An unusual sight unfolded in Hongdae area on May 26. A group of high school volunteers for Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN) stood on a busy street holding up signs illustrating the unfair treatment of unwed mothers at workplaces.
The street campaign was part of KUMSN's effort to raise public awareness of unwed mothers' right to maternity leave and their right to raise their children. There are an estimated 35,000 households headed by unwed mothers raising children 18 years old and younger as of the end of 2011.
While all expectant mothers are eligible to take a three-month maternity leave, unwed mothers find it virtually impossible. Due to the social stigma and self-censorship, the women hide their pregnancies, much less claim maternity leave. In fact, many unwed mothers lose their jobs when the pregnancy is revealed.
In Korea, a society where Confucian mores prevail, unwed mothers face an uphill battle from the moment they find out they are pregnant and perhaps an even greater challenge later on in raising the children themselves.
"Our society encourages giving up the child for adoption over raising the child, and abandoning the child over raising it," Park Young-mi, the KUMSN board chairperson, said, in an interview with The Korea Herald on May 26, at her office in Hapjeong-dong, Seoul.
"There is virtually no publicity about unwed mothers raising their children. In fact KOBACO refuses such ads," she said. Korea Broadcast Advertising Corp. is a government-funded corporation responsible for advertising distribution.
While there are government assistance programs available for unwed mothers raising children - although often less than adequate - they do not have ready access to information about them. Without information, they feel they have no option but to give up their children. A report by the Korea Women's Development Institute showed that 94 per cent of children adopted in 2011 were children by unwed mothers.
Shelters for unwed mothers often encourage adoption.
"While a 2012 law banned adoption agencies from giving mainly information on adoption, there are only very few shelters that are geared toward assisting mothers who decide to keep their children," Park said. Of the 31 shelters for unwed mothers around the country, many turn away women who wish to keep their children, Park noted
Kim Min-jung, an unwed mother raising an 11-year-old son, counts herself lucky that her shelter did not actively encourage adoption.
When Kim found out she was pregnant in 2004, she and her boyfriend decided that the baby would be put up for adoption.
"We were not getting married. My boyfriend wanted an abortion, but I didn't want to kill a life growing inside me," said Kim in an interview with The Korea Herald on May 27 at the Korean Unwed Mothers' Families Association (KUMFA) office in western Seoul. The association is a self-support organisation of unwed mothers.