Activities :: Media
KBS 1 Radio, Intensive Interview by Yoo, Ae-Ri, aired in March 11, 2010.
Hello everyone! This is Aeri Yoo. There are approximately six to thirteen thousand births by unwed mothers in Korea every year; however, most of them relinquish their children for adoption because of the prejudice against unwed mothers in Korean society.
The Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN) is the only organization In Korea that supports these unwed mothers. In today’s interview, we invited Ms, Hee Jung Kwon, a coordinator of KUMSN to discuss the prejudice against unwed mothers in Korean society and how we can support these unwed mothers to be independent and raise their own children. I will introduce Ms.Kwon, the coordinator of KUMSN.
Ms. Kwon completed her Ph.D. coursework in anthropology from The Academy of Korean Studies, and taught Anthropology and women’s studies in various schools. She also worked as a secretary general at the women’s organization, IF. Since 2008, she has been working as a coordinator for KUMSN.
Ms. Kwon was a co-author on three published books: My Second Twenty, Shall We Live Together and A Woman Warrior with a Camera. She also translated the books, Slow is Beautiful and 80 Dates Around the World.
MC Yoo: How are you? First of all, what kind of work does your organization do?
Ms. Kwon: KUMSN is an organization advocating for the rights of unwed pregnant women, unwed mothers, and their children. We define ‘mother’ as a woman who is pregnant and gives birth to a child, not by her marital status. In Korean society, many women who get pregnant and have children are discriminated by their lack of marital status. As a consequence they face circumstances such as abortion and family separation due to giving their children up for adoption. KUMSN is making an effort to change these general practices by trying to change social prejudice against unwed mothers. We are also trying to extend more support to them.
MC Yoo: I introduced you as a coordinator, Kwon. This is a unique position. What role do you have at the organization?
Ms. Kwon: My role is similar to that of a general manager. I coordinate different jobs and try to extend our network for unwed mothers.
MC Yoo: What does that mean by coordinating?
Ms. Kwon: We don’t provide social services directly for unwed mothers. Rather, we work to make unwed mothers’ stories an issue by writing articles, meeting scholars who study unwed mothers issues, and related individuals or organizations. Most of all, we help the mothers to create their own organization by themselves.
MC Yoo: So KUMSN is working for the rights of unwed mother.
Ms. Kwon: Yes, I coordinate those works and build a network for the unwed mothers.
MC Yoo: I heard that KUMSN is established in 2008 and the founder is an , Dr. Boas. How was he involved with this work?
Ms. Kwon: Dr. Boas is sixty years old now. In 1988, he adopted a girl from Korea. After he retired, he wanted to do meaningful work. He thought that his experience as an adoptive father was great so he decided to help parents who wanted to adopt children. He established a foundation for more active adoption and financially helped those parents who wanted to adopt. Because of this work, he visited Korea for the first time in 2006. During his visit, he had a chance to visit one of the unwed mothers’ facilities in Daego area. He met dozens of unwed mothers there for the first time. He was shocked by the fact that all the women had signed up to relinquish their babies even before giving birth. He realized at that moment that his happiness from having a daughter was possible because of their painful relinquishment. He thought that adoption was not the best solution for the babies and their mothers, and he felt that he had to support these mothers to raise their own babies. He started working to support unwed mothers in 2007 and officially established KUMSN in 2008.
MC Yoo: Has Dr. Boas financially supported very much since then?
Ms. Kwon: If we want to support unwed mothers, firstly we need to investigate the conditions of unwed mothers. But, there was no information about them so such as fund for Korean Women’s Development Institute was made to study unwed mothers’ condition, realities and their lives.
MC Yoo: According to the studies there are around six thousand to thirteen thousand cases every year. These approximate numbers don’t seem so accurate.
Ms. Kwon: Yes, it is. The difficult thing is that the census is not accurate. Every five years there is a population census by Statistics Korea. In the questionnaires, it asks about marital status first. When you answer that you are not married, it directs you to go to another section of the questions without asking any questions about children. It assumes that you don’t have any children if you are not married. So it is almost impossible to find out about mothers who are not married systematically. It should change to find out about mothers who are not married in the near future.
MC Yoo: Then, how did you get the estimated numbers?
Ms. Kwon: The numbers are estimated by combining the numbers of unwed mothers in the facilities with the number of adopted babies. About ninety percent of those adopted babies are from unwed mothers. And again about ninety percent of unwed pregnant women get an abortion. So the numbers are quite roughly estimated from all the circumstances of unwed mothers.
