by Trung Hieu - Tuyet Thanh
Nguyen Huu Thanh is part of a social revolution. Like many other parents in Viet Nam, he and his wife have only given birth to daughters. What sets them apart from more traditional couples is that they don't despair the absence of a son in their family.
Thankfully, Thanh and his wife are not alone. They are part of a growing club of parents taking pride in their daughters and challenging primitive social attitudes that value boys over girls.
"I did not feel upset about not having a son,"he says. "I have two daughters and I am very proud. Being a parent in itself is the most amazing thing and I feel very lucky."
The club, titled "Women Having Daughters and Good Parenting", is growing fast, showing an increasing change in attitudes towards having girls. However, in spite of this, the club's founders in HCM City are concerned they are battling centuries-old and culturally entrenched gender bias.
Experts believe that traditional attitudes have led to a strong trend of social bullying. According to a study by the General Department of Population and Family Planning on factors relating to the decision of why couples pursue a third child in the hope of having a son, 36.2 per cent of men who fathered only daughters said they had been ridiculed and ostracised.
Findings also showed child-related insults imposed significant psychological pressure on women only birthing daughters. Common insults included "she doesn't know how to produce a boy" or "your husbands will be bored because your family has no boys." Men were also seen to be subjected to criticisms, mocked as "bad seeds" or a "bubble man".
The complexity of views on this subject have posed significant challenges for policymakers.
To address the problem, authorities recently issued a draft decree to fine individuals insulting or offending parents only giving birth to one gender. Individuals can face fines between VND500,000-1 million (about US$23-46).
While this seemed like a step in the right direction, many experts have questioned the practicality of these regulations.
Associate Professor and Doctor of ethnography Nguyen Van Tiep, who heads the Faculty of Anthropology at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, thinks more needs to be done to change attitudes.
"We need to educate people and raise awareness to breed better attitudes, rather than just give fines that can't really be implemented."
A recent proposal for an allowance to be paid to families having only daughters also elicited mixed reactions from the public.
"Social pressures have perpetuated a kind of male chauvinism in families and society. The policy of giving money to families giving birth to daughters merely highlights the inequality faced by people who have girls," said Nguyen Thanh Hao from Gia Lam District.
Nguyen Van Thang, a father in Thuong Tin District on the outskirt of Ha Noi, said it was unlikely people receiving the allowance would stop feeling 'inferior' because of their children.
"If you don't have a son, you will still have a less important status in the village. If you sit with other fathers at a party, you will be laughed at," he said.
Deputy director of the Ministry of Labour's Department of Children Protection, Nguyen Trong An, also argues the measure "wouldn't reduce the gender imbalance at birth and would be a waste of the State budget."
The Government has also attempted to lead by example by dismissing public employees who try to have a third child merely to birth a son. However, many believe this has been a fruitless measure to stop people determined to have boys.
"Many people are ready to ignore official titles and fame to try to give birth to a son. A sum of a few million dong will never change their minds," said one official.
Despite the vast range of policy efforts deployed by the Government, legal expert Tran Dinh Trien argues the measures fail to address an important obstacle - a culturally entrenched social preference for male children.
"Men and women are equal," he said. "Every couple should have one or two children, whether they are girl or boy. But Vietnamese traditions still highly value men over women to maintain the male lineage."
"Many Vietnamese people still think of sons as precious asset, which is quite chauvinistic", he added.
Others believe the imbalance traces back to the country's agricultural roots. Nguyen Van Tuan from Cat Linh Street argues the preference for male children has been entrenched over centuries.
"Being an agricultural country, families needed strong labour to do farm work, and of course having sons was an advantage in this area", he said.
"Also, because some Vietnamese have a habit of 'overriding' others, the families with many sons often overwhelm families with daughters. This distinction is emphasized more at social occasions in the countryside to assert male dominance," he added.
Tuan argues this mentality has created a "backward ideology that has existed for so long. Those are often the people saying we should have sons to maintain the family lineage."
Tuan holds that social policy is both important and necessary to change the centuries-old attitudes of a significant part of Vietnamese society.
Pham Ngoc Lan agrees, saying: "Seeking sons only to maintain family lineage is simply a plea from husbands who are 'women chasers'."
Experts also assert that social education needs to be reinforced with strict laws to create gender-neutral attitudes to having children.
While traditional attitudes persist, social commentators are optimistic that time is on their side and that eventually gender-equal attitudes to child birth will become more dominant.
For Thanh, the future is still bright for him and his daughters. As time will tell, his club is playing an important role in promoting gender equality. — VNS