Legend Begets Abortion in the Year of the Tiger

Seng Sok Ly says she is not normally superstitious.

But when she discovered she was pregnant and realized the baby would be born during the Year of the Tiger, the housewife and mother of one decided to end her pregnancy.

“I don’t want to have a baby in the Year of the Tiger,” said 25-year-old Seng Sok Ly, smiling shyly, as she explained her decision to a midwife at a Phnom Penh clinic earlier this month.

Abortion is a common practice in Cambodia, where birth control and birth spacing have only re­cently been introduced. The normal reasons for abortions in Cambodia are economic.

But some health workers and officials acknowledge that superstitions about the Year of the Tiger—in a country where turtles, cows and even babies born with skin lesions take on mythical proportions—are having an impact as well.

For Seng Sok Ly, her concerns began when she was about four weeks pregnant, and relatives began to comment about expectations for a child born in the Year of the Tiger.

“If the baby is born as a girl, that baby will grow up and will not have a good future compared with babies born in other years,” Seng Sok Ly recalled her relatives in Kandal province telling her. “I do not want to have a baby now.”

Beliefs vary on the meaning of the Year of the Tiger, which be­gan April 14. Some mothers-to-be said they believed that boys are more likely to be wild, women will have difficulty finding husbands, and men who marry wo­men born in the Year of the Tiger are more apt to di­vorce or die ear­ly.

According to Mohanangkran Chnam Khal, a government-published book about the Year of the Tiger, “Those born will have poor relationships with others. They will be appreciated in front of others but will be scorned behind their backs.” The book recommends they become public officials.

Seng Pov, 34, also decided this month to abort her baby. As she waited at a clinic near Tuol Tom Pong market, the mother of five said she was too tired to raise another child. But she also said she believes children born in the Year of the Tiger will have difficult lives.

“Past generations teach that no one will want to marry a girl born in the Tiger Year,” she said.

Until last year, abortion was not a legal option for women who did not want to carry a baby to term. Under the State of Cambodia, there was no law on abortion ex­cept a Health Ministry directive that a woman could only seek one to save her life. As a result, say health officials, many women ended their pregnancies in illegal clinics run by someone unqualified to perform the procedure.

According to the Health Min­istry in 1997, about 150 women out of 100,000 died as a result of back-alley abortions.

A law which the Assembly passed in October, hoping to re­ducing the rate of maternal mortality, allows abortions in hospitals and authorized clinics within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

UN Population Fund Country Representative Hedi Jemai said he believes there has been a drop in illegal abortions since the law took effect.

He added, however, that abortion is widespread and said poverty and the lack of information about birth spacing contributes to the high rate.

But some Cambodian medical officials also acknowledged the role played by superstitions surrounding the Year of the Tiger.

Municipal Health Director Veng Thai said he believes abortions have increased this year, al­though he has only anecdotal evidence. “There are many reasons wo­men have abortions, and usually the reasons are economic,” he said. “This year, though, there seems to be one more reason.”

At the Maternal and Child Health Center, most of the 20 to 30 women who come to the hospital for abortions every month do so for economic reasons, said Dr Ouk Sovana, a physician at the center. She added, however, that she has heard women talking about the superstitions surrounding children born in the Year of the Tiger, which comes every 12 years.

How far back the belief dates is up for debate.

Ong Vuthy, assistant coordinator of the Dhammayietra Center, said it has come up only recently, with increased access to technology and medical care.

(Ad­­­ditional reporting by Debra Boyce)


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