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Op-ed of Ms Naomi Kitahara, UNFPA Representative in Viet Nam

Having started as the new Representative for UNFPA (UN Population Fund) in Viet Nam, I was going through a different set of statistics to understand this amazing country, and my eyes immediately stopped when I saw one striking item – Viet Nam has a lot more boys than girls, well beyond the range which is biologically and demographically considered normal.

In demography, we calculate a “sex ratio at birth,” which is the number of boys per 100 girls. In Viet Nam, this is currently estimated at 114.8 (2018), while what is considered normal is between 102 and 106. This is an increase from 107-108 in the period 2000-2005 and 111-112 in 2010-2015. The ratio is already high at the first birth, and it even reaches 115.5-120 by the third child according to 2014 data. What is more? The sex ratio at birth is higher in urban areas than in rural areas in the country’s four regions out of six. While in the Red River Delta and the Mekong River Delta regions, the ratio is lower in urban areas, it varies in different provinces and in three provinces of the Red River Delta region, it reached a record high 125 in 2016.   

It is strongly suspected that such demographic imbalance is caused by selecting the sex of the baby, and this is considered as one of the harmful practices at international fora including 2019 Nairobi Summit on the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25), which Viet Nam is fully part of. The government of Viet Nam has already recognized this and has clearly put in place various legal and policy mechanisms. The Law on Gender Equality includes that sex selection, including inciting other people to select for sex, is illegal. The 2003 Population Ordinance and the Decree no. 104/2003/ND-CP banned the identification of fetuses and sex selection in any form. The Decree no. 176/2013/ND-CP even went further to place detailed penalties for sex selection at birth.

So what is happening? It was explained to me that son preference was a culprit, which is deeply rooted in the Viet Nam’s traditional culture and patriarchal family systems and social norms valuing boys more than girls. A similar trend can be observed in other patriarchal societies in the world. And it was also mentioned to me that only boys would be “allowed” to inherit the family line, and not girls, but the Constitution and the 2015 Civil Code evidently guarantee women’s rights to inheritance.

So, why is it that less girls are born in Viet Nam than boys? Aren’t girls equally a treasure and a joy for Vietnamese family?