The girls are back

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The girls are back

South Korea was the first country to report that its sex balance had changed a lot – far more boys. And they were the first country to do something about it – fast.


When women feel they have more power, more baby girls are born. (Lee JAe-Won/Reuters)

Oh-Han (53 years old) fights for women’s rights in South Korea. She talks about the little bags of traditional medicine you could buy, not long ago, to help you get pregnant with a boy, or stop the pregnancy with a girl baby.

But all that has changed, she tells journalist Sung So-Young of the Korea JoongAng Daily. Today, ‘all women are jealous of women who have two daughters or more’ she says.

It’s an amazing change. In 1990 in Korea, there were 116 boys born for every 100 girls – the biggest difference in the world at the time. In 1992 the number of boys was 117. But then the difference started to get smaller, quickly. In 2000 it was 109 boys per 100 girls; and in 2007 it was back to almost normal.

How did it happen?

First, the possible demographic crisis was recognised officially. Then they quickly made the public aware of this. One TV public advertising campaign, for example, showed a class of 10 to 14-year-olds and said how many of the boys would not have a female partner when they grew up. There were also stricter laws. When they found doctors and other medical professionals helping parents to select the sex of their child, they punished them.

More women were working. In 1990, there were 14 times more women working than in 1963.

And the general situation was changing too. Industrialization and urbanization had made rural life less important. In rural life, Confucian beliefs and male inheritance made it necessary for parents to have a son. When women got jobs in factories in towns and cities, they earned more money. Girls’ education improved.

People tried to change sexism at work and in the home. They brought in laws on more equal employment (including affirmative action) and on sexual violence. The system of a male Family Head was finally ended in 2005.


The size of a Korean family went down a lot (from 6.6 children in 1960 to 1.6 in 1990). At first, this meant that more boys were born, then it helped to bring back the balance.

Living standards and social provision have improved – this made an important difference. ‘Now, people don’t expect their children to feed them when they get old,’ says Oh-Han. ‘They want their children to love them when they are old, not give them a bowl of rice.’

This now means people prefer girls.

People look on social media site for advice on how to get pregnant with a girl. ‘I asked all my friends who have girls,’ says Lee Eun-jeong. ‘They all said they made love early in the morning.’

Is it possible to bring this Korean model to China or India? Maybe not. South Korea is small and organised – this made it easier to bring back the balance.

But it appears that Taiwan is following the example of Korea. In 2003 the country had the third most unbalanced sex ratio at birth in the world – but by 2012 it was 15th. They achieved this by making it illegal to select for the sex of babies (if not medically necessary). And they brought in laws to help gender equality. The health and hospital departments are working together on this. 89 per cent of new mothers said they agreed with the ban on sex-screening.

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