An unusual sight unfolded in Hongdae area on May 26. A group of high school volunteers for Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN) stood on a busy street holding up signs illustrating the unfair treatment of unwed mothers at workplaces.
The street campaign was part of KUMSN’s effort to raise public awareness of unwed mothers’ right to maternity leave and their right to raise their children. There are an estimated 35,000 households headed by unwed mothers raising children 18 years old and younger as of the end of 2011.
While all expectant mothers are eligible to take a three-month maternity leave, unwed mothers find it virtually impossible. Due to the social stigma and self-censorship, the women hide their pregnancies, much less claim maternity leave. In fact, many unwed mothers lose their jobs when the pregnancy is revealed.
In Korea, a society where Confucian mores prevail, unwed mothers face an uphill battle from the moment they find out they are pregnant and perhaps an even greater challenge later on in raising the children themselves.
“Our society encourages giving up the child for adoption over raising the child, and abandoning the child over raising it,” Park Young-mi, the KUMSN board chairperson, said, in an interview with The Korea Herald on May 26, at her office in Hapjeong-dong, Seoul.
“There is virtually no publicity about unwed mothers raising their children. In fact KOBACO refuses such ads,” she said. Korea Broadcast Advertising Corp. is a government-funded corporation responsible for advertising distribution.
A group of high school volunteers for the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network hold a street campaign in Seoul on May 26 calling for maternity leave for unwed mothers and their right to raise their children. (KUMSN)
While there are government assistance programs available for unwed mothers raising children ― although often less than adequate ― they do not have ready access to information about them. Without information, they feel they have no option but to give up their children. A report by the Korea Women’s Development Institute showed that 94 percent of children adopted in 2011 were children by unwed mothers.
Shelters for unwed mothers often encourage adoption.
“While a 2012 law banned adoption agencies from giving mainly information on adoption, there are only very few shelters that are geared toward assisting mothers who decide to keep their children,” Park said. Of the 31 shelters for unwed mothers around the country, many turn away women who wish to keep their children, Park noted
Kim Min-jung, an unwed mother raising an 11-year-old son, counts herself lucky that her shelter did not actively encourage adoption.
When Kim found out she was pregnant in 2004, she and her boyfriend decided that the baby would be put up for adoption.
“We were not getting married. My boyfriend wanted an abortion, but I didn’t want to kill a life growing inside me,” said Kim in an interview with The Korea Herald on May 27 at the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association (KUMFA) office in western Seoul. The association is a self-support organization of unwed mothers.
Kim’s story could have been a typical story of a pregnant unwed woman in Korea: Six months into her pregnancy, Kim, without telling anyone, quit her job and moved from Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, to a shelter in Seoul, choosing the capital because no one would know her here.
“I was 31 years old, in debt and pregnant. I was not in a situation to raise the child,” she recalled.
However, at the shelter, Kim made a decision that takes her narrative as an unwed mother in a very different direction.
“I saw mothers who had given up their babies spend days crying,” she said. Kim, who had been making extra effort with prenatal education for the baby ― she wanted her baby to have a good character so that it would be loved by the adoptive parents ― then changed her mind.
“Two to three weeks before my due date, I changed my mind. I decided I’d rather raise my own child despite the difficulties,” she said. When she called her boyfriend about the decision, he broke off all contact.
Kim, who works 2-3 days a week at KUMFA teaching natural cosmetics making, earns 700,000 won a month and receives 100,000 won in government assistance.
Finding affordable housing was the greatest challenge for Kim. After years of moving from facility to facility and even a year spent living secretly in her workshop, Kim finally got a government rent-controlled apartment a couple of years ago. “The system is such that you are at a disadvantage if your family is small. For single mothers, it is extremely difficult,” Kim said.
Government assistance is far from sufficient, Park of KUMSN pointed out. The government provides 70,000 won a month until the child reaches the age of 12 if the single mother’s income is less than 1.2 million won. The amount of assistance is tied to the mother’s income.
“The current system discourages single moms from earning more mainly because they want to keep a higher level of insurance coverage assistance given to those who earn less,” Park said. Suffering from poor health due to stress and raising young children who require frequent doctor visits, insurance coverage assistance is a priority, Park explained.
Yet, the biggest obstacle for unwed mothers is prejudice, not economic difficulties, Park said.
“Unwed mothers lose their livelihood by choosing to keep their children. Ninety-nine percent of pregnant, unwed workers will experience a career break because they feel they cannot work, they face great social prejudice, and they are ostracized by their colleagues. They are victims in this sense and the government should support these women as a form of compensation,” said Park, in defense of the government assistance which some people attack as unnecessary and undeserved. “These women should be supported because they are raising children,” she said.
With the number of unwed mothers raising their children growing ― the percentage of unwed mothers raising children jumped five-fold from 6.9 percent in 1995 to 34.8 percent in 2011, the need for more tailored support is urgent.
“The government should look at the children‘s future. All children are our country’s valuable resource and I think all mothers should be able to take care of their children so that they grow up healthy in mind and body,” Kim said.
“I never regretted keeping my son. I am very grateful for him. He gives me the energy to continue,” she said.
By Kim Hoo-ran, Senior writer