MC Yoo: Does the founder, Dr Boas visit Korea often?
Ms. Kwon: He has regularly visited Korea, twice a year.
MC Yoo: So he started to promote adoption, and later switched to support unwed mothers and built an organization instead. What caused his change? What actually shocked him so much?
Ms. Kwon: Because he found out that young mothers truly love their babies and none of these mothers gave up their babies voluntarily. After he met these mothers at the facility (in Daegu), he changed his perspective. He realized that although he had the pleasure of a happy family for the past twenty-years, it came from the sacrifice of a woman painfully giving her baby up for adoption. That is the background of KUMSN.
MC Yoo: Another thing is the unwed mother issue in Korea compared with the situation in America.
Ms. Kwon: Yes, it is. He thought about the issue very much and he found out that only one percent of unwed American mothers give up their children. On the contrary, seventy percent of unwed Korean mothers give up their children.
MC Yoo: So, the KUMSN is saying that children are supposed to be raised by their own mothers. Is this the only organization that supports this?
Ms. Kwon: Yes, KUMSN is the only organization that advocates for unwed mothers’ rights. However, these days, unwed mothers themselves are working to establish their own organization called Korean Unwed Mothers Family Association to protect their rights.
MC Yoo: There must be inevitable adoption as well I guess…
Ms. Kwon: But, those inevitable cases are mostly conditioned by society. For example there are many stigmas towards unwed mothers. Like the impossibility of being financially independent in Korean society. Also when a woman gets pregnant, society makes it impossible for women to continue to do economic activities. On top of that, they are disconnected from their own family because they are considered to have dishonored their family. Therefore, the reason they don’t raise their children is due to the social stigma about the unwed mother from society. I think there would be more instances of single women raising their children if the social stigma disappeared and if they got more support.
MC Yoo: Today we invited Hee Jung Kwon, a coordinator of KUMSN and are having a discussion about the prejudice towards unwed mothers and how we can support the mothers and help them choose to raise their children and to be more independent. Is the number of unwed mothers increasing every year?
Ms. Kwon: The Statistic Korea is numbering extramarital babies. It was 1.1 % of the total number of birth in 1980’s and it was 1.6 % in 2000’s, so the increasing rate is very low. In fact, the number is not accurate because more than 90 % of unwed pregnant women had an abortion and almost 90% of babies from unwed mothers are adopted. If we add these numbers together, the total number is much bigger. I went to an event and somebody said that we are a highly pregnant society but we are experiencing a low birth rate. This indicates that discrimination against single pregnant women is very serious.
MC Yoo: There are many abortions, right?
Ms Kwon: Even if they were born, the babies are adopted. Only a few women raise their babies.
MC Yoo: In their own opinion what is the main reason that unwed mothers give up their babies?
Ms Kwon: When unwed women get pregnant, they are scared of many things. I think that their fear is not caused by personal reasons, but by social reasons. They are scared to be disconnected from their families, to be fired from their work, and to be forced to quit their schools when unwed women are found to be pregnant.
MC Yoo: They probably quit many things…
Ms Kwon: They are also scared to raise their babies in poverty and facing discrimination. All these reasons force unwed pregnant women to choose either abortion or adoption. The many cases of both abortion and adoption mean that there is serious discrimination against unplanned pregnancy in our society.
MC Yoo: But, women can’t get pregnant alone. What happens to the unwed fathers?
Ms Kwon: I have heard many stories from women. When women get pregnant the first time, the men want the women to have an abortion. If they get pregnant again, many of the men refuse to raise their babies. They demand that the women not ask them to take any responsibility and eventually they break up the relationship. Sometimes these fathers claim their parental rights a few years later. They think that they have a right to claim the babies because the babies belong to the father’s family. Often the family talks about how it is ‘our seed’.
MC Yoo: Is this still happening today?
Ms Kwon: I heard about a story a few days ago. I could hardly believe my ears.
MC Yoo: These people are not their 30’s, are they?
Ms Kwon: In reality, unwed mothers’ age range is increasing. In the past, most of the unwed mothers were in their early 20’s. It seemed like it happened amongst young people by mistake. However, these days many people get married late and sex becomes a way of showing their intimacy. Therefore there are more chances to get pregnant and to become unwed parents. In fact, we think that the number of unwed mothers in their early 20’s and late 20’s are similar. The mothers establishing the unwed mothers association are in their early 30’s and late 20’s.
MC Yoo: So we should think that the age range of unwed mothers is increasing and they range from women in their teen years to their late 30’s. We invited Hee jung Kwon, a coordinator of KUMSN to have a discussion about prejudice and discrimination against unwed mothers, and how we can support these mothers to choose to raise their children and to be more independent. So, how does the Korean government support these mothers?
