A father of two sons, only half in jest, vented some ire on his Facebook page recently over couples being praised officially for raising two daughters.
“Raising two sons is much harder, but we are ignored. How unjust is this? Let’s raise our voices about such discrimination against families that only have boys!”
Half in jest or not, many readers responded seriously, agreeing with the sentiment, including parents with daughters and no sons.
On Sunday, the Hà Nội Department of Health and Ba Đình District People’s Committee organised a ceremony to praise 60 two-daughter families in the district for complying with population policies and overcoming gender prejudices to successfully bring up their children.
The ceremony marked the International Day of the Girl Child (October 11) launched by the United Nations to address girls’ needs and challenges and promote their empowerment.
Several other districts in the capital city followed suit.
That the father’s post resonated with many people merits some consideration of the questions it raises, even indirectly. Does the move actually help reduce sex imbalance at birth in the country? Is giving birth to daughters an action that should be commended, congratulated?
“I do not like it that I’m hailed for having two daughters even though I’m very proud to be the mother of two girls. It’s not an achievement, they are God’s gifts,” said Ngô Thanh An from Hà Nội.
She said that on the contrary, it would make her feel she was being discriminated against in a condescending way by the deeply-embedded patriarchy in Vietnamese society.
“The traditional thinking is changing only because men outnumber women now. I see this praise as having no real significance, just propaganda value.”
“That families give birth to only daughters or boys is a natural phenomenon, beyond personal desire. There should not be any prejudice against families with only boys or families with only girls. Once they are born, they are raised and educated equally by their parents,” said Nguyễn Hữu Hải, a father of two daughters in Hà Nội.
“If my family is praised for having two girls, I feel no encouragement at all. And even if I was placed on the list of these 60 families, I would not receive it.
“It is the responsibility of parents to bring up their children. We should only denounce sex discrimination and sex selection at birth,” Hải said.
Another father in Hà Đông District, who has two daughters, also said that official praise was unnecessary. He felt that the number of children in a family should be the parents’ right and depend on their financial ability to rear and nurture them.
“It does not matter if a child is a boy or a girl, it is much more important that they are raised to be healthy and helpful citizens in the society,” he said, not wanting to be named.
Obviously, there is an opinion among many people that the matter of boys or girls and the number of children in a family should not be mandated by anyone.
While these arguments are honest and rational to a large extent, do they reflect the full reality of life in a society where strongly patriarchal Confucian norms still hold sway?
Whether it is access to education or jobs, Vietnamese women are still at a disadvantage, studies show.
The fact is that a law was required to prevent parents from knowing the sex of a foetus because those who’d already had a girl would abort the next one and wait till they got a boy. The fact is that sex discrimination and selection at birth continues is still a reality in our society. The fact is that there is a striking gender imbalance in the country that experts have been issuing stern warnings about.
According to the United Nations, women are still under-represented in politics and continue to earn less than men across economic sectors with a differential wage gap of around 80 per cent and 87 per cent. A 2013 UNDP report showed women’s representation in the National Assembly at just 24.4 per cent.
But are official interventions effective?
Let’s look at efforts to control the sex balance at birth.
Reviewing a two-year (2015-2016) project tackling gender imbalance at birth, the General Office for Population and Family Planning said in May this year that 38 provinces and cities had included criteria on controlling the imbalance in their socio-economic development plan, while 26 others used part of their local budget for the project. Besides, hundreds, if not thousands, of seminars, workshops and conferences were held to disseminate knowledge of the nation’s population law to nearly 700,000 people.
What was the result?
In 2014, 15 of 63 provinces and cities had what experts called an abnormal sex ratio at birth (115 males per 100 females). The number increased to 22 provinces two years later.
Now, because of declining fertility and population growth rates, the Ministry of Health has proposed that the two-child policy be relaxed to allow Vietnamese parents to decide the number of children they want to have.
Việt Nam had experienced a high birth rate from early 1960s to late 1970s, from 30.2 million people in 1960 to 52.7 million in 1979. The rapid increase affected socio-economic development, and the country adopted the two-children per family policy.
In a report in 2015, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom warned that Việt Nam’s overall birth rate (2.09) was already below what is needed to replenish and maintain the population at current numbers.
Based on the experiences of other countries like Japan, Republic of Korea and China, Prof. Nguyễn Đình Cử, former Director of Institute for Population and Social Studies, has recommended that Việt Nam’s two-child policy should be amended or abolished.
Ngô Thanh An of Hà Nội said the two-child policy should be done away with in order to ensure social stability and labour structure in the years to come.
“No one but the husband and wife should decide the number of children they want, provided that they can provide them with best conditions,” she said.
Again, an apparently rational argument runs against the reality we face, the resources a society as a whole needs to take care of all children, not just those of well-to-do parents.
We might need to increase our population’s growth rate, but the long-standing gender discrimination and disparity, in all its insidious forms, needs to be tackled firmly.