Thursday, December 15, 2011

Abortion and the Gender Gap in Taiwan

So apparently, along with having the lowest birthrate in the world, Taiwan also has one of the most serious gender disparities. I have to say that while I’d heard of this before, it never ceases to surprise and amaze me, considering how much better a place Taiwan is if youare a woman, compared to basically every other Asian country. The greater respect for women here, when you hold it up against other countries where I’ve lived (ahem CHINA, and in a somewhat different way, but still virulent and serious, India), is one of the reasons that I chose to stick around. That’s not even mentioning others that I’ve visited - including Japan and Korea.

I’ve been mulling over this article forawhile, trying to come up with some useful, non-obvious comments and observations. I think, though, that it was said best by two people in a Facebook status update (keeping it anonymous because I'd be annoyed if a status update meant for my friends ended up on a blog) when the topic came up: policing abortion clinics and trying to stop sex-selective abortion from happening at the clinic level is not the answer. Taking awaywomen’s freedom of reproductive choice – an important freedom, as much as anti-abortion activists would like to pretend it isn’t, or that it is not deserved – even for something as abhorrent as sex-selective abortion, does not really fix anything. All it does is use sexism in the name of battling sexism. All it does is try to control the result without trying to work on problems at the source.

The thing that needs to change is not the government meddling in women’s reproductive freedom - it needs to start far earlier and more comprehensively than that, through education and awareness programs aimed at ending ingrained sexism and anti-daughter sentiment in Taiwanese culture. While I still maintain that women enjoy better equality here than those in other Asian countries, not even I can deny the specter of deeply embedded sexism coming out in this most unfortunate of ways (and others – but this is the topic at hand).

I do think this ties into what I said before about how it’s more common to cave to one’s in-laws’ desires in Taiwan, whereas back home generally that wouldn’t happen, or at least not to such a degree.  I have mentioned a student of mine a few times now who is trying to get pregnant despite not really knowing if she wants a child (and leaning towards not), because her mother-in-law expects it. She hopes that first baby is a boy – despite personally feeling that any gender is fine and maybe even leaning slightly towards having a girl – because if she has a daughter, her mother-in-law will expect her to try again, for a boy. And she will. Which I really can’t wrap my head around – she truly believes that if this is the case, her only option is to just do it, because it’s preferable to the misery of an unhappy mother-in-law.

Can I just say that this has made me even more grateful to have awesome in-laws who don’t pull this crap?

If a strong, successful woman like my student can find herself making decisions based on somebody else’s expectations for a grandson, it’s not such a leap to come to the conclusion that some of these sex-selective abortions are done under family pressure to have a son: maybe the pressure isn’t always direct, but rather than listen to whining in-laws or being expected to try again, a couple decides it’s the best choice (which, I’m sorry to get all objectivist and moral hard-ass, but it’s not. It’s just not. No. Wrong). And, of course, there are certainly cases of direct pressure.

As things change – as the younger generation starts to become parents and their children start marrying – I do think that this will become less of an issue. My experience in Taiwan has been that the older folks still seem to hold to tired, clichéd and dated ideas about gender preference (at least some of them do – by no means do all of them hold such beliefs) but those who are raising kids now and might eventually be grandparents don’t feel the same way. My impression is that this generation isa pivotal one, rather like my parents’ generation shook the ground and toppled many gender-based assumptions in the USA.

Of course, parental and in-law meddling is just one of the issues – I chose to highlight it because I brought it up in a recent post, so it was worth touching on again. Obviously, plenty of women and couples choose abortion for gender selection without their parents’ or in-laws’ input.

What really needs to happen is that society as a whole will have to start realizing that a daughter is as good as a son, can succeed as well as a son, is as valuable and lovable as a son, and that a son is not necessary – that those dated beliefs have no place and no use in the modern world, where there aren’t such strict gender roles and a daughter can do everything a son can do. Education is the only way this can happen – that or just plain suffering from the result of a million bad decisions by a million individuals, and a sudden dearth of available women. I know that typically, foreign brides (often from Vietnam or China) are thought to fill this gap, but  if the gap becomes too big, that won’t be a workable solution for everyone – and yes, I have my own opinions on this type of foreign brides (the mail-order, “I don’t even know you but I want a wife” type), but that’s for another post. Maybe then, and with the next generation thinking differently, things will start to change.

And not soon enough.


cj said...

Hi Jenna, thank you again for incisive comments on gender issues in Taiwan. I can't tell you how grateful one feels (as a Tw woman) to hear others articulate one's own long-standing but inchoate frustrations. Despite things getting so much better over the past decades, I agree, change is still too slow! But one is hopeful for the future. I think there is a large population of those of us who came of age galvanized by democratization and popular reform movements who are biding our time (many studying abroad) until we can make Tw all that we want it to be. In the meanwhile, it is so helpful to be able to read such thoughtful commentaries, to remind us of just how much important work still needs to be done.

PS. I think/hope I just added you on G+; would love to be able to carry on discussion at greater length. Shall be back in Tw briefly for the elections, and would be thrilled to treat you to coffee sometime, thank you in person, etc.

Catherine Shu said...

I think people who are that obsessed with having a son or grandson really need to ask themselves what they expect that child to do for them. For one thing, counting on your kid to be able to take care of you in a few decades is completely unrealistic because of socioeconomic changes. People who want a boy just so they can brag about having a boy should rethink seeing their children as status symbols. I know some people want boys because of whatever preconceived notions they have about sons being easier to take care of or whatever -- those people need to reevaluate their attitudes toward gender roles.

I mean, seriously, I find it shocking how mindlessly people have a preference for boys. It's like they are completely mesmerized by outmoded cultural expectations.

My parents raised my brother and me in a pretty egalitarian household. They weren't all "rah rah rah, girl power," but they did bring both of us up with the idea that it was our responsibility to have good manners, work hard and do our best in whatever field we pursued. I mentioned on FB that they weren't raised in particularly progressive households. I would argue that their families had pretty typical values for 1950s/1960s Taiwan. Everyone, however, was encouraged to pursue a career. I have a paternal aunt who is a doctor and when my Mom studied architecture, she was one of only a couple female students in her class. As a result, it's really, really hard for me to understand why people are soooooo attached to having a boy. What's wrong with just wishing for a healthy baby who grows up to be a happy, caring, decent person?

I agree with you that Taiwanese people who are coming of age now are going to be a pivotal generation. For all the talk about them being the "strawberry generation," I feel that a lot of them understand how important their role in Taiwan's history and culture is, and they take it very seriously. They know what a unique position they are in: the first generation schooled after martial law was lifted, the first to grow up in a democracy, the first to enjoy the benefits of Taiwan's economic growth for their entire lives. They have the ability to define what being Taiwanese means instead of having it defined for them. I hope -- and believe -- that views about gender will improve rapidly in the next decade or so.

Anonymous said...

I just read this disturbing article that said for every pregnancy leading to a Taiwanese woman giving birth, a remarkable three are estimated by a Taiwan pediatrician to have been aborted.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I'd like to see a cite for that. I don't swallow statistics like that without a credible source.