Ms Kwon: The government provides support based on National Basic Living Protection Law and the One-parent Support Law for unwed mothers. Each local government is making a special ordinance to support them. However, these laws are not made with enough concern about the particular situations of unwed mothers. In some cases the government calculates the unwed mothers’ income and combines it with their parents’ income. However many unwed mothers are disconnected from their families. In that case, they don’t get any support from their family or from the government. They are exempted from childcare fees, but they still have a hard time caring for their children after school. In the case of divorced parents or widows, they are at least helped by their other family members. However, unwed mothers can’t get any support from their families so they have to raise the children by themselves. This is why we really need to understand their unique situations.
MC Yoo: Even if there is a government support, it isn’t much, is it?
Ms Kwon: No, it isn’t
MC Yoo: How much are they getting a month?
Ms Kwon: For a family of two people, they get maximum \718,846 in cash when their income is less than \858,747. It is almost impossible to survive on that money in Seoul. Some mothers are paying more than \400,000 for their rent because they can’t put down a big amount of money for the deposit.
MC Yoo: There must be many unwed mothers who can’t live with their children anywhere. Are there many facilities where they can live?
Ms Kwon: There are unwed mother protection facilities that allow them to give birth to their babies. There is also group homes for unwed mothers where both mother and child can live together. The total number of facilities for unwed mothers is twenty-seven. As of 2008 There were five group homes. The numbers of mothers who live in these facilities are 3,000 per year but the total estimated numbers of unwed mothers are 6000-13,000. So the need is greater than the space available in the facilities. I think we need to change the way we support unwed mothers. We have supported them by providing places to give birth and live; but it would be better to provide them with financial support within the local communities instead.
MC Yoo: You said that around 90% of unwed mothers choose adoption because of the tough situation. Are there any professional counselors for them?
Ms Kwon: We don’t have our own counselors but we connect the mothers to professional counselors.
MC Yoo: In the cases of developed countries, only 1% of unwed mothers choose adoption. How do they handle their difficulties?
Ms Kwon: In America, only 1% of mothers choose adoption. In Sweden, there are only 10-20 adoptions a year. In Denmark, there are less than 30 adoptions a year, yet their extramarital birth rate is more than 50%. The governments provide financial support for unwed mothers regardless of their income. Their central concern is to support the children without any conditions and there is no discrimination against unwed mothers.
MC Yoo: In our case, 90% of babies from unwed mothers are adopted abroad. The adoption is not the end of the story. It brings other problems, doesn’t it?
Ms Kwon: International adoptions reached their peak in 1988. These adoptees grew up and many of them are now returning to Korea. They are requesting their birth records to find their mothers. The chances of finding their mothers are very low because their birth records have been erased. It is a natural desire for everyone to want to know more about his or her roots and origin. For the adoptees, this issue is much more serious. I think the prior policy for unwed mothers should focus on supporting mothers in raising their own children. This will help to reduce other subsidiary expenses caused by the adoption.
MC Yoo: I guess the problems could be solved much easier, if only we prioritize the children first.
Ms Kwon: Yes. In developed countries, they don’t consider a mothers’ marital status when deciding to support the mother. Instead, they look at whether the baby needs help or not, and who is raising the baby. They give money for childcare benefits as well as an allowance to the people who are raising the children.
MC Yoo: So your organization, KUMSN works to bring changes to support systems. We are with Hee Jung Kwon, the coordinator of KUMSN.
MC Yoo: Today we are having a discussion with Hee Jung Kwon about the prejudice against unwed mothers and we are discussing how to find a way to support the mothers in raising their children. There are few organizations advocating for the rights of unwed mothers’. Are there any difficulties with your job because of the prejudice against the mothers in our society?
Ms Kwon: The most difficult thing so far has been to explain what my job is. When saying that I work for Korea Unwed Mothers Support Network, some nice people say “thanks for the good work”. Other nasty people laugh and they ask whether that kind of work can be considered a job, and whether we still need this job. The lack of understanding that unwed mothers do have rights to raise their own children is the most difficult one. Many people still don’t recognize that unwed mothers have rights to raise their babies. One common perspective is to see unwed mothers as people who need to be rescued. The other perspective is to see them as morally defected people. The most difficult work is to persuade people to promote the mother’s right to raise their own children as a basic human right. This is difficult to do with these two extreme perspectives about unwed mothers in our society.
