Are you old enough to remember Gigi? The wonderful Lerner & Loewe musical about an old Parisian roué played by Maurice Chevalier, his nephew Gaston played by the beautifully decadent Louis Jourdan and of course Leslie Carron as Gigi, the courtesan in training.
Why Gigi? Or, more specifically a song from Gigi. Synergy. Reading an op-ed. piece by Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post and another by Jonas Goldberg in the Houston Chronicle, both discussing how women’s rights should be considered part of every developed nation’s foreign policy got me thinking.
Thanks to women like Emmeline Pankhurst in Britain and Alice Paul in the US who helped start the discourse, universal suffrage is almost complete. However in many developing countries there is still a lag in women’s rights. As Hillary Clinton succinctly said in Beijing in 1995, “Women’s rights are human rights”.
The other strand that led me to Gigi was a Skype call to a friend and colleague in Seoul, South Korea. Our conversations can take a meandering route but nearly all verge at some point on cross-cultural understanding. Something we both care about.
A Korean TCK, she is at the forefront of a move within the country, relatively new to an influx of foreigners, to introduce diversity training and cultural awareness, which is of course a two-way street. The sentence that stuck was, “there is a whole new area opening – mail-order brides.”
“Mailing in or mailing out?” I asked.
“Both,” she answered.
I was intrigued. Why was there a dearth of women in Korea? They didn’t have a one-child policy like China. Instead it is an internal mental battle; tradition versus an increasing value being put on women.
With the greater availability of amniocentesis and ultrasound, even though it is illegal in Korea to disclose the sex of a foetus and, except in rare cases, to have a termination, given the chance too many women will choose a male foetus over a female one. It is estimated 1 in 12 female foetuses are aborted. I suppose we should be grateful that with the easier accessibility to gender discovery, female infanticide is decreasing around the world.
In China over twenty million men are paying the price of the 1979 one-child policy. There are just not enough women to go around. The general rule of thumb for sex ratio at birth (SRB) is between 103 to 105 males per 100 females. In 2005 the SRB was 118 boys, reaching to 130 per 100 girls in some rural provinces. In South Korea it is only slightly lower at 116 boys though certain areas have seen numbers as high as 125.
This discrepancy in sex ratio is directly linked to the value placed on a female: sadly still an issue with many women, particularly mother-in-laws, as well as men. Boys are considered, in many countries, to be the better option. Tradition says they have a higher social standing; it is they who carry on the family name; it is often only they who can conduct the last rites for parents. Quoted in an article by Sheryl WuDunn, Kwak Bae-hee from the Korea Legal Aid Center for Familiy Relations, reports, “Say a family has no son and only a daughter, who gets married. Then from the family’s point of view, when the father dies, the family dies with him.”
In countries where bride prices are a way of life and where there is no social security structure, girls become part of the husband’s family and therefore cannot help their own parents in their dotage. The bottom line is that girls are perceived as expensive with no chance of payback.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said at the Women in the World Summit in March this year when discussing the woman’s role in many Middle Eastern countries, “the world needs to continue to speak out against such violence and oppression.” At the same conference in defence of educating girls to ensure politically and economically balanced societies, another former Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice said, “if we empower and educate women it will provide a key to unlocking a lot the other issues.”
Middle Eastern countries may not be importing brides but the respect afforded women is low, and sexual harassment and subjugation high. The shortage of Korean women of marriageable age is driving the men to find brides in Vietnam, China, Thailand and Eastern Europe which brings a slew of issues for them fitting into a still male dominated society based on Confucianism.
Cross-cultural issues arise when mail-order brides are imported from any country to any country. Exacerbated when neither partner knows each other well, or often can even speak each other’s language to a reasonable degree.
I Googled mail order brides. One site alone offered 61,000 women from Asia, which I truly hope is an exaggeration. The sad irony is that some of these desperately seeking ‘the grass is greener’ life in another country, end up in the same situation. Instead of marrying a Chinese boy from the village, they marry a Korean boy from the village. And contrary to what some believe, every Asian country does not have the same values, taboos and customs.
So, why Gigi? Because I think Maurice Chevalier should be translated into 101 languages so all can sing, “Thank Heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way, no matter where, no matter who, and without them what would little boys do?”