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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.