S Korean mothers lash out at day care service changes

PHOTO: Reuters

The South Korean government's plan to charge households with full-time housewives for the currently free day care service should they utilize it for more than seven hours daily is stirring controversy nationwide, with some critics calling it misogynistic and discriminatory.

"The government is discriminating against full-time housewives by doing this," said Rep. Nam In-soon of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy. "Every mother, regardless of their employment status, should be able to access the public child care service for free."

Since 2013, the Welfare Ministry has offered a child care allowance for all parents with young children up to the age of 2 years. The parents currently have two options. They can either send their child to a state-run day care centre for free, or opt to receive an allowance ranging from 100,000 won (US$85 or S$120) to 200,000 won monthly, according to the age of the child, and raise them at home on their own.

Currently, all state-run day care centres offer services that are up to 12 hours daily, and the service is worth 780,000 won a month for 11-month-olds, 540,000 won (S$645) for 1-year-olds and 410,000 won for 2-year-olds.

As the monthly child care allowance of 200,000 won is worth much less than the exempted day care cost of 780,000 won, the proportion of parents -- regardless of the mothers' employment status -- who opt to send their children to centres instead of receiving the allowance increased significantly from 2011 to 2014, from 28.6 per cent to 35.4 per cent.

According to the Welfare Ministry, this has made it difficult for double-income households, who are in desperate need of all-day day care service, but who can't find their child a spot due to the service's high popularity. As of 2012, public day care centres accounted for only 5.2 per cent of all day care facilities in the country, according to the Korea Institute for Child Care and Education. Meanwhile, there are more than 5 million double-income households in Korea, accounting for 43 per cent of all households in the country as of 2013.

"Why is it full-time housewives' fault that working mothers can't send their children to day care?" said one housewife online. "Is it wrong when a housewife catches up with her friends and enjoys coffee for a few hours while having her child at a day care? The government is indirectly and unjustly blaming housewives by revising the current system. The ones who should be blamed are policy makers and public servants who failed to serve all parents who are struggling with child care regardless of their employment status."

Upon the revision, public day care service will only be free for seven hours daily for households with full-time housewives starting from July next year. Single-parent households, households with three or more children, households with a person with disabilities and households with a mother who is seeking employment will be exempted from paying extra even if the mother is a full-time housewife.

The revision, however, triggered fierce opposition from full-time housewives nationwide, who claim that they are often unjustly blamed and even criticised for sending their children to day care while not having to work and staying at home. Many of them online claimed they are often left with their baby alone all day at home, without any support from their working husbands and extended families, which leads to social isolation and even depression.

The country's misogynist online communities, including Ilbe, have infamously referred to full-time housewives who opt to send their children to day care or hire help with their husbands' income as "Mom-chung," meaning "mom bugs," for not "fulfilling their responsibilities as mothers" while being financially dependent on their spouses.

"It's not like I didn't want to work," said a 31-year-old full-time housewife who wanted to remain anonymous. "It was this double, lose-lose situation. I would feel guilty and stressed while enduring long work hours and having my child raised by someone else, or lose my job and be a full-time mother. And being a full-time mother with limited support often isolates you from social life. This is why we need day care service too."

Overseas studies have long shown that personal stress influences a parent's behaviour toward their children. Parents who are experiencing severe child care-related stress or having marriage stress have a higher chance of abusing -- or neglecting -- their children, according to a 1991 study by Michigan State University.

The social isolation of a parent due to having to raise a child alone has also been linked to child abuse and neglect, according to a 2002 report by the World Health Organisation.

In Korea, the number of child abuse cases increased by 44 per cent last year from 2013, with 80 per cent of the abusers being parents.