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Single moms denied parental allowance in South Korea

Han Min-ji (not her real name), a single mother in her late 30s, gave birth to her fourth child in January. She had three children from her previous marriage and had broken up with the newborn’s father, several months before the delivery. Still, she did not think that her single parenthood would prevent her from receiving the government allowance, which is given to all new parents as part of the efforts to tackle the nation’s low birthrate.

When she visited the city hall in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, to apply for the allowance, Han was told that she needed to submit a document to prove that she is in a de-facto relationship with the baby’s father.

“It was just absurd,” Han told The Korea Herald. “I was not in a de-facto relationship with the baby’s father. He and I had lost contact. When I explained this, the public servant told me to ‘fake’ a common-law marriage certificate, using a male friend or an acquaintance’s ID number and his legal address. Who on earth would let me use such personal information for a fake document? I couldn’t believe what I was told.”
123RF
123RF

Han is one of many unwed or divorced single mothers who have been denied government welfare allowance and services which all new parents in Korea are eligible to apply for and guaranteed to benefit from. She eventually received the allowance after a women’s rights group, the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association, spoke to the city government on her behalf.

“The government has been saying that it is serious about raising the low birth rate,” said Kim Eun-hee, head of the KUMFA in Daegu. “But single mothers are being excluded from its policies and welfare programs. About 90 percent of the single mothers (I’ve dealt with) are in a situation where the father of the baby does not acknowledge the child as his. Why can’t single mothers benefit from the services without submitting any information about the baby’s father?”

The specific allowance, officially named the “Fertility Encouragement Allowance,” is given by each municipal government nationwide without the Welfare Ministry’s guidance and funding.

The amount differs according to each regional government and it can be up to 20 million won ($16,600). Parents are eligible to receive larger allowances for their third or fourth child.  Yangpyeong doles out the largest allowance at 20 million for the sixth child.

Yet Kim has spoken to single mothers who were denied from receiving the allowance in Daegu, Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province and the Jung-gu district of Seoul. They were all asked to provide information on the baby’s biological father’s income level as well as their resident registration number.

Kim has also met unwed single mothers who were told they are unable to apply for the government service in which a certified-personal care worker visits a mother’s home during the first 10 days after delivery. The care worker helps the mother with breastfeeding as well as caring for the newborn. This service is jointly funded and provided by the Health Ministry and municipal governments. It is mainly offered to those who make less than half of the average national income.

The unwed mothers were told that they need to provide information on the baby’s biological father’s income in order to find out whether they are eligible for the service or not, while some were simply told that they were not eligible because they were unwed, single women.

Jeon Ha-eun (not her real name), an unwed, single woman who is scheduled to give birth without the baby’s father next month, said her experience at the public health center in Daegu while applying for the postpartum service had disheartened her.

“I was simply told that without a husband one cannot apply for this service at first. And then I was told I need to submit the latest medical insurance premium receipt of the baby’s father so the city government can review his income status,” Jeon told The Korea Herald. “(When I told them that I don’t have that information) I was told babies can’t be made alone and that he must be out there somewhere.”

Kim from KUMFA said many city governments have an ordinance that states that in order to receive parental social benefits, both the mother and the father of the baby must submit documents that show their income status.

“It does not say ‘do not give the allowance to unwed, single mothers,’ but it does not have any guidelines on what to do when a single parent does not have information on the other parent’s income,” she said.

“We are asking the National Assembly to introduce a legislation that guarantees all single mothers their rights to parental social benefits.”

Choi Jong-hee, the head of the Social Welfare Policy Division of the Welfare Ministry, said the central government’s policies do not require single mothers to submit any information about the child’s biological father when applying for social benefits.

“Single mothers are considered as those with special needs, so in some cases, they are eligible for certain services even without providing information on their own income status,” she said. Choi said the ministry would inquire about the current policies of municipal governments for single mothers and welfare policies.

A public official who oversees welfare programs for new mothers in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, said they have decided to give Han the full allowance after speaking to a number of legal and welfare experts. “Han was the first single woman who applied for this particular allowance in our region,” said an official, who refused to be named, to The Korea Herald. “So we weren’t sure what to do at first but we’ve done everything we can to assist Han.”

Yet Han said she still had to give her child’s biological father’s resident registration number in order to receive the allowance, although she was exempt from submitting any formal documents about him. “I still don’t understand,” she said. “I was just lucky that I had his registration number written down (while we were dating). But a lot of women don’t memorize such information. The city government said it was just for record purposes. But if it’s really just for record purposes, why do they really need it?”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)
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