Celebrate South Korea on International Women's Day

As the first nation to reverse a strong preference for sons over daughters – and the sex-selective abortions that come with it – South Korea deserves praise. Other countries, such as China and India, now have hope of ending this violence against girls.

Yonhap/AP Photo
South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, wearing a traditional dress is greeted by two children at the presidential house after her inauguration Feb. 25. Park is South Korea's first female president.

For this year’s International Women’s Day (March 8), the United Nations selected this theme: “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.”

The folks at the UN should know.

They estimate that more than 100 million girls are “missing” from humanity’s head count because parents have either purposely aborted female fetuses or killed their baby girls over the past four decades.

This combination of female feticide and infanticide – often summed up as “gendercide” – could be the world’s largest and most horrific form of violence in recent history, let alone a type of violence directed at females.

Numbers for gendercide have risen sharply with the introduction of prenatal ultrasound scans and the availability of abortion clinics. It is mainly a big problem in only a dozen or so countries, such as India and China, which still have strong cultural and economic preferences for sons over daughters.

While this year’s theme applies to all violence against women, the UN and other organizations have led a vigorous campaign to curb gendercide. This year they should be celebrating at least one success story.

South Korea, which had the highest ratio of boys to girls only two decades ago as a result of rapid rise in gendercide, has been able to bring its sex-ratio level closer to the world norm (about 105 boys for 100 girls). Polls of Korean women showed a sharp drop in the percentages who strongly prefer sons.

The South Korean story should encourage similar efforts in other countries, such as Vietnam and Azerbaijan, that are fighting this problem. Each country is unique, but South Korea offers a few key lessons.

The first is that women’s attitudes as well as men’s must change about the worth of having a daughter – and of women in general. Such a shift occurs with economic growth, modernization, better education, and laws and incentives that actually work toward achieving gender equality. But the South Korean government also launched a “Love Your Daughter” campaign to convince couples not to abort female fetuses.

It’s unclear, however, on whether one controversial measure – banning doctors from revealing the sex of a fetus to parents – contributed to the shift. The ban was eventually overturned as unconstitutional.

And South Korea’s patriarchal society is still strong, even though voters just elected the first female president (the daughter of an earlier president) and passed laws in 2005 to help end discrimination against women. Women’s pay compared with men’s in South Korea is among the lowest in Asia at 51 percent. The percentage of women on corporate boards is about 2 percent. (The world average is 21 percent.)

Still, what may have changed is that couples now see children in a different way – as having intrinsic worth and not only as an economic necessity. Children are loved more for who they are, not just what they provide parents.

India and China have made similar efforts but with far less success. India has experienced the phenomenon of rising incomes actually leading more couples to abort female fetuses because they have the means for it. “May you be the mother of a hundred sons,” Indian brides are often told at weddings. Economic development, however, eventually creates the conditions for a shift in cultural attitudes as well as a desire for fewer children.

In January, an official report in India on laws related to violence against women offered this advice:

“Until the State pursues a policy of avowed determination to be able to correct a historical imbalance in consciousness against women, it will not be possible for men and indeed women themselves, to view women differently and through the prism of equality.”

Some experts detect signs in China and India that government efforts are helping to curb gendercide. If so, South Korea’s model as the first nation to reverse this trend toward sex-selective abortion deserves to be highlighted. Perhaps that might happen on the next International Women’s Day.

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