Declining birthrates and the resulting graying population are a growing concern in many countries. Each nation has its unique circumstances, but there are some common denominators and some equally common responses, with officials voicing concern over the declining birthrate in economic terms: the loss of potential workers and the resulting burdens — tax-wise and societal — on the current workforce.
Household registration figures show that an average of 1.02 children were born per woman in Taiwan last year, compared with 1.55 per woman in 1999. This is a big drop from the 2.1 children-per-woman figure that is frequently cited as the replacement rate needed to keep a population stable.
Financial concerns and, especially in Taipei, housing costs, are all factors in a woman’s or a couple’s decision to have children and how many.
Of greater concern, but getting less play in the media and from the government, are statistics from the Ministry of the Interior showing that Taiwan has joined the list of nations where gender imbalance should be a major concern. It appears that when given the choice — thanks to modern medical technology such as ultra-sounds and artificial insemination — couples are choosing to have boys.
Officials usually cite UN figures of a ratio of 105 or 106 male births to 100 females as the “natural” ratio. The ministry’s data shows Taiwan stayed within that range between 1955 and 1986, but beginning the following year, the number of male births began to rise until it reached 110.7 to 100 girls in 2004. The Bureau of Health Promotion said last year the ratio was 109 to 100, while one health facility recorded an unbelievable ratio of 178.13 male births per 100 females.
Our sister newspaper, the Liberty Times, cited ministry figures from 2004 showing that couples apparently become more selective the more children they have. The sex ratio for a couple’s first child was 108.7 males to 100 females, 109.4 for the second, 122.6 for the third and 122.8 for the fourth.
This isn’t as bad as China’s gender gap, which the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said in January had reached a ratio of 119 boys for every 100 girls, but we’re getting there.
Cultural bias and economics are the usual reasons given for this preference, but if the sex gap continues to grow, there will be an even bigger problem to deal with than a plummeting birthrate — having a birthrate at all. The ministry has been tasked with combating Taiwan’s declining birthrate. Its latest response, announced this week, was to start organizing matchmaking activities for its own singles. The ministry is also offering a NT$1 million (US$31,148) prize for a slogan that will help convince people to have more children. This comes on the heels of Minister of the Interior Jiang Yi-huah’s (江宜樺) announcement in March that the ministry wanted to destigmatize out-of-wedlock births, saying that both the government and society at large need to be more accepting of “illegitimate” children.
Get-togethers, contests, prizes, social progressiveness — it’s a wonder the ministry didn’t mention the usual bureaucratic palaver: fact-finding forums and opinion surveys.
It will take more than slogans and parties to convince women not only to marry, but also to have more children. It will be even harder to break that predominant desire for boys.
Decades ago, the government achieved success with its “One is not too few; two are just right” population control slogan. Concerned that the birthrate had fallen too low, it modified that slogan to “Two are just right.” It looks like the slogan needs to be modified again to “Girls are best,” or Taiwan will be facing the same bleak future as China, where forced prostitution and human trafficking have become a major problem, especially in rural areas where an entire generation of men is growing up without enough women around for them to marry.
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