Of the 200,000 Korean children who have been adopted overseas since 1953, 89% were born to unwed mothers. Single mothers in South Korea have little autonomy when it comes to decisions regarding their children, are highly stigmatized, and lack support from their communities and from the government. They have a difficult time finding employment and childcare in South Korea. A survey found that unwed mothers in South Korea felt the most prejudice after homosexuals in the country. Another survey found that 60% of South Koreans believe unwed mothers “lack judgment and a sense of responsibility.”
Until May of 2012, the South Korean Ministry of Health & Welfare included the following definition of unwed mothers on its website: “…usually low levels of education, with an unstable job. Lives by herself or in a boarding house, has open and impulsive sexual values. A person whose socioeconomic situation is low, and who lives apart from her parents.”
Keeping in mind this negative perspective of single mothers in South Korea, it is not surprising that South Korean laws regarding single mothers are anything but supportive. According to a talk given at the 3rd Annual Single Mother’s Day conference held at the Gwangju International Center in Gwangju, South Korea, a woman can only receive government assistance for a child if her entire family’s financial situation is taken into account. In this case, if her parents earn enough money she may not be eligible for benefits herself and must rely on her parents for financial support. Often, parents of single mothers are the ones who determine whether a child should be given up for adoption, and make other significant decisions for the unwed parents.
Although South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, the Korean government still promotes adoption for unwed mothers rather than creating better support systems for women with children.
In addition to the stigma against unwed mothers in Korea, the rate of adoption of children born to unwed mothers is exacerbated because of Korea’s voluntary birth reporting system. This system “allows for the circumvention of legal documentation.” A birth is not officially recognized until it is recorded at a local office which allows for “predatory agencies to profit from adoptions and enables adopters to sign on as the child’s biological parents.”
This practice violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 7, paragraph 1 that states: “The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.” Many Korean children who try to locate their biological parents later in life, are unable to do so.
The high rate of adoptions for children of unwed mothers is due to a combination of the stigma associated with being a single mother and the lack of decision making power that South Korean women face, often being pressured towards adoption by family and community members.
There are various organizations in South Korea taking action to assist unwed mothers to care for their children in spite of the obstacles. In addition to advocacy and various other services, the Korean Unwed Mothers Families’ Association (KUMFA) provides housing and food for 24 mothers and their children, for up to 2 months at a time. You can visit the KUMFA Facebook Page to learn more and show your support!
Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), an organization developed by Korean individuals who were adopted internationally and have returned to Korea to seek out their birth families, creates awareness around the issue and lobbies for transparency in adoption practices in Korea. Visit the TRACK website for more information.
Additionally, the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN) provides resources for South Korean unwed mothers. KUMSN facilitates “Single Mother’s Day” each May in Korea to provide awareness about the struggle of unwed mothers in the country. The organization also promotes domestic adoptions as an alternative to international adoptions. You can visit the KUMSN website here.
Although these organizations are providing an invaluable service to unwed mothers, more awareness of the issue is needed to reduce the stigma around being a single mother, and the Korean government should put forth more efforts to keep its families intact.
It is a tragedy that women who are capable of caring for their children are stripped of this innately human experience. These women are presented with additional obstacles by their own communities due to prejudice and irrational ideals of what a family is “supposed” to look like. Please show your support for the organizations that are working to end the stigma toward unwed mothers in South Korea.