October 24, 2009 - October 30, 2009
Sex ratio imbalance worsens in Vietnam
Vietnam has seen a spike in the number of male births compared with female births. If the trend continues, it could have worrying consequences, warn experts. Patralekha Chatterjee reports.
More money and easier access to technology have dramatically improved the day-to-day lives of millions of people in Asia in recent decades. But increased prosperity and new medical technologies have also led to a spurt in prenatal sex determination and selective abortion, deepening the girl deficit in countries that traditionally favour male children.
The skewed sex ratio is particularly acute and well-documented in parts of China and India. But now a new report by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has identified a rising imbalance in the male-to-female sex ratio at birth in Vietnam. If the rise continues over the next decades, scarcity of women could increase the pressure for them to marry young, and there might be a rising demand for sex work and an increase in trafficking, according to the report.
Experts across Asia say entrenched preference for sons in patriarchal structures and systems make it difficult to follow a purely punitive approach. They are calling for a multipronged strategy with more emphasis on the cultural aspects of population issues and measures to increase the value of daughters, enhance society's support for improving women's status, as well as the need for a social-security scheme for the elderly.
Vietnam has had an unusual rapid change in the sex ratio at birth in the past few years. Although, in 2000, the ratio was about 106 male births per 100 female births, it increased to 112 in 2008. "Currently, China reports higher sex ratio at birth than Vietnam. However, what is striking in Vietnam is the unusually rapid rise of the SRB [sex ratio at birth] recorded over the last few years. As a result, Vietnam's SRB is on par with Georgia, Pakistan, and India as a whole-though, regional sex ratio values for example in Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, or Rajasthan are much higher. If the current growth of 1 point per year since 2006 continues unabated, SRB might reach the 115 mark within 3 years in Vietnam", says Bruce Campbell, UNFPA representative in Vietnam.
One of the main factors behind the rise is the steadily increasing access to affordable sex determination and sex selection technology, which has allowed couples to pursue their desire for one or more sons. Experience reported in other nations such as China and India shows that sex ratio imbalances can spread quickly throughout countries. If this happens in Vietnam, it may become a more serious problem in the future, substantially affecting the demographic and sex structure of the population, says Campbell.
In Vietnam, ultrasound and abortion services are legal and easily accessible, but the identification of the sex of a fetus and selective abortion are illegal. The government's response to the troubling gender imbalance includes the Population Ordinance (2006) and Prime Minister Decree (2006), which prohibit all practices of antenatal fetal sex diagnosis and sex selection. There are also revised guidelines for the implementation of the decree in order to closely monitor and punish the promotion and practice of sex diagnosis and sex selection. Despite all this, parents can get hold of translations of foreign manuals and locally written guides which explain both traditional and modern methods of selecting the sex of children. The health ministry recently destroyed 30 000 books about sex selection and closed seven internet websites advertising these methods.
The situation is not too different from India. Medically-assisted sex selection is illegal in India, but the law is widely flouted. "Legislations in these matters do not pay dividends unless accompanied by action/interventions at the community level to bring about a change in attitude", says Uday Shankar Mishra, associate professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, southern India.
Vietnam, like India, has a daunting but not impossible task to tackle its sex ratio imbalance. A comprehensive communications strategy to encourage behaviour change is a good starting point, says Vietnamese social scientist Dang Nguyen Anh. South Korea offers an inspirational example. The country had a rapid rise in sex ratio at birth, up to 116, but managed to engineer a rapid decline over a period of about 20 years through a raft of policy reforms: government investment in social security, reinforcement of health and social insurance systems, measures to benefit families having girls.