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During her college years, Chang Ji-young once dreamed of becoming an unmarried mom voluntarily in protest against the unfair prejudice towards them here.
However, two years ago, when the 34-year-old former business consultant became pregnant by her former boyfriend, she first considered getting married to him.
"Facing the reality was totally different from vaguely assuming it," said Chang, who is currently raising her daughter alone after her boyfriend didn't keep the marriage promise.
Her parents and brother tried to persuade her to get an abortion or to give up the baby for adoption. But she resisted and her family turned their backs on her and the child.
Until then, she was confident about the future because she had 10 years of overseas working experiences as well as fluency in English.
"I felt frustrated most when my expectations were shattered," she said.
"During a job interview, they asked why I raise the child alone and who the father is. In Korean society, it's impossible to avoid such questions, even though they are extremely private matters. Then, all I got was rejections."
Chang is one of the Korean unwed moms who must endure a lifetime of poverty and disgrace after deciding to raise their children alone.
According to the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, about 6,000 to 10,000 babies are born out of wedlock every year in Korea.
They accounted for 1.6 percent of the total births, the lowest level among OECD member states. While Japan has the second lowest 2.1 percent, the figures in the United States and France are 38.5 percent and 50.4 percent, respectively.
Fearing financial and social struggles, 96 percent of unmarried pregnant women have abortions, and of those who choose to give birth, 70 percent give up their children for adoption, the state-run Korean Women's Development Institute reports.
In the United States, only 1 percent of unwed moms choose adoption, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
"Unmarried pregnant women, desperate to seek help, contact adoption agencies. However, they persuade the mothers to give up their children rather than encourage them to raise the kids. Without knowing what's going on exactly, they agree for adoption," said an unwed mom and the director general of the Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association, who requested not to be named.
Of the total 2,556 babies born to unmarried women and then adopted in 2008, 1,250 found their home abroad, the Health Ministry said. Since 1958, Korea has sent more than 200,000 children abroad.
When it comes to welfare services, Korea still legs far behind other developed countries. Childcare, in particular, is one of the biggest obstacles for working moms, regardless of their being married or not.
However, while married or divorced women receive support from their expanded family members for childcare and other family affairs, such support is absent for unwed moms, making them more vulnerable.
"Unwed mothers come to have less choices. Because the children can be looked after only at nursery school, they have to find a job near the place and can't work overtime at night," said the director general of the unwed mothers' association.
Teenage pregnancy and, more recently, rampant abortions have emerged as serious social problems in Korea. And the issue of supporting unwed moms has just started gaining public attention.
Last year, the government has earmarked a budget of 1.6 billion won ($1.4 million) to provide assistance to unwed moms aged under 24.
However, the mothers and activists point out that the financial assistance should be given for the babies, regardless of their mothers' age.
When she started a campaign supporting unwed moms three years ago, Kwon Hee-jung, coordinator of the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, said she could not meet the mothers anywhere.
"I didn't know whom I was speaking for," she said.
Now, however, it's great for me to see moms work and speak for themselves."
A growing number of unmarried mothers, mostly those in their 20s and 30s, are deciding to raise their children recently. In 1984, the rate was only 5.8 percent. However, the figure surpassed 30 percent currently, according to the women's policy institute.
And they started joining forces and speaking out for the rights of unwed moms and their children.
Choi Houng-suk, a 39-year-old hairdresser, is one of them. Along with other three unmarried moms, she opened last year an online community "Miss Momma Mia," which is aimed at sharing information and brining up the issue of unwed moms to be discussed.
Their campaign was linked to the foundation of the Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association on Dec. 19. With some 40 members joining currently, the nation's first association of unwed moms aims to become a non-government organization in March.
"I'm not an activist, just the mother of my son. I am still hesitant to reveal myself in public," Choi said.
"When the media portrays our problems sensationally, I sometimes want to quit doing this. But I can't. If I don't take any action now, the social prejudice will be prolonged, affecting our children finally."
Fortunately, Choi is one of the rare unwed moms who receive childcare costs from their children's birth fathers. She had tried not to inform her pregnancy to her former boyfriend. But her doctor said that he also has the right to know.
Even though related laws oblige the fathers to share the rearing expenses, most of them ignore the duty. The average amount reported is less than 500,000 won per month.
Most of all, mothers themselves give up the money, fearing that the fathers could ask for the custody of their children belatedly.
"It is more likely that the fathers who have a better job as well as family support win a lawsuit. However, recently, the court also rules in favor of the mothers who have never abandoned the kids and try to find a stable job. So, the mothers need to seek the financial assistance more aggressively," Choi said.
In 2008, three years after the birth, her family finally accepted Choi and her son.
"When I became an unwed mom, my family was the first to abandon me. But they finally accepted me. And that support encouraged me a lot more than anything else," she said.
Adding to the efforts of the unwed moms' association is the support from Korean-born adoptees who recently returned home to help the mothers who face the same difficulties as their birth mothers did decades ago. They help promote the issue to the public as well as educating and taking care of the kids of unwed mothers.
"There are a lot of campaigns ongoing to promote adoption. They say 'Bear abandoned children with love.' However, the mothers had never abandoned the kids. They made an unavoidable decision for the better future of their kids," Choi said. "We hope adopted people to understand the cruel situations their birth mothers had to face."
By Lee Ji-yoon
Original Source : http://www.koreaherald.co.kr/NEWKHSITE/data/html_dir/2010/03/01/201003010042.asp