Vietnam's Girls Go Missing

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Vietnam is the latest country to report an alarming skew towards boy babies, one that may lead to vast societal upheaval. This week, the United Nations Population Fund said that some 25,000 expected baby girls went "missing" — were not carried to term — in Vietnam last year. The implication is that some expectant parents are aborting unwanted girls once they learn the sex of the fetus through ultrasound technology. Government statistics and a separate U.N. survey in 2006 put the ratio of newborns at 110 boys to every 100 girls — higher than the "natural" rate of 105 to 107 boys for every 100 girls.

The phenomenon has been reported across Asia. The same U.N. report estimated that a stunning 95 million expected female babies in Asia were reportedly "disappeared" in 2000 — 85% of them in China and India. In China, the national average is 120 boys born for every 100 girls. India's reported sex-ratio in 2001 was 108:100 nationwide, but as high as 120 in some areas; some 7,000 girls go unborn in India each day, according to a U.N. Children's Fund report last year. The national "gender gap" in Vietnam may be narrower than China's, but about a third of Vietnam's provinces, mostly in the poorer north, reported sex ratios skewing as high as 120 boys, equal to China's national average.

The societal ravages of such "gender imbalance" go far beyond the morality of sex-selection abortion: In both India and China, much-cherished sons in rural areas have been growing up to find a shortage of available wives. The U.N. report links the trend to increased violence among frustrated men as well as the trafficking women for sex. "Sex ratio imbalances only lead to far-reaching imbalances in the society at large," says Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the U.N. Population Fund's executive director.

As in much of Asia, Vietnam's Confucian-based society prizes male heirs to carry on the family name and care for parents in their old age. And like China, Vietnam has a history of strict population control. Until recently, couples were forbidden to have more than two children, and families went to great lengths to ensure that at least one was a son — including aborting girl babies, especially if they already had one daughter. Vietnamese online forums carry threads devoted to how to ensure conceiving a boy — everything from special diet to especially rigorous sex to pre-intercourse douching with an alkaline solution. "I've tried everything, and even cleaned with the special solution, but I am still pregnant with a girl," lamented one woman on an online forum. "Do you think my doctor sold me a fake product?"

Vietnam's government last year banned sex-selection abortion and even barred doctors performing routine ultrasounds from revealing the sex of the fetus. But the laws are all but impossible to enforce. Every expectant mother somehow learns whether she is expecting a boy or a girl. Abortions are readily available for around $5 in government clinics. "We must expand our propaganda activities to educate people aching to have boys," says Nguyen Ba Thuy, deputy minister of health. Other Asian countries have seen the sex imbalance towards boys reverse, including South Korea, one of the first countries to report the missing-girls phenomenon. In recent years the skewed gender balance in that country has reversed down to near-natural ratios, thanks in part to societal changes that saw more young women working and thus able to support aging parents.

Vietnam's pro-girl campaign depends on changing the attitudes of its own post-war baby boom — nearly 60% of the population is under 30 — who are now busy starting families. It's an uphill battle, but the country's previous success at changing attitudes is encouraging. Thirty years ago, most Vietnamese had a strong preference for families of four and five children. That has now been replaced with a general desire for smaller families, enough so that the official two-child limit has been eased. Sultan Aziz, the U.N. Population Fund's Asia-Pacific director, says Vietnam might still be able to nip the gender imbalance in the bud. "If any country can do that," Aziz says. "Vietnam can."

At Hanoi Maternity Hospital, there's at least one encouraging sign. Dao Thi Kim Oanh already has a 5-year-old daughter, and she says she saw the disappointment in her mother-in-law's eyes when she learned the second baby was another girl. But Oanh, 41, couldn't be happier. "Wanting only boys is the old way of thinking," she says, protectively curling an arm around her bulging tummy. "I hope that when my daughters grow up, it won't matter to anyone if their children are boys or girls."