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South Korea Rethinks Asia's Preference for Sons

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SEOUL — When Park He Ran was a young mother, other women would approach her to ask what her secret was. Park had had three boys in a row, in an era when every South Korean mother considered it her paramount duty to bear a son. Park gets a different reaction today.

"When I tell people I have three sons and no daughter, they say they are sorry for my misfortune," said Park, 61, a newspaper executive. "Within a generation, I have turned from the luckiest woman possible to a pitiful mother."

In South Korea, once one of Asia's most rigidly patriarchal societies, a centuries-old preference for baby boys over baby girls is fast receding. Demographers have welcomed the shift, which they say holds promise for other Asian countries, like China, India and Vietnam. There a continuing preference for boys, coupled with access to ultrasound technology, has led to the widespread practice of aborting female fetuses, resulting in a large imbalance between boys and girls.

"China and India are closely studying South Korea as a trendsetter in Asia," said Chung Woo Jin, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. "They are curious whether the same social and economic changes can occur in their countries as fast as they did in South Korea's relatively small and densely populated society."

In a study released by the World Bank in October, Chung and Monica Das Gupta, a World Bank researcher, called South Korea "the first Asian country to reverse the trend in rising sex ratios at birth."

Last year, the ratio in South Korea was 107.4 boys born to every 100 girls - still above the normal ratio of 105. But it has declined every year since 2002.

For years in Asia, the sex ratio at birth has been tilting toward boys in a way demographers had never seen before. In China in 2005, the ratio was 120 boys for every 100 girls, according to the UN Population Fund. India logged about 108 boys to 100 girls in 2001, when the last census was taken. Vietnam, with a ratio of 110 boys to 100 girls last year, was further tipping the regional imbalance.

The Population Fund warned in an October report that tinkering with nature's probabilities would lead to increased sexual violence and that the trafficking of women would grow because a growing number of men would not be able find wives or would resort to importing women from poorer regions.

Not long ago, South Korea was where these countries are now. In the early 1990s its sex imbalance was as high as 116.5 boys for every 100 girls. Among mothers who had already borne two or more children, the ratio had soared to 206 boys to 100 girls, according to the Korea National Statistical Office.

In those years, South Korea urged its people to have only two children. Although that policy was never as rigorously enforced as China's one-child directive, the public campaign put pressure on mothers who already had two daughters to abort female fetuses.

The results can be seen today in some rural South Korean towns, where four out of every 10 men marry women from poorer Asian countries, like Vietnam - a trend expected to deepen as those born in the 1990s reach marriageable age. The rural bride shortage was exacerbated by the country's rapid economic growth, which improved women's educational and employment opportunities and led young women to migrate to cities.

Still, bachelors in rural South Korea are better off than the poorest men in poorer Asian countries, who may have no choice but to remain single, experts said.

"They are likely to become the main victims of the new marriage system, which will probably act as a strong destabilizing factor and may translate into class-based tensions," wrote Christophe Guilmoto, a French demographer and the author of the UN Population Fund report, which studied the skewed sex ratios in China, India, Vietnam and Nepal.

In South Korea, sons historically received the inheritance, carried on the family lineage and took care of their parents in old age - and even in the afterlife, it was believed, as they oversaw ceremonies of ancestor worship. Newlywed couples went to live with the husband's family.

"In the old days, when there was no adequate social safety net, Korean parents regarded having a son as kind of making an investment for old age security," Chung said.

In those times, it was common for married Korean men to feel ashamed if they had no sons. Some went so far as to divorce wives who did not bear boys.

But fewer Korean sons live with their parents or support them today. More retirees are living on their savings, not relying on their children. And with women's income on the rise, more of those who do need their children's support can rely on daughters.

Six of 10 South Korean women entered college last year; fewer than one out of 10 did so in 1981. In a survey last year of 5,400 married South Korean women younger than 45, only 10 percent said they felt that they must have a son, the government's Institute for Health and Social Affair reported in early November. In a similar survey in 1991, 40 percent said they must have boys.

The change in the parent-son relationship accelerated in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, said Chun Yong Ju, a professor of family and elderly welfare at Silla University. Men lost jobs, further weakening their ability to support their parents, while women increased their say in the family by bringing in income through part-time jobs.

Meanwhile, feminists won a major victory when Parliament abolished one of the last bastions of male chauvinism in the country: the centuries-old civil code, which, among other things, barred a woman from registering her children under her own name or under her new husband's name after a divorce, even if she were raising them. Legally, she and her children lived together as "roommates."

With women's economic influence rising and the old male-oriented Confucian precepts crumbling, parents now find fewer reasons to prefer sons over daughters.

As Park He Ran's experience shows, they even pity people who have no daughters, experts said.

"Daughters are much better at emotional contact with their parents, visiting them more often, while Korean sons tend to be distant," said Kim Seung Kwon, a demographer at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

Kinda old article but I found it interesting that South Korea have led this kind of change and I just want to share with you all. It's a good sign.

Source: The New York Times
Tags: culture

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