New Internationalist

The girls are back in town

October 2013

South Korea was the first to report that its sex balance was getting seriously warped in favour of boys. And the first to do something about it – fast.

Lee JAe-Won/Reuters
As women have become more empowered, more baby girls have been born. Lee JAe-Won/Reuters

Oh-Han is an advocate for women’s rights in South Korea. The 53-year-old recalls the pouches of traditional medicine you could easily get, not so long ago, that were supposed to help you conceive a son or abort a girl.

But all that has changed, she tells journalist Sung So-Young of the Korea JoongAng Daily. Today, ‘a mother of two daughters or more is the envy of every woman,’ she says.

It’s an extraordinary turnaround. In 1990 Korea recorded 116 boys being born for every 100 girls – the most distorted ratio in the world at the time. By 1992 it had risen to 117. But then the trend went into reverse – and fast. By 2000 it was down to 109 boys per 100 girls; and by 2007 it was back to almost normal again.

How did it happen?

Official recognition of a demographic crisis in the making was swiftly followed by public awareness raising. One TV public advertising campaign, for example, focused on a class of 10 to 14-year-olds and pointed out how many of the boys would be left without a female partner when they grew up. There was also a strengthening of laws. Doctors and other medical professionals found out helping parents to select the sex of their child were given stiff penalties.

Between 1963 and 1990, the number of women in the workforce increased 14-fold

But the wider picture was changing too. Industrialization and urbanization had weakened the hold of a rural life dominated by Confucian beliefs and patriarchal inheritance structures that made it necessary for parents to bear a son. As women got jobs in factories in towns and cities, their earning power increased. There were also marked improvements in girls’ education.

A number of measures were taken to tackle sexism at work and in the home. These included laws on more equal employment (including affirmative action) and on sexual violence. The patriarchal Family Head system was finally abolished in 2005.

The fact that Korean family size shrank dramatically (from 6.6 children in 1960 to 1.6 in 1990) is a factor that seems to cut both ways. Initially, it favoured boys, but then it allowed a faster return to balance.

Rising living standards and better social provision have made an important difference. ‘People these days don’t expect their children to feed them when they get old,’ comments Oh-Han. ‘What they want from their children is not a bowl of rice, but tender loving care.’

This is now translating into a preference for girls.

Advice on how to conceive a girl is keenly sought on social media sites. ‘I asked all my friends who have girls,’ says Lee Eun-jeong. ‘They all said they made love at dawn.’

Is the Korean model exportable to China or India? Demographers have their doubts. The size and orderliness of South Korea is cited as a factor that made speedy rebalancing easier.

Taiwan, however, appears to be following the Korean path. In 2003 the country had the third most skewed sex ratio at birth in the world – by 2012 it was 15th. This was achieved through banning medically unnecessary sex selection and enacting laws to promote gender equality. There is co-operation within health and hospital departments and 89 per cent of new mothers surveyed said they supported the ban on sex-screening.

Sources: Sung So-Young, ‘After a long preference for sons, it’s a girl generation’, Korea JoongAng Daily, 21 November 2012, nin.tl/18lJmNq

Nicole Christine Frazer, ‘Gendercide Undone: Evaluating the causes of South Korea’s Return to Normal Sex ratios’, The Red Sea, September 2012. nin.tl/1dABe1T

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Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 466 This feature was published in the October 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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