By promoting a radical shift in women's roles within the family unit that allows daughters to perform ‘masculine' duties, Vietnam may be able to reverse the country's imbalanced gender ratio.

Participants from across the country discussed this measure at a recent workshop on Sharing Visions to Adress Vietnam's Imbalanced Gender Ratio in Hoa Binh.

The gap in the ratio between boys and girls born in Vietnam began to widen in 2006. The 2009 Census on Population and Housing reported that there were 110.6 boys born per 100 girls born last year.

Head of the General Office For Population and Family Planning Duong Quoc Trong said the desire to have a son is influenced by centuries-old beliefs that males provide additional stability for families. A survey conducted by the Research Institute for Social Development that was published this year also reported that couples favour male children because boys are given the important task of carrying on the family name and caring for the family.

Bac Lieu Province 's Department of Health deputy director Chau Tuyet Ngoc said the motivation to have sons differs from the North to the South. "In the South, parents are more likely to prefer to have both sons and daughters than parents in the North are."

Participants at the conference discussed how new technology allows couples to determine the gender of their child earlier, and to what extent this technology has affected the nation's gender imbalance.

Trong said gender-selective abortions were only a small part of the big picture.

He said traditionally couples had also sought to engineer the sex of their child by ingesting traditional medicine, following a special diet or selecting a specific time for conception.

Participants said that in several provinces where people had limited access to ultrasounds and abortion clinics, the gender ratio imbalances at birth were still high.

Khuat Thu Hong, head of Research Institute for Social Development, said although the Population Ordinance in 2004 banned doctors from revealing the sex of a foetus before birth, many doctors ignore the rule.

"Patients and doctors often form close relationships during the nine-month pregnancy, which at times makes it nearly impossible for doctors to refuse to inform the parents about the foetus's sex," said Hong.

"And actually revealing this information is very easy, some doctors just use gestures."

Trong said officials were lax on enforcing the law. Only two clinics have been closed after investigative reporting uncovered that doctors were informing parents about the gender of their foetus.

Most pregnant women at health clinics that were surveyed knew their foetus' gender, said the office's deputy inspector Nguyen Dinh Bach.

United Nations Fund for Population Activities officer Pham Nguyen Bang said the demand to know the gender of one's child in advance is rational, normal and humane. It was the utilisation of that piece of information to eliminate a female foetuses that was illegal.

"It is time to intervene in gender-selective abortion, however, it is not easy to distinguish between a gender-selective abortion and family planning," he said.

Bang said as long as abortion is used as a tool for family planning, it will be difficult to combat gender-selective abortions.

Hong said the Republic of Korea (RoK)'s experience should serve as an example to other Asian countries. The RoK was the first of several Asian countries to deal with large gender imbalances at birth. The country effectively reversed the trend by implementing economic policies that opened the doors to women into the work place. It also introduced a series of policies that established equal rights for men and women. These measures effectively empowered women and reduced the country's gender imbalance./.