yet to meet the needs of society, according to Mr. Nhac. More than 70 per cent of the population lives in rural areas as farmers and don’t receive any pension when they retire. They must rely on their children, especially their sons. 

Under pressure from family and society, many Vietnamese women keep having children even though their financial circumstances don’t really allow it. Many can only watch by as their husbands have affairs with other women, encouraged by his parents, because they’ve given birth to daughters.

In the past women usually gave birth to more children (four or five on average), so the chance of having a son was greater. Today there is a rule for State employees on having one or two children and many people simply prefer having less children. 

To try and “make sure” they have a son, many couples engage in unproven methods and advanced technology. 

“Changing cultural norms and gender stereotypes is a collective responsibility and will need the participation of all Vietnamese. This is not the job or responsibility of policy makers alone. Coalitions are needed across society to mobilize the support needed for success.” 
Ms. Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Country Director for Vietnam

After they decided to have a baby, Ms. Ngoc’s husband said their meals must be salty. Intercourse also had to follow a strict timetable, at times considered right to have a son. “We’re not happy about it but we accept it,” he said. “We must do what we can to have a son.” 

Meanwhile, others use ultrasound to identify the gender of the fetus and are willing to terminate the pregnancy if it’s a girl. Many women had more than one abortion before producing a son.   

According to the latest survey by the General Office for Population Family Planning, the richer and more knowledgeable people are the more access to advanced technology they have. This allegedly explains the higher sex ratio for newborns of 113 male to 100 female in households whose occupants had a university education compared to 105 to 100 among those with only a secondary school education.

It is actually illegal for hospitals and private clinics to reveal the gender of a baby to its prospective parents. But only a few cases have ever been detected, as comments such as “like the father” or “like the mother”, or “strong” or “gentle” are used, according to Mr. Canh. 

If the trend is not reversed, according to experts, by 2050 Vietnam may be short of 2.3- 4.3 million women. 

The gender imbalance may lead to a broken traditional family structure, as some men will have to get married later or may not ever find a wife, while many women may have feel they should marry earlier, both of which may result in an increase in divorces and second marriages, according to Ms. Anh.

According to Mr. Canh, authorities are making an effort to provide information and education to the public and improve social services and support in order to change people’s perceptions. The proposed draft law is a lesson taken from other countries in the region in a similar situation, particularly South Korea. “We hope our efforts can help people adopt a fairer view,” he said. 

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