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Unmarried single mothers discuss stigmas, abortion

‘Why does all the blame always fall on the women?’ asks one

Dec 02,2017
From left: Kim Seul-gi, Jo Ga-young and An So-hee share their experiences as unmarried mothers in South Korea at a cafe in western Seoul on Nov. 13. [SHIN IN-SEOP]
“We never did anything to feel shame over or be concerned about,” says Jo Ga-young, a 33-year-old unmarried single mother, when asked if she was worried that her and her child’s real names and faces have been shown to the world. “Isn’t it a judgement in itself to think that we would be?”

Jo, Kim Seul-gi and An So-hee, three unmarried single mothers, recently spoke out against the stigma attached to unmarried single mothers in a campaign video funded by the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

In the video, they are shown carrying out activities, such as cutting apples with their children, while discussing what it’s like to raise a child alone.

“I hope for an environment where children can have a stable, secure life, no matter the circumstances they were born under,” says An at the end of the video.

The three women agreed to an interview with JoongAng Ilbo on Nov. 13 at Cafe Intree in Dongjak District, western Seoul, to discuss the harsh conditions unmarried single mothers face, as well as their views on abortion.

“I was fired from my job as a day care teacher for the sole reason that I was an unmarried pregnant woman,” said Jo, “and I felt like I was facing social isolation.”

There are 24,487 single mothers in South Korea, according to the 2015 Population and Housing Census by Statistics Korea, 207 of whom said their monthly income is about 1 million won ($920), according to a survey by the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network.

“We receive about 800,000 won from government welfare,” says Jo. “Of course, money is tight so I work part-time at Cafe Intree after sending my child to day care. Still, I’m better off than others. There are many single mothers whose parents cut ties with them, but because they are still legally under their guardianship, if their parents’ income is above a certain amount, single mothers cannot receive any welfare.”

An, a 30-year-old single mother, recently sued her child’s father over child support payments. “As the child grows, he looks for his father, and it bothered me so much that his father was living so carefree without even thinking about his child,” says An. “The average request for child support by single mothers is 500,000 won a month. But if you request more than that,” explains An, “there’s more complicated paperwork for you to fill out and people start calling you a gold-digger.”

Because they fear being called a “gold-digger,” Jo says many single mothers never sue for child support.

Kim, a 24-year-old single mother, struggled to take care of her child while attending prep school to take the nursing licensing examination.

“My child was often sick so I would frequently receive calls from the day care to take him home,” says Kim, “but then I didn’t have anyone else to watch over him while I attended prep school, so when I did take him with me one time, they angrily asked me, ‘how could you bring a child here?’”

“The choice to give birth or to undergo an abortion should be up to the mother,” says Jo. “Even though abortion law says it protects the child’s right to life, it doesn’t protect the right of the child to lead a normal human life, nor does it address who’s going to take care of the child.”

When Jo found out she was pregnant, she visited several different hospitals seeking an abortion. “None of the bigger and safer hospitals agreed to do the operation because it’s illegal,” says Jo. “And just like that, seven months passed.”

Under current criminal law, doctors who carry out an abortion can be sentenced up to two years in prison, and all abortions are prohibited after 24 weeks, with no exceptions.

Kim says she found out about her pregnancy seven months after inception. “Because my parents vehemently opposed the child, I even looked at a hospital in rural Korea for the abortion,” says Kim. “But they told me that at that point, my life would be in danger if I underwent surgery.”

“I was in my mid-twenties when I got pregnant,” says An, “and the child’s father told me he could not afford to raise a kid, so I made the choice to raise the child myself.” An hid her pregnancy from her parents until the week before she went into labor. “When my mother found out,” recalls An, “she asked me if there was nothing I could do at that point.”

“Whether we give birth to the child or abort it,” asks Jo, “why does all the blame always fall on the woman?”

An will be performing in a play telling the story of a single mother’s experience at the National Theatre of Korea this weekend, hosted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the Ministry of Culture Sports and Tourism.

BY HONG SANG-JEE, LAURA SONG [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]


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