Girl power

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A new study finds that daughters are more desirable in Vietnam than previously thought

Women enjoy a glass of coffee in the Mekong Delta town of Chau Doc. Daughters are more highly valued by families than previously thought, especially by parents who have no sons, a recent United Nations research has found

Le Quang Duong has made his choice and he's sticking to it.

"[Having] Two daughters is enough. I'm happy," said Duong, a 45-year-old hotel owner in Ho Chi Minh City.

Duong is also the head of a family clan in a village in the northern port city of Hai Phong. In Confucian-dominated Vietnam, that means the responsibility of carrying on his family lineage and worshipping his ancestors are paramount. Both are tasks that can traditionally only be carried out by a son.

But Duong is not toeing the traditional line.

"I don't see any problem [with having two daughters]. When I die, they will do the ancestor worship for me," Duong said. "Back in my hometown, of course I'm facing growing pressure to have a son. But so what? For me, daughters are simply far better than sons."

Duong's view is in line with a new study that shatters long-held beliefs about family and gender conventions in Vietnam's Confucian-based society.

A recent United Nations report has pointed out that daughters are more highly valued by families than previously thought, especially by parents who have no sons. Girls are prized for their emotional closeness to parents and their ability to perform ancestor worship, the research said. This suggests that in practice, the male-oriented family may not be as dominant in Vietnam as popular understandings and political ideologies assume, it added.

Such findings have injected new hopes into the battle against Vietnams' skewed sex ratio at birth, which experts argue could lead to increased human trafficking and sex crimes over the next few decades.

The country's national average sex ratio at birth (SRB) has been rising steadily for the past few years, from the average 106 males per 100 females compared with a biologically standard figure of 105 in 2006, to 111 last year, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said. Unless drastic measures are taken, the gender imbalance would leave about three million Vietnamese men with difficulty finding wives by 2030, government figures forecast.

Vietnam's predilection for baby boys is linked to pervasive traditional beliefs exemplified by a popular Confucian saying that goes: "With one son you have a descendant; with 10 daughters you have nothing."

Health advocates have been trying relentlessly to dispel this entrenched belief.

"In fact, there are indications that in many respects, daughters offer their parents better care than sons do. But in the public sphere, we hear very little about the contributions that daughters make, the care they offer, and so on," said Tine Gammeltoft, one of the two authors of the most recent UNFPA-commissioned report on son preference in Vietnam.

"Therefore, more research and more public attention is needed: we need more evidence of how son-less elderly people actually cope, and we need to document further what this qualitative study has found: that old people with only daughters actually seem to do quite well and live good lives," Gammeltoft said.

Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan said at an international workshop this week that the government is very "worried" about the skewed SRB in the country.

Vietnam's SRB's most likely cause is a parental tendency to have sex-selective abortions after learning that the fetus is a girl, the UNFPA report said. Sex selection is practiced most in Vietnam's Red River Delta provinces and among wealthier households, it added.

Vietnam banned fetal sex selection in 2003 and even barred doctors from performing routine ultrasounds to reveal the sex of the fetus, but the regulations are all but impossible to enforce.

To make matters worse, Vietnam is unique in that it is the only country in the world that has a skewed SRB at the first pregnancy, according to Gammeltoft, whereas in India and China, the sex selection often doesn't begin until the second or third pregnancy. "Also, the rise in SRB started later in Vietnam than in many other countries, probably because the necessary medical technology was introduced later," Gammeltoft said.

Uphill battle

Health experts are unanimous that Vietnam's pro-girl campaign must begin with a change in attitudes in its post-war generation. Two-thirds of the country's population is younger than 35 and are starting families of their own.

It is, however, an uphill battle.

"In Vietnam, there is a lot of pressure on people to conform with specific kinship expectations and people who deviate from the norm (for instance by living with a daughter instead of a son) risk being ridiculed and harassed," Gammeltoft said. 

Vietnamese online forums have continued providing space devoted to how to have a baby boy everything from special diet, to rigorous sex, to pre-intercourse douching with an alkaline solution.

Huynh Chau, 28, very much hopes that her second pregnancy will be a son after "having tried everything suggested at the forum".

"I think it is a must," Chau said. "We already have one girl and my husband is the eldest son of his family."

But on the bright side, there might be some hope that these ingrained beliefs are changing.

34-year-old Hoang Mong Hoai, a Vietnam Television host, acknowledged that the quest for sons is pervasive among her peers. Hoai's parents have four daughters and only one son.

But the roles are not traditional.

"It is us the four daughters that have been taking good care, both emotionally and financially, of my parents," Hoai said.

"My youngest brother is still carefree, perhaps because he has been pampered too much. The more I look at him, the more I want to have daughter after starting a family.

"Girls are just more pious and more caring for their parents."

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