MC Yoo: So you have given examples from developed countries. Let’s discuss the support for unwed mothers in other countries.
Ms Kwon: First of all, let’s look at the cases in Sweden since their extramarital birth rate is over 54.7%. They don’t recognize the policy specifically for unwed mothers but recognize the policy for any families having children. They are giving a pregnancy allowance. Pregnant women can have a vacation around 60 days before the birth and up until 50 days after. If they work part time, they receive 75% of their wage. They also receive an allowance from the government if they have a child under 16 years old. If both parents are not living together, they decide who will receive the money. If they cannot decide, the mother automatically receives the money. Per child, they receive about \180,000. If the family has more than one child, they receive about \360,000 and \20,000 additionally. When the parents are not living together, the parent who is not living with the child is obligated to pay child rearing expenses. They need to pay up to \220,000 per child. If they are students, they will be given support for their school fee, and also for job education, and for education to open a business with a subsidy. The government also gives a living allowance. According to the research in 2004, the living allowance for families with one child was maximum \430,000, families with 3 children were given \670,000.
MC Yoo: Then, the government fully supports mothers until their babies become adults.
Ms Kwon: The program called, “Learning Together” run by the Parent Child Center in the U.S. is a good example for us. Through this organization unwed mothers and fathers can participate in their educational programs. They can also be hired as staff as well. Sometimes they cook in the cafe, or clean the facility. They can also be hired to care for children in the center. Other times they are able to attend educational classes. They are working and learning in one place. After this center was opened, teen pregnancy and abortion rates were drastically reduced. After the success of this particular case, the program spread through the entire United States.
MC Yoo: What kind of practical support do we need to provide for unwed mothers to raise their babies?
Ms Kwon: First of all, we need to change our perspective. We need to recognize that a mother and a child are considered a family. In 1983, The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction adopted an international policy that children should be raised in their birth families as much as possible. When it is not possible, they have to be adopted in their birth countries. According to this law international adoption should be the last choice for the children. Korea hasn’t joined this convention. Adoption shouldn’t be the first option for any child and the policy also needs to support the birth parents. Such policies will help birth mothers to not relinquish their babies for adoptions.
MC Yoo: Is the law related to supporting unwed mothers based on One-parent Support Law?
Ms Kwon: The government is providing support for unwed mothers by the One-parent Support Law and National Basic Living Protection Law; but these laws lack concern for unwed mothers facing situations other then death or divorce. The first instance is that the government combines unwed mothers’ income with their parents’. The second is that they can’t receive any family support when they are raising their babies. Especially in the unwed mothers’ case, the difficulties start from the moment they are pregnant. They can’t even receive any prenatal education. They are also rather unstable psychologically. They are abandoned during their pregnancy and birth so sometimes they can even face health problems. For example one mother ate only ramen noodles until she was five months pregnant. Another unwed mother stayed in a 24 hour sauna, (jjimjil-bang) during the pregnancy. These mothers were stressed out from experience betrayal from their boyfriends. Sometimes the babies are hospitalized due to having irregular heart bits or respiratory problems. However, through the One-parent Support Law and National Basic Living Protection Law there is no legal basis to provide any medical help for these mothers and the babies.
MC Yoo: Don’t you think we need legislation to force birth fathers to be more responsible?
Ms Kwon: We need to enact a law to enforce the unwed fathers’ responsibilities. So we are asking legal groups to pay more attention to this issue.
MC Yoo: What should the Korean government do in the future?
Ms Kwon: Over the last few years, multi-cultural family has become an issue. So the government has made a huge effort to change the stereotype surrounding multi-cultural families. This effort was successful. We want the government to make the same effort for unwed mothers. We want to change the prejudice and to get rid of the discrimination against unwed mothers. We want the government to recognize unwed mothers facing peculiar situations such as being disowned by their families, quitting school or work, and being in poverty. Based on an understanding of their circumstances, financial support such as child care allowances, medical insurance, and living allowances should be provided until their child become 6 years old regardless of the mothers’ income. That way, mothers can raise children in a stable environment.
MC Yoo: Above all, society needs to change their perspective and attitude towards unwed mothers. This is the most important issue. Thank you for talking with me today.
Ms Kwon: Thank You
“Intense interview “, today we invited Hee jung Kwon, a coordinator of Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network to have a discussion about our perspective on unwed mothers issues, and how to support these mothers in raising their own children and becoming independent. Thanks and good bye.
Thanks Alexandra,a volunteer of Kumsn for the proofreading.
Translated by Ji Young Yoo, a web staff of Kumsn.
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