Out of 100 Korean women who get pregnant out of wedlock, 96 have abortions, even though abortion has been illegal in South Korea since 1995. Of the 4 that have their babies, 3 give them up for adoption. Only 1% of single mothers keep their children!
Would you be the 1 in 100 who did? To understand unwed mothers’ choices, we merely need to look at the culture to see why so many women choose not to keep their babies. Here are some of the reasons prioritised with the most important to the least important, although all may be factors in the decision:
Divorce and single parenthood both carry huge social stigmas for women in Korea. Women who fall into either category are treated harshly. Families disown them because either status dishonours the family name, so family members detach themselves. Friends abandon these women because they are no longer acceptable to socialise with, and often these women lose their jobs.
The baby’s father detaches himself from the mother and child. The father and his family pressure the mother to have an abortion and if she does not, the father simply walks away. There are no words for “deadbeat dad” in Hanja or Hankuk, and no guilt for the father. It is different for women. Although there are no specific Korean words for “single mom,” the English words are used and carry great negative connotations that are derogatory, pejorative, and insulting to the mother.
Child support is required in Korea, however, it works differently from other countries. Both the mother and father must file and sign paperwork for child support, and if the father does not file (which is the norm), no child support is ordered. Mothers are often afraid to file the paperwork for fear of their status being discovered and being ostracised.
There are only 33 facilities for unwed mothers in a country with a population of fifty million people. Most are run by adoption agencies. Women have nowhere to go when their families and friends turn against them, so they go to one of these facilities to live (if there is an opening). While there, women are pressured to give up their children, and support and encouragement to be a mother are not part of the program. Most mothers never see their children after birth. The pressure may be as much financial as it is cultural. Adoption agencies get almost $30,000 NZD for an international adoption, and over $5,000 NZD for a domestic adoption.
The South Korean government has a program to assist single mothers of children under 12 years old who are living below the poverty line of 1.2 million won (about $1,500 NZD). They will pay 70,000 won per month (about $78 NZD). Most single mothers would qualify, but poverty is calculated with some other variables thrown in that disqualifies almost all of them. The woman’s possessions (car, furniture, home, etc.) are included, as is the income of the same family members who disowned her. That is not the case for families who adopt. The government has a stipend of 150,000 won (about $190 NZD) per month with no variables or poverty test.
The child of an unwed mother is bullied as a child, and treated with disgust and revulsion his or her entire life, unable to overcome the stigma of not having a father.
“Adoption from Korea continues today because single mothers are promiscuous,” Tak Yeon-Taek, the former chairman of South Korean’s second largest adoption agency was quoted as saying to a group of unwed mothers. With such discriminating sentiments and comments permeating the culture, it will be a long time before single mothers will be an accepted in South Korea.
Written by Kitty Bickford for Wooree English