The boy boom

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Experts call for massive cultural revision as Vietnam's male exaltation tips the sex ratio to new heights

Boys outnumber girls at a kindergarten in Ho Chi Minh City. Experts said people will come to realize that sons are not the only children who grow up to take care of their parents.

The international community has lauded Vietnam for its legislative efforts to outlaw domestic violence and sexual discrimination. It has won praise for advancing the cause of gender equality through programs that promote female literacy.

The problem is, there are going to be less and less women to defend.

Vietnam's sex ratio at birth (SRB) has been rising steadily for the past few years, from the "average" 105 boys to 100 girls in 1999 to 110:100 in 2006. According to the 2009 Census, Vietnam's SRB imbalance stands at 110.5. The census further revealed that sex selection is practiced most in Vietnam's Red River Delta provinces and among wealthier households.

The trend will make it difficult for millions of Vietnamese men to find wives if it continues, experts have pointed out. They also warn of increasing sex-related crimes if the highly unnatural gender imbalance is not addressed.

Vietnam's predilection for baby boys is linked to pervasive traditional beliefs, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

A popular Confucian saying goes: "With one son you have a descendant, with 10 daughters you have nothing."

Under the nation's patriarchal system, male descendants are expected to carry on the family lineage and support their parents when they are old. Women, on the other hand, are considered outsiders who will leave the family after marriage.

Last May, 15 people gathered in the northern village of Yen Ha to celebrate the arrival of a new baby. The joy of the Bac Giang family was greater than ever before.

"After the third daughter we planned to have a son. We were scared that if we had only daughters nobody would take care of us when we get older," the UNFPA accounts quoted Thuy, the mother, as saying.

"When I was some months pregnant I went to the doctor for an ultrasound to know the sex of the baby," Thuy said. "If it was another girl, I would have had an abortion."

According to Le Thi Trang Nhung, an employee of the Asia Commercial Bank in Ho Chi Minh City, her youngest sister was almost nipped in the bud five years ago.

Her parents, who also hailed from Bac Giang Province, told her they intended to abort her sister, Nhung told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"My parents had five daughters already and they did not want another," Nhung said. "It was lucky that they decided not to do so because the pregnancy already five months along."

SRB reached 116.8 in Bac Giang Province, which ranks fourth in the list of provinces with the highest SRB in Vietnam, according to the UNFPA Vietnam. Bac Giang was beat out by Hung Yen (130.7), Hai Duong (120.2), and Bac Ninh (119.4) in its excess of boys, according to the 2009 Census.

The right targets

UNFPA attributed Vietnam's skewed SRB to improved access to affordable sex-determination and sex-selection technology.

A 2004 study co-authored by Dr. Tine Gammeltoft and Nguyen Thi Thuy Hanh showed that women in Hanoi sought, on average, 6.6 scans per pregnancy.

"That's a very high number," said Dr. Gammeltoft of Institute of Anthroplogy at the University of Copenhagen.

"There is no doubt that access to ultrasounds has enabled women to obtain sex-selective abortions - there is a logical correlation here and also a correlation in terms of time: the sex ratio has become skewed during the same years where ultrasounds have become routine parts of pregnancy care," Gammeltoft said.

A study published in 2009, entitled "Second-trimester abortions and sex-selection of children in Hanoi, Vietnam" indicated that the practice may become more widespread in the future.

Last month Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan instructed government agencies to crack down on activities aimed at sex-selection. A government decree issued in 2006 stipulates fines of VND500,000 VND15,000,000 for people who promote or practice abortions for the purpose of sex selection.

Experts have pointed out that the criminalization of the means to achieving sex selection will not solve the underlying problem.

"I am worried that the reaction will be to reduce abortion services. This would be a disaster for maternal health and could potentially result is more maternal deaths," said Dr. Daniele Belanger of University of Western Ontario in Canada.

"There is room for increasing effective contraception use but reducing abortion services is far from being the answer to the current deficit of women. There will always be people on the market who will be willing to provide private illegal abortion services," Belanger said.

Both Belanger and Dr. Khuat Thu Hong, co-director of the Institute for Social Development Studies in Hanoi, concurred that women's contribution to society needs to be valued and acknowledged more. Only by increasing the social value of women can the country hope to staunch the loss of girls, they say.

"The idea that sons are responsible for their parents in old age needs to be revisited. In reality, many women support their parents too but in secret or by transferring money to their brothers who then give it to the parents," Hong said.

"˜Luckily I still have her'

Ngo Ngoc Kha, 59, says he was very happy to have three daughters, despite pressure from his extended family to have sons.

"They care for us a lot. They have dinner with us everyday. I'm not sure if I could enjoy such a warm atmosphere at home if I had a son," said the HCMC businessman.

"Many sons of my friends just like hanging out after work, but my daughters don't. My youngest daughter is now my best friend. Luckily I still have her."

Hong of the Institute for Social Development Studies said she was convinced that people will come to realize that sons are not the only children who grow up to take care of their parents.

"But it will not happen just after a few years."

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