Why Vietnam needs its baby girls

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Last week I read about Malala, the 14 year old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head inside her school bus as retaliation for her active engagement in promoting girls’ rights to education in Pakistan. The same day I was helping a friend edit some text for her photo series on very young girls around the world (some as young as 5 years old), who are forced to marry often much older men out of economic necessity and due to cultural practices.

I suppose on that day, it really hit me how lucky I am to be working on gender issues in a country such as Vietnam, which in many ways is considered a front runner among developing countries when it comes to gender equality, and where such atrocities usually would not happen (although underage marriage does still occur in some mountainous areas of the country).

There is however one major challenge to gender equality in Vietnam, where there is reason for growing concern: the skewed sex ratio at birth. In Vietnam, the latest figures from 2009 show that for every 100 girls born, 111 boys are born. When looking at the richest 20% of the population and the rates for couples’ third child, this number increases to 133 boys for 100 girls.

The ratio of newborn boys relative to girls has increased rapidly over the last 10 years, and there are strong indications that it will continue to increase, pointing towards the use of sex-selective abortion to ensure the birth of a son. Factors contributing to this increase include the Government’s two child policy as well as better access to abortion and to ultrasonic technology to determine the sex of the unborn child.

So why do so many Vietnamese prefer sons to daughters? I am sure there are many explanations, roots, and reasons, many of which I will never fully know or understand. However, it is generally recognized in Vietnam that some of the most important reasons are the fact that men have traditionally been better able to take care of their parents financially in their old age, and that in Vietnamese society, men are the ones to carry on family lines and names and perform ancestor worship. In addition, a few male colleagues told me that they felt that they were considered to be less manly or masculine if they were not able to produce at least one son, and would often be teased by their friends and family if they only had daughters.

But why does it even matter whether more boys than girls are born in Vietnam? There are at least two reasons why this preference for boys is a big problem, although one is much more subtle than the other. The most obvious problem is related to demographics – the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA, the most important global champion on equalizing birth ratios) estimate that by 2035, Vietnam will have at least a 10% “surplus” of men. This means that a great number of young men will never marry and never have children. It also means less diversity in the labor market, in culture, in politics, etc. as well as a likely increase in demand for sex work and trafficking. The other much more subtle problem related to boy preference is the damaging effect it can have on gender equality and on women’s self-worth, when some girls grow up perceiving that they are not quite as treasured or wanted as the opposite sex. While this might not necessarily be visible in individual families, it is indeed visible at the societal level.

As for any custom in any country, it is difficult to generalize and there are as many exceptions to the rule as there are affirmations. I have talked to Vietnamese women who have been pushed away by their husbands or families-in-law and forced to divorce because of not being able to produce a son. But I have also spoken to both men and women who are very happy to have only daughters and would not have chosen sons even if they could. And I experienced few places in the world where people are as thrilled and excited about children as in Vietnam whether they are boys or girls: whenever a colleague brings his or her child to the office they will very quickly be surrounded by a crowd of loving colleagues to admire, tickle and cuddle the little one, no matter the gender.

So the preference for boys is by no means a result of cold-heartedness, and it is understandable that parents and grandparents want to secure their old age and treasure traditional beliefs and practices. Nonetheless, the statistics do not lie. Facing a growing problem that has dire societal consequences, it is not an option for Vietnam to continue business as usual.

Fortunately, Government is aware of the problem and has taken a number of measures, including prohibiting sex selective abortion (although enforcement is lacking behind). Many eyes are on Vietnam to see if the country can break the worrying trend. While women still earn only 75% of men’s salaries in Vietnam, there are now more women than men in university and there is no guarantee that the men will necessarily be better breadwinners than women 20-30 years from now.

There are also movements that promote women in continuing the family line and worshipping ancestors. Nonetheless, it is a difficult task to change something as engrained as boy preference and more efforts are needed, including policies, campaigns, awareness raising, and individual openness to change. On October 20, Vietnam celebrates National Women’s Day and honors the many positive achievements in enhancing gender equality. I hope that the importance of treasuring girls as much as boys will be on everyone’s mind as we celebrate.

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