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Single mothers in Korea

For several years South Korea has set itself the goal of uprooting the age-old prejudices regarding single parents and unmarried couples who live together, a goal which is part of a greater battle: to encourage more people to have children in order to counter the very low birth rate and rapid ageing of the population.

Thus for several years the Government programme has been working to change the social perceptions of the various forms of family, even though in South Korea the phenomenon of young couples living together before marriage is almost unknown and only 1.9 per cent of children are born out of wedlock. As often happens, however, between the political will and its implementation there is a sticky area consisting of both prejudices and bureaucratic rigidity.

In 1980, at the culmination of the international adoptions from Korea, at least eight children out of the ten who were sent abroad were born to unmarried mothers. Today things are no different: more than 90 per cent of the children given up for adoption in South Korea are born to single mothers and the main reason why the children are abandoned is the social stigma which unmarried mothers face. It often happens that young women without husbands are forced to conceal their pregnancies and are then encouraged to abandon their children. This is not all. It also happens that unmarried or divorced mothers are denied the benefits to which all new parents in Korea are entitled.

We talked about this with a volunteer of the Association for Unmarried Mothers, a Korean association which fights for women’s rights.

“It is necessary to understand that here in Korea single mothers are not recognized as true mothers”, she told us. “Even the very word which identifies single mothers has a negative connotation in Korean. These women are not incorporated into society at all because of old prejudices”.

Precisely in order to overcome these prejudices and to contribute to breaking once and for all the stigma that persecutes them, some women organized themselves and several years ago began to celebrate in Seoul, the capital, the feast of single mothers.

“We find ourselves in a situation in which the Government on the one hand would like to create the conditions to remedy the low birth rate, but on the other hand when it implements its welfare politics there are enormous contradictions: for example, single parents who live alone with their children even pay higher taxes than married couples with children and a similar income”, the volunteer worker said.

About 90 per cent of the mothers who turned to the association find themselves in a situation in which the father of the child does not recognize his own child. This is a crucial point, because single mothers may not benefit from support services for new mothers without supplying some information concerning the child’s father.

The specific benefits, officially entitled “benefits to encourage fertility”, are given by each municipal administration. The amount varies for each regional government and can be a figure that may even reach as much as 20 million won (15,000 euros). Parents have the right to receive even larger cheques if they have a third or fourth child.

Many city administrations have a stipulation which establishes that in order to receive social benefits as parents, both the mother and the father of the child must present documents showing the level of their income.

The volunteer worker mentioned single mothers who had been denied benefits in various parts of the country. The women in question were all asked to provide information on the income of the child’s biological father, as well as on his residence, but they were unable to do so since they no longer had any contact with their former partner.

The volunteer worker also told me about the experience of Han (not her real name), a single unmarried woman who was to give birth the following month and had sought to obtain the service of post-natal support. She was told that she had to present the most recent medical insurance premium of the child’s father so that the municipality could verify his income. Yet Han too, like many other single mothers, had no information on her ex-partner.

“There is obviously no law which explicitly forbids granting benefits to single or unmarried mothers”, the volunteer said, “but there are no guidelines on what to do when the single parent has no information about the income of the other parent. We are asking the Government to introduce a legislation that guarantees to all single mothers the entitlement to the social benefits to which all parents have a right”. 

Cristian Martini Grimaldi

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