HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM - When we walk into Tran Trinh’s house, she is lying in a pea-green hammock, breastfeeding her 8-month-old child. Having replaced her job in accounting with that of full-time mom, Trinh rarely leaves home. She dedicates most of her time to Minh - a daughter who, a year ago, she had hoped would be a boy.
Trinh, 32, loves her daughter now, but had wanted a son because her first child had turned out to be a girl, too. “For Asians, we think each family should have at least one son,” she said.
It’s this son-centered mentality that the Vietnamese government is looking to tackle now with a new policy to pay families who have daughters. Proponents say the $123 million idea will help bring Vietnam’s sex ratio at birth, now 112 boys for every 100 girls, closer to the global norm of roughly 102 to 106 boys. In the northern Red River Delta province of Hung Yen, the rate has been as high as 130.7 boys to 100 girls. The proposal also would offer incentives like health insurance and favored treatment in school admissions and hiring.
“In Sweden we have seen that economic incentives do work,” said Ambassador Camilla Mellander, who co-chairs Vietnam’s informal Gender Policy Coordination group. She said in Sweden, where the birth rate has been dropping in recent decades, parental leave, child allowance, and other state benefits have encouraged Swedes to enlarge their families.
This is not Vietnam’s first try at leveling out the gender ratio. In 2003, it banned sex selection through ultrasounds and abortions, technologies that gained traction in the 1990s. But the ban is widely flouted because of the low cost (as little as $5 for an ultrasound) and the low enforcement of monetary and licensing penalties. The practice has left Vietnam with what many view are alarmingly high abortion figures, up to 75 terminated pregnancies for every 100 births.
Before the arrival of ultrasounds, couples would try to conceive males through scheduled sex, “traditional medicines, particular diets, and the assistance of fortune tellers,” the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) observed in a 2011 report.
Vietnam’s latest measure already is meeting resistance from those who say compensating families would deepen class divides. The Laborer newspaper wrote that it would have little impact on wealthier families, who don’t need the money and who are more likely to afford ultrasounds and abortions.
Mellander said the initiative could work, but must comprise part of a more “holistic” solution, as in South Korea.
UNFPA wrote in a briefing, “In the only known successful campaign against sex selection, the Republic of Korea targeted healthcare providers and religious leaders with ethics-based arguments. Its sex ratio at birth fell from 116 boys to 100 girls in 1991 to near normal in recent years.”
Ancient tradition has deeply embedded a preference for sons across patriarchal Asia. Confucianism teaches the woman to defer to her father, husband, and then son, in that order, while the man upholds the glory of the extended family, through his financial success and through the legacy of his last name.
In South Korea the gender imbalance emerged in the 1980s, which was about the same for China and India. But the world's two most populous nations, China and India, continue to struggle with ratios of 118 and 110 boys, respectively, per 100 girls. Like Vietnam, both countries have passed legislation against sex-selective abortions. But pressure is perhaps more acute in China, where the one-child policy limits families’ chances to bear sons. Vietnam does not officially impose such a quota but has set a national goal of 2.1 children per family, the number required to sustain a society.
Mellander warned that if Vietnam and others don’t reign in this trend of favoring males, they could see an uptick in trafficking and sex work as marriage rates drop. Vietnam already sends more brides to South Korea than any other country, with high volumes also going to Taiwan and China.
Researchers Daniele Belanger and Tran Giang Linh interviewed “sending families” in the Mekong River Delta region and concluded in a 2011 academic paper, “Getting married is difficult for many single men in the village due to the perceived greater value of foreign men, higher bride-prices and a shortage of potential brides.”
By sending their daughters to marry abroad, or aborting them at home, Vietnamese families are creating a perfect storm of dire demographics, according to experts.
“If there aren't drastic solutions, the sex ratio at birth rate will be 125/100 and by 2030, Vietnam will lack approximately 3-4 million brides,” the General Office for Population and Family Planning wrote on its website.
In the online posting, the department also suggested monthly clubs and workshops to reinforce for women that they don't have to have sons. As for daughters, their academic achievements should be highlighted, the office wrote.
Other systemic fixes, such as strong pensions so families don’t rely on sons for support in old age, would help, too, Mellander said.
Doan Thi Ngoc, an instructor at Hoa Sen University's Gender and Society Research Center, agrees that Vietnam needs a more “comprehensive” approach to gender equality. Media and education would help change male-centric culture and thinking, she said, because otherwise, policy reforms will just remain ineffective pieces of paper.
“Those are really advanced laws, they’re wonderful,” Ngoc said. “But why, when you put them into practice, do things go another way?”