Abnormal sex ratio among first borns worries experts

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First-born gender imbalance higher among civil servants, urban couples

A boy waits for the train at a small station near Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi. Experts have called for more action to tackle emerging gender disparity at the birth of the first child in Vietnam.

Ho Van Nho of Nghe An Province's Quynh Luu District hung himself on September 16, just a few days after his wife gave birth to their third daughter.

No official conclusion has been reached about the reason behind his suicide, but locals said Nho was the eldest son and his parents wanted him to have a son to "continue the family lineage."

The importance still paid by most Vietnamese families to have a son to continue the family lineage and tend to the family altar (where ancestors are worshipped regularly) has led to a significant gender imbalance in Vietnam.

The gender issue has also developed an unusual aspect in Vietnam with higher imbalance seen with the first child in a family.

"National Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) imbalance favoring the male remains high in Vietnam, indicating that couples and families are intervening in the sex of children to be born," said Danièle Bélanger of the Canadian University of Western Ontario's Department of Sociology and Population Studies Center in an email to Thanh Nien Weekly.

In its report "Sex Ratio at Birth Imbalances in Vietnam: Evidence from the 2009 Census" released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on October 26, researchers say Vietnam is unique because enough families control the sex of the first child to cause this unexpected imbalance at first birth.

"This is not the case in other countries where we see the abnormal sex ratio at birth for second and higher birth orders, and generally a normal sex ratio at birth of the first child," Bélanger said.

"This indicates that some young couples intervene in the first pregnancy/conception to make sure they have one boy [signalling] a high desire to control the sex of children early on in the family building process. This means that the desire to control the sex of children is quite acceptable among young couples," she added.

According to UNFPA, the country's national average sex ratio at birth is 110.6 males per 100 females, compared with a biologically standard figure of 105.

Khuat Thu Hong, co-director of the Institute for Social Development Studies in Hanoi, said the Vietnam 2009 Census contains another surprise finding. The SRB favoring males is higher among civil servants and in urban areas.

"A civil servant is required to adhere to a policy that encourages a maximum of two children per family. But the pressure of having a son remains and they begin to think about gender selection measures. Moreover, related [illegal] services are common in big cities," she told Thanh Nien Weekly.

The UNFPA report found that the problem is more acute in the Red River Delta, while in the four regions north, south, center and Central Highlands the SRB imbalance was higher in urban areas than rural one. "This is not surprising since controlling the sex of children to be born requires access to medical technology and specific medical services not available in many rural areas of Vietnam," it said.

Many national and international experts are calling for more action from Vietnamese authorities to tackle the imbalance that they say is setting the stage for very serious social problems in the future.

The report also simulates the demographic impact of the sex ratio at birth over time according to three different possible scenarios.

Under the "no-intervention scenario", the national SRB will rise to 115 by 2015 and will stay at this level indefinitely. The sex ratio of the adult population (15 to 49 years-old) will rise from its current ratio of 100 men per 100 women to 113 in 2049, and this will create a 12 percent surplus of men over the period 2009 to 2049.

"The second scenario assumes that there will be strong implementation of policies and programs to address the SRB imbalance, resulting in a slower rise of the SRB to 115 by 2020, followed by a gradual return to a biologically normal level by 2030," the report says. Here, the adult population's sex ratio will increase up to 110 men per 100 women in 2044 and then slowly decline to normal levels.

The third scenario assumes a steady and normal SRB (105) over the entire period 1999 to 2049, presupposing in particular "that the 2009 population under 10 years of age was never affected by SRB imbalances, and that there was no surplus male population in the first half of the century due to an imbalanced SRB."

"In all three scenarios it is the young adult population that will be most affected by 2050," said Dr. Christophe Guilmoto, author of the UNFPA study. "They will be impacted in their social structure and changing cultural norms and social habits. In particular, the opportunity of males to find female partners will be affected. This, in turn, may contribute to earlier marriage age for girls, and possible interruption of women's education. Furthermore, there may be an increase in commercial sex work, trafficking and other negative impacts as well."

Bélanger said Vietnam needs a comprehensive campaign to promote gender equality among children.

"Vietnam needs to address more vigorously issues of gender equality, underscore the value of daughters to parents and promote daughters as children able to support parents, perform cult rituals and inherit property," she said.

She also urged strict enforcement of the Marriage and Family Law that says all children have equal access to inheritance.

"In the Red River Delta, families without sons prefer to give their inheritance to a nephew than to a daughter. Elderly women talk about how they received inheritance from their parents but girls today do not hope for anything (perhaps a bicycle if they are lucky). This is a problem and it creates tremendous pressure for families who are sonless," she said.

"Sonless men are shunned by powerful men in their lineage and they have no status in lineage and village politics. Sonless women have no social status locally and are constructed by others as "˜failed women' who "˜do not know how to give birth'."

Bélanger said these stereotypes should be abandoned so that local power dynamics change and people do not feel so much pressure to have a son at all costs, including "costs that will be paid by their own children when their sons cannot find wives and have their own children."

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