Girls just want to be born

South Korea flips a switch: The son is no longer No. 1.

Published October 24, 2007 8:36PM (EDT)

South Korea, write World Bank researchers Woojin Chung and Monica Das Gupta, is the first Asian country to reverse the discouraging trend of "rising sex ratios at birth" -- by which is meant families taking advantage of new sex-selection technologies (or good old-fashioned female infanticide) to favor boys rather than girls. (Thanks to Ben Muse's Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement blog for the link.)

The trend is all the more noteworthy because until relatively recently, South Korea's authoritarian government did its best to legislate societal adherence to radically Confucian traditional values that emphasized the primacy of the male lineage and the extreme necessity of having sons to care for one's ancestors, both living and dead. In the view of the authors, Korea's example offers promise for other Asian countries, especially India and China, where "son preference" is also rampant and social demographics have become highly skewed.

The combination of traditional values with modern technology such as sonograms has created a nightmare, nowhere more so than in China, for anyone who cares about gender equity. But Chung and Das Gupta show that even in the face of rigid laws and possibly Asia's most extreme manifestation of a male-dominated Confucian social order, the process of development has contributed to the spread of new social norms that have chipped steadily away at the old regime.

The South Korean case throws interesting light on the role of public policy in reducing gender inequalities. On the one hand, its policies of rapid economic development induced a breakdown of pre-industrial social structures, and also raised levels of female education and participation in the formal labor force. On the other hand, successive authoritarian military regimes maintained laws and policies that kept women marginalized in their domestic and public lives, and these were amended only recently as the political environment changed.

South Korea still exhibits the second most male-skewed sex ratio at birth in the world, after China, largely due to the paradox that even as "modern" attitudes undermine cultural predispositions toward male superiority, the advent of new technologies have made ensuring one's heir is male all the easier for those who still prefer the old ways.

The answer to "Why is Son Preference Declining in South Korea?" depends, as is usually the case in questions of developing nation demographics, on rising levels of education and economic independence for women. But, argue the authors, the changes in son preference aren't applicable on an individual basis, as in, for example, a particular woman escapes a rural village, moves to the city, gets a Ph.D. and decides to have just one daughter, regardless of what her conservative in-laws desire. Rather, the process of development contributes to a new consciousness that first coalesces among educated city-dwellers, but then rapidly spreads throughout society as a the new "social norm." Suddenly, parents in both rural and urban areas, educated and uneducated, no longer see boys as the ne plus ultra. Nor are they continuing not to bear daughters in "animal years" in which the traditional calender predicts girls will have qualities that make them bad wives.

The significance for India and China is that one can make the case that Korea's centuries-long history of social engineering elevated the importance of the male lineage to the highest degree of any country in Asia. Then came the military governments of the '60s, '70s and '80s, which attempted to explicitly legislate conformity to that tradition. But modernization still threw off the shackles. In China and India, in contrast, government efforts, by and large, have long been focused on stressing the importance of gender equity, so there may be less of a current to swim against.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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