Vietnam is hoping to address a fertility rate that has been falling since the 1980s
It is hoping to prevent the economic problems associated with ageing populations
Media professional To Chau, 34, has been thinking about having children with her husband since they bought a home in Saigon two years ago. But she still feels unprepared, “mentally or otherwise”.
A government policy introduced last month, aimed at reversing declining fertility rates by encouraging young Vietnamese to marry by 30 and start having families by 35, has done little to change her mind.
“I find the policy for now seems to be focused on helping and not punishing; it’s not like you will be penalised if you don’t meet the quota of kids,” she said.
Vietnam, population 96 million, has introduced the policy in a bid to address a falling fertility rate and head off the social problems associated with ageing populations.
The country’s birth rate, since it introduced the market-oriented doi moi reforms in the 1980s, has fallen from four children per woman in 1986 to 2.09 today according to the World Bank – just under the rate of 2.1 that is needed to maintain a steady population without resorting to immigration. A contributing factor in this fall, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), has been a government policy implemented in 2004 that encouraged couples to have no more than two children.
Presently, the birth rate differs greatly across the country. In urban areas the rate is 1.83 children per woman, whereas in rural areas the rate is 2.26. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city and economic hub, has a rate of just 1.39, the lowest in the country. Education, in particular, is a factor: women with university degrees have an average of 1.85 children each compared with 2.59 for those who have no formal schooling, according to the 2019 Population and Housing Census.
The latest initiative aims to adjust fertility rates on a local government level, bringing down the birth rate in high-fertility areas and boosting it in low-fertility ones. It has tasked local administrations with introducing incentives, media campaigns and educational programmes to achieve this by 2030.
Among the incentives local governments have been asked to provide immediately are support for couples with two children in buying or renting houses, education subsidies and preferential treatment in competing for places at public schools. Women with two children are also being promised decreased personal income tax as well as support when they return to work after maternity leave, among other benefits.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has also asked local governments to run matchmaking clubs to encourage young people to meet and marry before turning 30.
Trinh Nguyen, a senior economist for Asia at Natixis, a French corporate and investment bank, said Vietnam was seeing slower growth in the population of working age adults, though this was less pronounced than in other Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Japan is the world’s fastest-ageing nation with a fertility rate of around 1.4, South Korea and Singapore were at 0.92 and 1.14 last year.
The Vietnamese economy, which has maintained an annual growth rate of over six per cent in recent years, is considered a frontier market rather than an emerging one, according to MSCI.
“In terms of GDP per capita, Vietnam still trails significantly behind [countries like] Malaysia and needs to continue to grow for sustained periods to catch up,” she said, adding that Vietnam’s ability to leverage cheap labour to compete in global trade and fast growing domestic demand was reaching a limit.
“As a result, you can see the Vietnamese government trying to look ahead by 30 years and prepare for a silvering Vietnam as it worries that Vietnam will become older while still poor.”
Stable population growth could contribute to creating favourable conditions to attract foreign direct investment for sustained economic growth, said Naomi Kitahara, United Nations Population Fund representative in Vietnam.
EARLIER THE BETTER
Nguyen Quang Cuong, a Hanoi father of an eight-year-old daughter, is in favour of the latest initiative. His parents were 42 when he was born and he thinks this is why he had congenital health issues including an eye defect.
The 33-year-old boutique owner said: “My friends and I got married and had two kids before 35. I think the period before this age is very appropriate to raise children and boost one’s financial status to take care of one’s family.”
Another Hanoi resident, Nguyen Quynh Anh, a 26-year-old treasurer for a car company, married her high school sweetheart last year after a seven-year courtship.
“Getting married early allows young people to accumulate skills to build a family, become more disciplined and family-oriented and from there become more responsible with themselves,” she said as she was putting her seven-month infant down for a nap.
Anh’s views reflect public sentiment, according to a report last month by the United Nations Development Programme on Vietnam. The report, which surveyed more than 14,000 men and women in all 63 provinces and municipalities in the country, found 82 per cent of women agreed they needed to have children to feel fulfilled while 72 per cent of men said the same.
Director Ngo Le Phuong Linh of the ICS Centre, an advocacy rights group in Vietnam, is worried about the effect the reproduction trajectory the government wants for Vietnamese young people will have on women’s careers.
“Between 25 and 30 is a viable period for people to develop their career. But if a man has children at around this age, he won’t be as affected by the event as a woman,” she said.
One reason for the decline in fertility across Asia is the lack of gender equality in the average household, experts say, with women expected to work but also raise the household while men focus on their jobs.
In Vietnam, where per capita GDP has improved from 5.1 per cent in 1990 to about 7.02 per cent last year, people are also concerned about ensuring their children have a good quality of life, rather than just the basic necessities older generations grew up with, Dr Le Hoang, Head of Tam Anh IVF Centre in Vietnam said in a 2019 report by The Economist Intelligence Unit.
Activists said the government policy also reflected ongoing discrimination against two groups – unmarried couples and members of the LGBT community.
Dang Huong Giang, a 22-year-old university student in Hanoi who also runs the youth-led Vietnam Organisation for Gender Equality, was not entirely pleased with the policy.
“It concerns the politics of childbirth, where women are expected to continue to reproduce humans for the goal of capital accumulation. Their bodies are no longer theirs but become a community’s property,” she said.
Still, she hopes the initiative will lead local authorities to improve maternity benefits for both men and women and how companies treat working mothers.
Chau, the media professional, said she would be happy to make use of the benefits if they were available to her and her husband. But they would not be a major factor in her decision.
“Right now, my husband wants one kid because he himself is an only child, but I want two because [they] will be better support for each other, especially when we’re old, but we don’t need the government or media to tell us that,” Chau said.
Reporting by Sen Nguyen @ SCMP | Sen Nguyen is a journalist based in Vietnam specialising in development, human rights, and the environment.