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Korea in Trouble with Gender Imbalance

November 1997

Seoul "One son is worth ten daughters,' exclaimed the exultant south Korean mother of a newborn boy. , it's a harsh assessment, but one often heard. in male-dominated Asian societies. In South, Korea, however, the preference for boys has taken adisturbing turn.

There are at least 113 men for every 100 women in Korea, one of the highest gender imbalances in the world which, according to sociologists has profound social implications.

A shortage of wives perhaps is the most obvious of these, but more alarming is the willingness of many Korean women to abort femnale fetuses in pursuit of a son. 'People don't realise that it's a serious problem said Professor Cho Hyoung of Ewha Women's University.

About 30,000 female fetuses each year or one in every 12 girl births after tests to confirm their gender. The high rate of abortion is partially explained by the aborting of female foetuses,' Professor Cho says in her paper. She notes that in a national survey in 1991, nearly one-third of respondents approved pf abortion,of female foetuses. The abortion rate is extremely high in Korea. One survey says that half of women aged between 15 and 44 have had abortions, a rate- that has stayed steady since the late 1970s. Abortion was widely used during South Korea's successful 35-year population control programme, and it seern's to remain so despite being. illegal in most cases. "Many people do not feel guilty about abortion" explains Dr. Byun Wha-soon of the Government-run Korean Women's Development Institute. "They think the unborn baby is not a human being." Abortions are a major factor behind the sex imbalance, particularly among third and, fourth-bom children where there are more than 200 boys for every 100 girls. Most women pray for their first born to be a boy, consuming such bizarre folk medicines as raw rooker's testicles and holding religious services to boost their chances. They become increasingly desperate if they produce orly girls, leading to more sex-tests and abortions. "When I felt that the foetus was a girl, I aborted my pregnancy,' said one woman interviewed for a recent paper in the Asia Journal of Women's Studies published by Ewha Women's University. "I almost decided to abort my third pregnancy because my dreams and the shape of my belly told [me] it was a girl." In 1990 ,doctors were banned from telling parents the sex of their unborn childafter ultra-sound tests or amniocentesis. The Government's aggressive campaign to convince to convince Koreans that a well-raised daughter is worth ten sons has seen the imbalance dip since 1990 But, despite new moves to- revoke the licences of offending doctors, a high number still take money to tell parents their child',s sex, and the practice is almost impossible for the authorities to trace. for the rural men have difficulties getang a bride," Professor Cho says. "That will be worsened for rural men and also among lower- class working men in the city." In recent years ethnic Korean women from China have been imported by marriage agencies for rural men unable to find wives. The match often ends badly as many of the women are already married and agree to the match solely to support their families back home. Dr Byun of the Korean Women's Development Institute warns of an increase in sex crimes committed by men without partners. "It is possible they may violate a girl child," she says. "Nowadays the age of the girl children subject to sexual abuse is getting lower. The problem of sexual violence is high anyway and many people think it is due to the sex imbalance." The signs are encouraging that the imbalance will gradually correct itself, but its consequences will linger for - years as the pressure on women to bear sons is still immense. Although modem Korean women prefer fewer children, some will still conceive into their forties if it means bearing a son. Some women cry tears of shame in the maternity ward after bearing a girl. "They are very much obsessed," says Professor Cho. The so-called "son-preference"' is rooted in South Korea's Confucian philosophy, which stresses the role of the son in carrying on the family's bloodline, and in various ancestral rituals. Bearing a son is regarded as a woman's most important role. Girls are secondary since they become part of their husband's family after marriage. But these traditions have been modified to suit South Korea's embrace of capitalism. It is a chauvinistic society where women have little prospect of a well-paid job. Boys, simply, are a better bet for parents wanting financial support in their dotage. "Boys are seen, as a guarantee against economic upheaval,' says Professor Cho. But she points out that South Korea's modernisation is slowly changing the attitudes of some young women: "Many young women don't want to live like their mothers."

The Slave Trade in Women and Children

November 1997

BANGKOK Beneath Asia's economic miracle lies a darker side - the growing menace of trafficking in women and children, exploited for their labour, abused by their pursuit of better lives. From Bangladesh to India and Nepal, across to southern China's borders with Vietnam and Laos, and to the factories and brothels of Cambodia and Thailand, the traffickers shadows are cast. The Mekong sub-region has, become a focal point for one of the most heinous crimes against ,humanity: the trafficking in -women and. children," says a Chulalongkorh University professor, Vitit Muntarbhom. 'This contemporary form of slavery has increased markedly in the past few years and is growing alarmingly," Professor Vitit told a conferencejn Bangkok on trafficking in women and children. He said that as well as women, children - girls and boys - are potential victims, used for sex, labour, begging, false marriages, adoptions and use as agents of crime. Now with the economic downturn in many countries of the region, "there is a fear of more opportunities for exploitation via the sex trade.' In northern Vietnam, women are taken to China as "brides" to flnd themselves threatened with violence ending in brothels. Girls from China's Yunnan province travel through Burma to Thailand, destined for brothels in Bangkok, their promises of well- paid waitressing work gone.