2016 ivoh fellow Heidi Shin on why South Korean families are hoping to conceive girls
A pregnant woman in the obstetrics and gynecology ward at Severance Hospital in Seoul, Korea. Credit: Heidi Shin/PRI
By Heidi Shin
Heidi Shin is a 2016 ivoh Restorative Narrative fellow and an independent journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in places such as National Geographic Television & Film, PRI’s “The World” and PBS’ “To the Contrary.” Follow Heidi at: @byheidishin.
In South Korea, there’s a new saying: “To have two daughters wins you a gold medal.” But this wasn’t the case a single generation ago, when couples would go to great lengths to conceive a son. A country’s reverence for boys has turned into a slight preference for girls.
My Korean aunt, who is nearly 80, remembers the day she gave birth to her fourth daughter. “I cried so much, I almost fainted,” she says. “I couldn’t believe I had another daughter. Four daughters.”
She continues, “I had to keep having children, because I thought I needed a son. It’s the only reason I have four kids. Not because I wanted four kids.” There was immense pressure from her own mother, my grandmother, to give birth to an heir to the family.
Traditionally, Korea has been a Confucian society, which meant that sons inherited most of the property and carried on the family name. So in my aunt’s generation, there are plenty of families with multiple daughters, and then finally a son.
But when ultrasound technology was introduced to South Korea in the late 1980s, suddenly far fewer girls were born.
“So many people aborted babies back then,” my aunt says. “A few months in, when they could tell it was a girl, they’d get an abortion.”
In the 1990s, there were 116 boys born for every 100 girls in South Korea. Gender imbalances at birth have also existed in other Asian countries like China and India. According to some estimates, there would have been 112 million more girls on the continent of Asia, had gender selective abortion and infanticide not existed.
In South Korea, the consequences were seen years later when the surviving boys grew up. There weren’t enough women to marry in rural Korea — due to selected abortions and young, educated women moving to the big cities — so men turned to foreign mail order brides.
Now fast-forward 25 years to a new generation of parents, and many young Korean couples would prefer daughters. My cousin Seoyoung, who is a young mom, shares a new Korean saying with me: “There’s really no use in having a son, because they just grow up to leave you, to take care of their wives.”
In the past in Korean society, a son was required to carry out your family’s ancestor worship. It’s a set of elaborate Buddhist rituals in which the eldest son offers sacrificial foods to the family’s deceased ancestors. Only men could make the offerings, while the women were required to prepare the food, often for days in advance.
But as Koreans are holding less tightly to Buddhist traditions — many have converted to Christianity — and people living longer, they’re less concerned about being honored after death, and more concerned about being cared for while alive. As it turns out they say daughters are better for this than sons.
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