Vietnam must crack down on its misogynistic mindset to stem sex-selective abortions and its gross gender imbalance, experts say.
Boys outnumber girls at a primary school in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dao Ngoc Thach
“We are startled by the sex ratios at birth in some communes in the Red River Delta, which were up to 150 boys per 100 girls, during a recent visit,” Deputy Health Minister Nguyen Viet Tien said at a press briefing in Hanoi on Tuesday.
The country’s ratio fell lower -- 113.8 boys per 100 girls than last year. Still, the figure represents a sharp increase from 106.2 boys per 100 girls in 2000 and enough to cause policymakers headaches.
According to an official projection, between 2.3 and 4.3 million men won't be able to find wives by 2050.
Worse still, a scarcity of women would increase pressure for them to marry at a younger age and perhaps drop out of school to do so, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said in a statement released on Tuesday.
In addition, there may be a rising demand for sex work; and trafficking networks may also expand in response to the imbalance, UNFPA warned.
Nguyen Van Tan, director of the General Office for Population and Family Planning, said that one of the contributing factors to the rising gender imbalance in Vietnam is a strong preference for sons, which has “deep cultural roots and gender discrimination against women and girls.”
“We need more efforts to strengthen comprehensive communication activities on the important roles of women and girls in the society," Tan said at the press briefing.
Arthur Erken, UNFPA Representative in Vietnam, echoed Tan’s viewpoint.
"The heart of the gender imbalance issue is not sex selection, but the inequality and values,” Erken said.
“Gender-biased sex selection is exacerbated by patriarchal family values, amplified in particular by male-oriented kinship systems, as well as a lack of social and economic autonomy among women,” he said.
To resolve the situation, Erken suggested addressing “the broader context of socio-economic development and the promotion and protection of human rights to dismantle gender inequality.”
“When women and girls have equal access to health care, education, and job opportunities as men and boys do, then they can do what men and boys are expected to do,” said Erken.
He also said that women alone cannot address the issue and thus, young men and boys must be encouraged to step forward as agents of necessary social and cultural change.
Besides the cultural factors, a lack of political will is at the heart of the gender imbalance problem, said Dr. Tine Gammeltoft, who authored several studies on the problem in Vietnam.
“In principle, health care providers are not allowed to inform prospective parents of the sex of the fetus, but they do. In principle, health care providers are not allowed to perform sex-selective abortions, but they do,” said Gammeltoft of Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen.
She said those who have the power to stop those practices don't want to.
“Probably because policy-makers and health care providers themselves share the son preference that motivates prospective parents to sex select,” Gammeltoft told Thanh Nien News in an e-mail exchange.
She said that immediate measures could be taken to prevent health care providers from informing pregnant women of the sex of the fetus.
“For instance, the ‘mystery client’ technique could be used (pregnant women cooperating with police to detect health care providers who give direct or indirect information about fetal sex). In combination with large fines and public exposure of the clinics, this for sure would have immediate effect,” she said.
“But the political will to enforce existing legislation is not there, unfortunately,” said Gammeltoft.
“As regards gender inequality, a lot could be done too – but again, the political will is not there. For instance, it is a huge problem that only sons inherit their parents' property and daughters get very little – if this was changed, the gender landscape in Vietnam would change dramatically,” she said.