Female male chauvinists worsen gender imbalance

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A clinic on Hanoi's Giai Phong Street offering abortion services. Population agencies are discussing policies favoring women in an effort to address the highly skewed gender balance in Vietnam.

Nguyen Thi Bich Lien says she can never forget the pressure applied on her by her husband's family to give birth to a son ever since she got married four years ago.

"My mother-in-law always urged me to eat more to enjoy good health. She didn't say it directly, but kept telling me countless stories about other neighbors who managed to have a son or a grandson," said the 30-year-old woman who works for a communication company in Hanoi.

"When I asked why his parents prefer a grandson and whether he would still love me after I give birth to a girl, my husband said: "˜a son is always better'," said Lien, who has a two-year-old son.

"My mother-in-law said that when she gave birth to a son, my father-in-law's family members were very happy and immediately went about telling every neighbor," she said.

This preference for male progeny in patriarchal families still driven by highly discriminatory Confucian mores is common in Vietnam, and this has worsened the already skewed birth ratio favoring males, especially in the ongoing Year of the Dragon, believed to be an auspicious year for having children.

According to the General Department of Population and Family Planning, the birth ratio imbalance in favor of males has worsened from between 105-107 males per every 100 females in 2000 to more than 112 recently.

The agency is observing December as the National Population Month. The theme of the National Population Day (December 26) this year is "effectively controlling the increasing birth ratio imbalance for future happiness of each family and the nation's sustainable development."

At the launch of the national population month, Duong Quoc Trong, director of the population department said Vietnam is facing the monumental threat of a "bride crisis" as well as other social evils and sex crimes by 2050.

"It is estimated that there will be between 2.3-4.3 million men who will be unable to find a wife then," he said.

Trong said while the perception favoring males is common among men, it is also true of women. The number of women who want to have sons is triple the number of women who want to have daughters, he said.

Little male dragons

According to the Health Ministry, Vietnam is about to miss several population targets this year, including gender balance, because of the spurt in the number of births in the Year of the Dragon.

As of October, more than 850,000 babies were born. The number of families having the third baby, common among parents who already have two daughters and are seeking a son, increased by nearly 8 percent over 2011.

According to the General Statistics Office, the imbalance favoring males over the past decade has worsened nationwide, particularly in northern provinces and the Mekong Delta.

For instance, in Long An Province, Duc Hue District has the worst imbalance with 118 males for every 100 females so far this year. Notably, the district's My Quy Dong Commune has a ratio of 200 males for every 100 females.

A provincial Population and Family Planning Agency survey found the Confucian attitudes and beliefs are the main reason for the skewed ratio. Besides, more than 70 percent of the people in rural areas have no pension and have to rely on their sons' support when they are old, the agency said. 

On Monday (December 17), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released results of a study it commissioned on Gender, Masculinity and Son Preference.

"A high proportion of men agreed that sons are important to carry on the family lineage and for support in old age," according to the study that surveyed 1,424 men from Hung Yen Province in the north and Can Tho City in the Mekong Delta.

The study found lack of education a major factor among the various determinants of son preference. Others include living arrangements (living in an extended family), childhood experience of gender inequality and depression status of the respondents.

"Those who do not live in an extended family, those who have not ever experienced gender inequality during childhood, those who hold inequitable gender attitudes, and those who suffer from severe depression are found to have more son preference," it said.

The report says there is a need for more comprehensive, long-term and male-targeted intervention programs/campaigns at national and sub-national levels, with consideration of men's specific socio-economic conditions, to change attitudes and address the gender imbalance and its impacts that Vietnam faces.

Zero enforcement

Vietnam banned all hospitals, clinics and medical practitioners from diagnosing fetus gender in 2007, but the ban has not been thoroughly enforced. 

Trong of the population general department said between 80-90 percent of Vietnamese women were aware of the gender of their fetus and the proportion is almost 100 percent in big cities, leading to gender selection favoring males through abortions.

"Modern technologies allow for easier fetus gender detection and less painful abortions," he said.

Trong said there should be more effective campaigns to raise parents' awareness of gender imbalance and stricter implementation of the law against the diagnosis of fetus gender. Greater controls over abortions were also necessary, he said.

Nguyen Hong Minh, director of the maternal health consultation center at the National Hospital for Obstetrics and Gynecology, said the number of abortions is "alarmingly" high in Vietnam and a significant proportion was based on gender selection.

"Many educated women cite financial reasons or being busy at work or studying when they ask for abortions, concealing the actual reason, which is gender selection," he said.

"Other women, including those from rural areas, say honestly that they do not want to have a daughter but a son," he added.

While Vietnam does not have any definitive statistics on sex-selective abortions, The General Office for Population Family Planning estimates that around one million abortions, which have been legal in Vietnam since 1954, are done per year in the country. The World Health Organization has said the country's abortion rate is among the highest in the world.

In a recent move, the population general department announced it is considering policies favoring families giving birth to females.

"For example, schoolgirls will have to pay less school fees than schoolboys. Universities will set lower marks required for females at entrance exams," Trong said, adding that under the plan, families who have only daughters will benefit from other social services. However, he admitted that maintaining gender imbalance in Vietnam is not at all easy. 

"We spent half a century to change the perception among parents that it is good to have as many children as possible to having only one or two children. It may take even longer time to remove the perception favoring males," he said.

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