Put an end to this gender imbalance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 March, 2010, 12:00am

As we report today, mainland men are increasingly making the trek to Vietnam in search of wives. It's a journey that their Taiwanese, Japanese and South Korean counterparts have long made. Stereotypes have traditionally driven such trips - the hunt for a bride who is young, pretty, housewifely and obedient.

This is also partly true for the new quest south, but there is also a crucially different element at play: China's growing gender imbalance. It seems that in the absence of a concerted government effort to address the issue, husbands-to-be are finding their own solution. Stereotypes can be dangerous. While they contain a degree of truth, they also lead to prejudice and misunderstandings. Some husbands are bound to be surprised when they find out that their new wives are little different from young women elsewhere in Asia. But that is an issue cross-border couples have grappled with for ages; what is new is the impetus from the skewed gender balance on the mainland.

The traditional preference for boys, the one-child policy and medical technology are to blame. A recent Chinese Academy of Social Sciences report said there were 119 males for every 100 females among China's 1.3 billion people - well above the UN's recommended upper limit of 107. In some provinces, the number is greater than 130. The problem is especially acute in rural areas, where men are perceived as the social and economic backbone. More than 24 million men could find themselves without spouses in 2020. This is likely to cause discontent and unrest, social problems and potential trafficking in girls and women.

Authorities have banned the use of ultrasound scanners to check the gender of babies, and outlawed abortions. But such measures are having little effect, undercut by lax enforcement. The government, too, needs to give women a more valued place in society - they remain a small proportion of the legislature and do not feature among the top leadership. Men are continued to be seen by families and companies as more valuable.

Encouraging couples to have girls will take great government resolve. It has to ensure equality of the sexes. It may even require a baby bonus - say a subsidy and incentives for each new-born girl. Match-making trips to other countries are a short-term solution; they will not reverse a damaging trend.