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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2586

Asia's Falling Fertility Rates Threaten Baby Bust

By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

United Nations, 14 April, (IPS): A sharp drop in fertility rates in Japan, South Korea, China and Singapore is threatening a "baby bust", leaving most maternity wards in Asia in a state of near-emptiness.

"The good news is many Asians are living longer," says the Honolulu-based East-West Centre (EWC), but the bad news is "there are fewer 'new Asians' coming onto the scene."

Andrew Mason, senior fellow at the EWC, says Singapore has reached 1.2 births per woman, while South Korea has the world's lowest fertility rate, at slightly less than 1.1 births per woman.

China, which still has a one-child policy, "may not be far behind, already boasting an anemic birth rate of 1.6 (1.8 according to Chinese government figures)," says Mason, who is also a professor of economics at the University of Hawaii.

He points out that China will soon experience rapid aging and "just how rapid is unknown and will depend in part on how quickly China moves to relax the one-child policy."

Since the early 1990s, Japan has been trying, rather unsuccessfully, to encourage both early marriages and bigger families.

Currently, Asia has a population of about 3.7 billion people, with the rest of the world at 2.9 billion, totaling 6.6 billion worldwide.

Minja Kim Choe, a gender expert at EWC, says that "women in modern Korea, who have a high level of education and therefore have the potential for economic independence, have developed non-traditional views of marriage" and child-bearing.

She says that recent studies have found that an increasing proportion of Korean men and women view marriage as "not necessary for a full and satisfying life."

As a result of the falling fertility rates, the South Korean government is providing improved maternity leave, child care subsidies and "baby bonuses".

Addressing the weeklong meeting of the U.N. Commission on Population and Development, which concluded Friday, China's vice-minister of national population Jian Fan said his country's family planning programme had made "remarkable accomplishments".

With a decline in the total fertility rate -- from 5.8 births per woman in 1970 to 1.8 at present -- there were over 400 million fewer births nationwide.

"At the beginning of the 21st century," he said, "China was already on the list of countries that featured a low fertility rate, low population growth, and high life expectancy."

Linking the demographic transition to rapid economic development, he pointed out that China had been keeping its average economic growth at 9.6 percent per annum, and increased its economic aggregates by 11 percent.

He also said that China's population issues remained a significant constraint on the country's attempt to achieve coordinated, sustainable development.

"The government would, among other things, prioritize investment in human development, and promote the transformation of China from a populous country to a country competitive in human capital," Fan said.

The International Conference on Population and Development, which took place in Cairo in 1994, laid out a comprehensive agenda, including improving primary health care delivery systems, child survival, empowerment of women and family planning.

Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), says that as recommended by the Cairo programme of action, family-friendly policies, such as maternity/paternity leaves, childcare programmes and flexible working arrangements, create conditions for individuals and couples to have the family sizes they desire.

"Based on the free decisions of men and women, the policies make it easier for couples to have the number of children they want without being forced to forgo having babies simply because they lack childcare or because the mother cannot combine parenthood and career easily," Obaid told IPS.

Just last year, she said, member countries of the Council of Europe decided to adapt such policies to their own situations to address fertility decline.

"We may learn from their experiences. Long-range policies, such as investing in the economic conditions of young people and women, reducing the cost of children's education and providing health care, have been seen to have an effect on reversing falling birth rates where couples desire to have a child or additional ones," Obaid noted.

She pointed out that gender equality should be encouraged in all social and economic institutions as part of long-term policies.

Addressing low fertility would also require concerted efforts from many actors, Obaid added.

These may include governments and employers and, more importantly, local communities, peer groups, the media, non-governmental and faith-based organizations.

She said that international migration is often mentioned as a way of addressing population decline issues, especially those related to the labor force. A number of countries have already opted for this either by choice or necessity.

UNFPA calls for a more humane and orderly migration system that protects the human rights of migrants, with particular attention to women and youth.

"If well-managed, migration can be win-win for both countries of origin and host countries," she declared.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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