[INSIGHT] A Star Challenges Society With His Story

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[INSIGHT] A Star Challenges Society With His Story

Social Prejudices Against Unwed Mothers Rob Innocent Lives of The Chance to Live

There is a joke that says a woman gets married when she loses her judgement, gets divorced when she loses her patience, and remarries when she loses her memory.

More and more women are choosing to raise children alone out of wedlock today, though not because they have suddenly acquired better judgement. An Internet site presenting "The Story of Unmarried Mothers" opened last year, and already it has introduced the narratives of about 30 unwed mothers.

Son Ji-chang, TV star, singer and entrepreneur decided recently to break his silence on the 30-year-old secret of his birth out of wedlock .

His father, he said, is Yim Taik-keun, one of the most famous TV news and sportscasters of his day. On the occasion of Lunar New Year's Day he visited Mr. Yim together with his half brother to offer a traditional bow of filial obedience .

What caught my eye about this story, which became a hot topic, was the actor's last name. I wanted to know how he came to use neither his mother's nor his father's family name.

I learned that his mother had decided to give him the last name of her sister's husband. The actor lived with his uncle's family when he was a small child, and he grew up believing his uncle was his father. He learned he had his own biological father when his cousin, whom he believed was his sister, admonished him, "Don't you call my daddy your daddy. You are not my daddy's son."

His mother must be much stronger than the average Korean woman, enduring the hardships of life and raising a child alone for 30 years. But why did she want her son to have a different last name from hers? An expert on family laws told me why:

"It was because she did not want him to be known as a fatherless child,." he said. He added many unwed mothers enter their child's name in the family register of their male relatives for fear of the child growing up under scorn. Having the same last name as your mother in Korea is as good as trumpeting the circumstances of your birth.

According to research, only 13 percent of unmarried women, upon learning of their pregnancy, decide to give birth to their child. Almost 24 percent of them choose abortion even if they want to have and raise the child, due to fears of being ostracized.

Society's prejudices against unmarried mothers not only rob the innocent of the chance to live but also encourage a tendency to discount or debase the value of human life.

The actor Mr. Son confessed, "What I hated the most as I was growing up was filling in the family data reports at elementary school."

He had to create a father he had never known and fabricate lies. Whenever he had a fight with friends as a child, he chose to be beaten because he did not want to be pointed out as a troublemaker without a father. He never brought any of his friends home, not wanting it to be known that he was fatherless and singled out as a target of rejection.

The treatment of unwed mothers raising children alone is vastly different in Germany. When an unmarried mother asks for help, the children's welfare agency locates the father and files for child support on the mother's behalf, and makes the father pay child support before and after the child's birth and for the period the mother is unable to work.

What a far cry from Korean society where the children of absent fathers not only have to brave the pain of separation but also society's contempt.

It is not only the children of unmarried mothers who are stigmatized. More and more children are being raised by single fathers or mothers after divorce or death of a spouse.

The 1999 Seoul White Paper on Women shows more than 30 percent of marriages end in divorce, but society's general view of failed marriages has not changed much from that it held when divorce was rare.

The United Nations International Children's Fund recently ranked the 26 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development according to the rate of death from injury for children between the ages of 1 and 14.

South Korea had the highest rate of child deaths caused by injury. With 25.6 children per 100,000 dying from injury, Korea was even outstripped by Mexico in the area of child safety.

Koreans were upset by this news, as they should have been, but in my opinion, discrimination against children growing up in one-parent households is a bigger problem than the high rate of child deaths due to injury.

Physical accidents can be prevented, to a certain extent, but the mental wounds inflicted on children by the distorted perceptions of others are not easily mitigated.

It took 30 years for Mr. Son to find the courage to disclose his illegitimacy and expose himself to social prejudices and disdain. I wonder how much longer it will take Korean society to learn to accept all of its children without discrimination.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Hong Eun-hee

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