Group Resists Korean Stigma for Unwed Mothers
Probably the highlight of my visit to Busan (since I wasn’t allowed into the theater to see Resilience because I was 2 minutes late – but that’s another story) was meeting Kyong-Wha. (Her story in the New York Times follows below)
I consider myself a lucky girl to not only have heroines, but to meet them and be able to get to know them personally.
Heroine #1 is Jane Jeong Trenka, who is the most unselfish person I’ve ever met. We’re very similar, in that we see a need and follow up on it. But she’s younger and thinks bigger than I do, and she exhausts all of her seemingly (but not) boundless energy creating a better world for women. Currently she and a team of advisors have DRAFTED A NEW LAW to be proposed to the Korean National Assembly. How’s THAT for citizen action??? Historic. Landmark.
Heroine #2 is Kyung-Wha. Here’s another woman who sees a need and, instead of sucking it up stoically by herself, she not only puts herself out there, but creates a foundation for single mothers BY single mothers – the first of its kind in Korea – called Mama Mia.
Reading the article, you will be both energized and impressed by this fearless, courageous woman and encouraged by the writing and the exposure of this issue in the New York Times. But Korea, it seems, does not see Kyung-Wha’s actions or Sang-Hun’s New York Times article in such favorable light. In fact, fall-out and negative comments by netizens of Korea’s insular cyberworld has been rather severe. They ask things like, “How can you ask for the government to help you when YOU messed up?” They refuse to recognize any of the extra hardships and descrimination these women face for TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR ACTIONS. They do not appreciate Sang-Hun airing Korea’s dirty laundry out in public, never once considering that it was they who dirtied the laundry to begin with. They see nothing wrong with the government promoting adoption and discouraging women to raise their own children, as most Koreans still think of America as the land of milk and honey: even though there are more jobs here and the standard of living is REALLY HIGH.
I learned, in addition to the NYT article, that the measly 50,000 won (half of the $85 the government sends to subsidize those who already have the means to adopt) is taken away once an unwed mother gets a job: which of course she must do, because how can you live on $42.50 a month? There is a child support system here, but it is not enforced, so dead-beat dad’s merely have to move so their address no longer matches the database. There is no blame directed at the men for their part in procreation.
Kyung Wha’s little boy is an absolute delight. Jane chases him and they play mock battle like the Pororo characters from Korean children’s tv cartoons. His peels of laughter amuse everyone but his mom, who knows he will be extra hard to settle down. He hits his head under a table and cries and she rocks him in her arms, kissing his head. I see this and remember how much I loved these moments of just being there for my little ones, comforting them. Later, he’s passed out across two restaurant chairs, oblivious to all and looking like an angel, and I remember Jane saying earlier under her breath something like, “and to think he could have been sent away.”
So I’ll post the first half of the NYT article here, and let you finish the rest there…
SEOUL, South Korea — Four years ago, when she found that she was pregnant by her former boyfriend, Choi Hyong-sook considered abortion. But after she saw the little blip of her baby’s heartbeat on ultrasound images, she could not go through with it.
As her pregnancy advanced, she confided in her elder brother. His reaction would sound familiar to unwed mothers in South Korea. She said he tried to drag her to an abortion clinic. Later, she said, he pressed her to give the child up for adoption.
“My brother said: ‘How can you be so selfish? You can’t do this to our parents,’ ” said Ms. Choi, 37, a hairdresser in Seoul. “But when the adoption agency took my baby away, I felt as if I had thrown him into the trash. It felt as if the earth had stopped turning. I persuaded them to let me reclaim my baby after five days.”
Now, Ms. Choi and other women in her situation are trying to set up the country’s first unwed mothers association to defend their right to raise their own children. It is a small but unusual first step in a society that ostracizes unmarried mothers to such an extent that Koreans often describe things as outrageous by comparing them to “an unmarried woman seeking an excuse to give birth.”
The fledgling group of women — only 40 are involved so far — is striking at one of the great ironies of South Korea. The government and commentators fret over the country’s birthrate, one of the world’s lowest, and deplore South Korea’s international reputation as a baby exporter for foreign adoptions.