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Singapore: Viet Nam's Chilling New Preference For Baby Boys

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SINGAPORE: Visitors to primary schools in Viet Nam often feel chillingly uneasy to see rooms packed with boys.

At a typical Ha Noi kindergarten, teacher Nguyen Thi Thuy has noticed a dramatic change over the past five years.

"This year, my class has 25 children," said Thuy. "Seventeen are boys and only eight are girls. When the little boys grow up, most of them will not be able to find a wife."

A preference for sons has skewed birth ratios across Asia, especially in China and India, but its sudden appearance in Viet Nam and the size of the imbalance has stunned experts.

Ten years ago, Viet Nam's gender birth ratio equalled the accepted international average of around 104 boys to 100 girls.

But over the past few years, in tandem with rising incomes and easier access to clinics that determine foetal sex and conduct abortions, the number of male births has raced ahead of female ones.

Already, the number of boys born in many regions of Viet Nam exceeds those of girls by 20% or more.

Recent surveys by the Population, Family and Children Science Institute show that the male-female ratio is as lopsided as 135 boys to 100 girls in some districts.

Last month, Deputy Health Minister Nguyen Ba Thuy revealed that in the first quarter of this year, 337,600 babies were born, of which 183,600 were boys and 154,000 were girls, for a national ratio of about 118 boys to 100 girls.

The imbalance may worsen because the current lunar year of the golden pig has raised hopes for sons to bring good fortune to families.

Viet Nam has a two-child policy. Many couples try to have a boy as their first-born, and then would not mind if their second child is a girl.

It is common to see couples with two sons, or a son and a daughter, but rare to find those with two daughters.

It is now expected that the national gender ratio at birth may be as high as 120 boys to 100 girls this year.

Experts become uneasy when the boy-to-girl disparity hits a ratio of 106:100, but when it exceeds 110:100, alarm bells start ringing about potentially calamitous long-term effects.

Said Ian Howie, the United Nations Population Fund's Vietnam representative: "An imbalance of sexes fuels human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

"It endangers economic development and increases social instability as a growing population of men searches for partners."

He said skewed gender ratios occur when there is a strong preference for sons, access to determining the sex of unborn babies and readily available abortion services.

All these factors are present in Viet Nam, where most pregnant women have ultrasound scans, and most know the sex of their child before birth.

The government, alarmed at the widening imbalance, has repeatedly warned doctors that it is illegal to perform an ultrasound scan solely to determine the sex of a foetus.

But money talks louder, and most underpaid Vietnamese doctors offer the service for a fee.

As a result, Vietnamese women who find they are carrying an unwanted female baby often head immediately to an abortion clinic.

Howie said: "Safe abortion services are available in both public and private hospitals."

A walk-in abortion at a state hospital can be performed for US$10, and at private clinics for about $20.

Viet Nam has one of the highest abortion rates in the world - a third higher than in China. On average, every Vietnamese woman has 2.5 abortions in her lifetime.

Professor Nguyen Dinh Cu, head of the Population Research and Social Affairs Institute, noted that Viet Nam's annual 1.35 million abortions is equal to the number of live births.

And the number of aborted female foetuses greatly exceeds the number of aborted male ones.

Said Dr Le Bach Duong, director of Hanoi's Institute for Social Development Studies: "Vietnamese still think they need a son to continue the family line and support them in old age, so they take deliberate steps to have a baby boy."

The reason, of course, is not hard to fathom: As in several other Asian countries, Vietnam has an entrenched male-dominant society.

And despite verbal protestations to the contrary, the ruling communist regime tacitly condones a secondary role for women.

Dr Duong said: "There are few women in top business jobs, only one in the Cabinet, only one female ambassador, not a single woman in the Politburo, only a handful in the central committee and the national assembly."

Indeed, the message is clear: If you are a woman in Viet Nam, do not expect to get far. The glass ceiling is almost impenetrable.

However, in a perverse way, the soaring birth imbalance may ultimately help women achieve a measure of equality.

Said Ho Thi Thanh, a lecturer at Ha Noi's University for Social Sciences and Humanities: "Right now, women in Viet Nam are treated as second-class citizens.

"But if there are fewer of us, we will be more highly valued, and we will have more opportunities to advance." (By ROGER MITTON/ The Straits Times/ ANN)

MySinchew 2007.10.22


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