Sun, 16 Mar 2003

Vietnam's population grows at slower pace

Sam Taylor, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Hanoi

When Nguyen Thanh Huyen was born in 1978, Vietnam's population was growing at an unsustainable rate of about 2.8 percent per year, and a two-child policy was in place across the country. Huyen's family was an example of good citizenship, following government policy. Her parents, a teacher and a mechanic, had had only two children, and spaced out the births by the recommended five years.

If Huyen' parents had had a third child, they would have faced a range of sanctions from their employers and the local commune in Hai Doung - a town 100 kilometers east of Hanoi.

At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, a post-war baby boom caused Vietnam's population to rocket to unsustainable levels, and the government issued two-child-only directive as early as 1976.

According to the government, the policy was successful in reigning in population growth. In 1989 the average number of children per woman of reproductive age was 3.8. By 1999 the policy of enforcement was so successful that in 1999 it had fallen to 2.3.

The last census in Vietnam revealed that by mid-2000 there were about 78 million people in the second most populous country in Southeast Asia, two million less than government predictions made in 1993.

Today the rate of growth rate of the population is a more manageable 1.2 percent per annum, and the government looks likely to achieve its target of achieving replacement level of population by 2005, according to the population strategy document issued in 2000.

Vietnam quietly dropped the two-child policy in 2000 and Huyen is free to have as many children as she wants, whenever she wants.

"I would like to have three children, and start having them when I am 28," she says. "I think it's a healthy time for women to give birth, and I will still have enough time to find a good job."

Huyen works as an administrator in a Japanese joint venture company and says that most of her friends want only one or two children.

"Big families are not popular because people want to have a good education for their children people want to give their children a good education, and this costs a lot of money," Huyen says.

Now the median age of Vietnam's young population is rising. In 2000 the average age of the population was 23.2 years. By 2010, the government predicts the median age will be 27.1.

But the population is still overwhelmingly young. People between the age of 10 and 24 number around 30 million, which makes up nearly 49 percent of the total population.

In the days of coercive family planning, when limiting the number of children was seen as matter of national security, parents who broke the rules could find themselves out of their government job, ineligible for government assistance and facing fines.

Omar Ertur, the Vietnam representative of the United Nations Population Fund, says that if Vietnam is to maintain its current level of population growth, young people have to be more effectively targeted.

"There is a change in reality of the younger generation, particularly for young people in urban areas," Ertur says. "This generation cannot be made to behave in certain ways through certain Communist Party mechanisms, the party realizes this too."

To prevent another population boom, Vietnam's younger generation needs continued, sustained development, Ertur says.

"The younger generation needs proper access to economic opportunities, proper access to information and services to protect their health," he says.