Foreign Policy Blogs

South Korea's Unwed Mothers Organize

By Jessica D’Itri

There are approximately 16,000 unwed mothers raising children on their own in South Korea. Because of a strong social stigma, these women face tremendous economic and social hardships, and most are pressured to have abortions (abortion is an illegal but widely-available procedure in the country) or to give their children up for adoption. However, a burgeoning advocacy movement is making headway in changing public perceptions. According to surveys taken between 1984 and 2009, unwed mothers today feel less shame about having children outside of marriage and are more optimistic about their futures. Advocacy groups have agitated successfully for small policy changes, such as the recent increase in the government stipend available to single mothers. In this WAFP interview, Kwon Hee Jung, the Project Coordinator for Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN), talks about the evolving status of unwed mothers in South Korea.

Tell me about single motherhood in Korea…

In popular thought, an unwed woman can’t be a mother. Korea is a very family-oriented society. Status and public perception are very important. Unwed mothers are stigmatized most harshly. Society says they are so immoral, so they think they are.

During the late 1990s to the early 2000s, there was a period of high divorce rates in Korea. As a result, there were many newly-single moms. There were calls to form social advocacy groups for unwed mothers, but no one came forward to lead or join groups. The stigma of being an unwed mother was too great. There is still a strong social stigma, though the social climate has changed enough so that more women are coming forward to organize.

What are the main challenges facing single unwed mothers?

First, there’s disconnection. Often, when an unwed woman finds out that she is pregnant, she may find herself quickly disconnected from her networks. If she is a student, she often leaves school. If she has a job, she may quit. Frequently, if she lives with her parents, she is forced to move out when she tells them she is pregnant and intends to raise the child on her own.

Second, there is stigma. Last year, the Korean Women’s Development Institute, found that people associate unwed mothers with carelessness, irresponsibility and sexual cheapness.

Third is poverty. If you no longer have a job or a place to stay, there is a high risk of poverty. Some unwed mothers will sleep in jimjilbangs (public baths open 24 hours) because they can’t afford housing. There are maternity homes for unwed mothers, but they are limited.

Another risk comes from the fathers. Fathers can disconnect from the mother and child, but if they want to return, Korean law favors men and guardianship can very easily go to the father. Some mothers coach their children to say that their fathers are working abroad or dead.

Do many unwed single mothers give up their children to orphanages?

Instead of orphanage, “children’s group home” is the preferred terminology. Approximately 90 percent of adopted children, or “orphans,” are children of unwed mothers. Mothers may leave their children in a group home so as to be able to go to work. Many still hold the legal, or parental right. If the mother never relinquishes parental right, then the child cannot be adopted out. In a way, [some of] these children are stuck until they age out of the system.

Are there any child support laws in Korea?

I am sorry to say that Korean law is really difficult or complicated. There are legal requirements for fathers to pay child support but no requirements for unwed fathers. It has to be acknowledged by law that he is a father of a baby. Then the baby is registered under his/her father’s registry. Through this process, unwed mother can receive child support from unwed father, but the unwed father’s right to control over the child is increases as well. Sometimes, he wants to take baby away from the mother in worst cases. If the unwed mother has less ability in terms of finances than unwed father, she can’t defend herself to keep the child.

Now, the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Affairs is preparing to submit a revised law that unwed mother can be supported by unwed father without the process of “acknowledgment of father.” Then the baby would not need to be registered in his/her father’s registry. That way, the mother can have more independence in raising her baby.

Hopefully, there will be new laws next year. The government has not made child support an issue because, until recently, the policy has been to adopt children of unwed mothers out of the country.

What changed recently?

Around 2004, the Korean government received a lot of criticism for “exporting” children. The government responded by changing policies to encourage domestic adoption. In 2007, there were slightly more domestic adoptions of Korean children than international adoptions of Korean children. This trend is continuing.

What public assistance is available?

Unwed mothers can apply for government stipends if they find themselves without income or family support. The stipend increased since last year to 100,000 won per month because of advocacy work by unwed mothers. The budget was passed last year and will take effect in April this year. However, the government checks your parents’ income before assigning a stipend, even if you have no contact with your parents. Some women who don’t qualify for a stipend can, through persistent petitioning of the government, eventually get a stipend, but it is very difficult.

What is the biggest obstacle to organizing to advocate for unwed mothers in Korea?

The biggest obstacle for KUMSN is getting public interest. People will listen, feel sorry for unwed mothers and then do nothing. We have to involve other issues—birth rate, adoption, abortion—to get interest. This is a women’s issue, and related to sex, so it is marginalized and taboo.

Are there any other developments on this issue worth noting?

In 2009, a high school student became pregnant and went to her teacher for advice. Her teacher advised her to move or quit school. The student filed a case with the National Human Rights Commission of the Republic of Korea. The case was not brought to the court. The commission made a recommendation and submitted to the Ministry of Education. And the issue was discussed at the National Assembly level and broadcasted through media. Due to these social attentions, she could go back to school. Even though she could not go back the same school she used to attend, it became a precedent for those who want to keep studying at school regardless pregnancy. Now all students have a right to continue their studies, even if they are pregnant. Still, in practice, there is pressure on students to quit or move should they become pregnant.

What has been KUMSN’s greatest accomplishment?

Our greatest accomplishment has been to motivate unwed mothers to organize themselves and to be their own advocates. We are accomplishing things when unwed mothers are together, getting society to recognize them and not hiding who they are.

Jessica D’Itri is an editorial intern at Women and Foreign Policy. She is a graduate of the University of Georgia, where she studied international relations.