Monday, April 6, 2009
It was a most amazing experience to be invited to join Dr. Boas, Ellen Furnari, and the KUMSN staff for two weeks of visits and meetings in Seoul this spring. I was totally impressed by the diligence and thoughtfulness that so many people bring to helping improve the situation for unwed mothers and their children. It seemed as if everyone: practitioners, government officials, researchers, parents, women’s groups, the media, church members, and members of the community, wanted to make things better, and that everyone shared a vision of country in which all children were loved and cared for and all parents were respected.
There were so many things that seemed special and important to me that I can only list a few:
Meeting with mothers and hearing their life stories (whether they relinquished their babies or were raising them alone or with help) was clearly the high point. I was struck by how committed these young women were to helping develop a more supportive community, in ways that might not even benefit them directly. Their willingness to speak out publically struck me as both an act of courage and also an act of joy about the lives they hope will be possible for their children. And of course enjoying the delightful energy of the babies and toddlers was another high light. Being at Ae Ran Wan with the staff and parents made me feel as if I were back home at the Parent/Child Center in Vermont. The sense of love and possibility is so palpable.
It was also extremely impressive to me that the Governments (both National and Municipal) were taking such a thoughtful approach to crafting social policies that would really help young families. They were paying attention to child care, health care, continuing education for the mothers, relationships with the fathers and extended family, job opportunities, and ways to overcome the stigma. The level of research about these social policy issues seems very high and I was tremendously impressed by the researchers I met. Korea seems to value this research more that we sometimes do in the US and I applaud the great working relationships I saw between policy makers and academics.
Being on the panel for the KWDI Forum at the National Assembly was a truly thrilling opportunity for me. The chance to learn from other researchers, the thoughtful responses to my presentation, and the clear interest of government in this issue were all very heartening. I was so grateful to have had more time to get to know people in other settings, both formal and informal, and so grateful to Ms Kwon and Ms Shin who did such meticulous arranging and great translating. The chance to meet so many practitioners at the KUMSN training day was also a humbling and exciting experience. There is so much excellent work being done in Korea, and events such as this are just the beginning of people being learning from one another.
I was greatly impressed by the energy and effectiveness of the many groups and people we met with individually, from adoptees to labor to woman’s groups to private agencies. Korea is so fortunate to have this great convergence of energy, interest, knowledge and skill. It seemed as if dramatic social changes could well happen much more quickly here (as they did for technology or for growing the economy.) Walking into Nel Purin, for example, it was clear that Korea was taking a respectful and effective approach to helping prevent unintended pregnancy while other agencies were beginning to work just as effectively to help ensure that women who do get pregnant receive the support they need to effectively care for their babies.
I felt so grateful for the many opportunities to talk with the press, for how well prepared they were, and for the direct and important questions they asked. Since overcoming stigma does require a high level of public awareness, it was good to know that reporters were taking the time to really understand the situation.
There were a few things that surprised me. Prior to arriving, I had heard that the structures of a society very strongly influenced by Confucianism would be such that unwed mothers and their children could never be accepted. Yet many times I heard older men say “If it were my daughter in that situation, I would be understanding and helpful.” And many times I heard mothers who were raising their children say that their parents were now helping them. In the US, we frequently found that parents were very angry when they first learned their daughter was pregnant, and frequently would not allow her to live at home during her pregnancy, yet almost always, after the baby was born, the grand parent instinct seemed to kick in and there was usually a rapprochement. I also met unwed fathers in Korea who were concerned about their babies. So I think there is far more hope here of families supporting one another than I had expected to find.
It was also startling to learn that there is no required town and birth registry to serve as the basis for research about vital statistics. It made the good research even more impressive to me given the difficulty of obtaining information. The relative youth of the philanthropic sector was also a little surprising, but made up for in their openness to tackling challenging social issues.
It is obviously presumptuous to make any judgment based on such a short visit, yet I felt so confident that Korea will make major and significant advances in helping young families. I imagine that critical issues such as child care, education and job training for the parents, jobs paying living wages, and access to housing and health care, will be solved by Koreans faster and probably more elegantly and efficiently than we were able to do in the US.
In closing, it was an immense gift to be able to meet such wonderful and thoughtful people and to share a little bit in the amazing energy that seems to have gathered around young families with young children. I hope there will be further opportunities for us to learn from and with one another.
We can sing a rainbow
Testimonial Dinner of Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network
Hee Jung Kwon (project coordinator)
There were two big events to celebrate; one is that KUMSN officially started in September 2008, and the other is a KWDI forum at National Assembly in March 4, 2009. I had to spend quite some time giving thoughts that how it should be celebrated well during the time Dr. Boas, Ms. Furnari and Dr. Mitchell were visiting Korea.
An idea that hit my mind was having a reception after the KWDI forum. But the next question was who should be invited. Originally I planned to invite KWDI researchers and government officials since the goals of KWDI research are closely related to designing new possible policies for unwed mothers and their children. However, it didn’t turn out well. I found government officials are in the position of being neutral so that they were willing to attend the forum but not the reception.
After tossing and turning, I realized that people who voiced and worked for the benefits and rights of unwed moms in 2008 should be invited. So I sent invitations to them and, thank God, all of them replied me that they were happily to attend.
On the day of reception, there were Dr. Kim Hey Young, Dr. Lee Mi Jeong, and other associate researchers from KWDI who have carried out wonderful research on unwed mothers and their children.
And there was Ms. Han, Sang Soon, director of AeRanWon, who has passionately provided all the possible services for unwed moms and recently opened a community base center for unwed mothers. Reverend Kim Do Hyun from KoRoot also voiced for the rights of unwed mothers and their children in the middle of adoption debating field. Ms. Cho Kyu Young, a member of Seoul Metropolitan Council, raised a sharp question to the Mayor of Seoul. It brought a positive result that the Seoul City Government was able to secure a budget for the welfare of unwed moms and their children.
In 2008, there was a forum about unwed youth moms. Two main figures to make it happen were also at the reception, Ms. Park Sung Hae, a director of Neul Purun Center of Seoul Metropolitan Government and Professor Kim, Eun Young, who was in charge of the research.
The presidents of HANBUMO Network and UN Future Forum, Ms. Kwon Kyung Ae and Ms. Park, Young Sook were also there to celebrate the night. HANBUMO network, which has worked hard for the rights of Korean single moms, started to train volunteer counselors for “little moms.” UN Future Forum has helped unwed moms by providing goods and shelters for unwed moms. And books of unwed moms’ stories and successful cases of foreign countries in supporting single unwed moms were published by UN Future forum. A writer, Kimberly Hee Stock who struggled for finding the ‘greater truth in my adoption’ though a book, Origami Crane, also attended and chatted with the other guests.
While the people at the reception were enjoying meals and talks, I received text messages from Ms. Yoo, Kyung Hee, a board member of Korea Womenlink. She sent several messages that she could be late but the last one was that she couldn’t make it since her lecture finished too late. Korea Womenlink also carried out wonderful research and hosted a symposium for non-wed mothers. They wanted to create new identity by creating a new term, “non-wed mom.” This emphasizes a woman’s own decision that she can have a baby without marriage.
Even though we missed one, there were people from academy, politics, social welfare, and NGOs from different sectors of society. We know society cannot change by efforts from only one side. In that means, we had all. Like a rainbow, the variety of color will make our society better and beautiful. Red and yellow are different. And green are purple are also different. But we know the differences can make a beautiful rainbow.
I am dreaming that the day comes soon when unwed moms color themselves to be a part of that rainbow. And the day we sing together….
A rainbow of Testimonial Dinner
In our recent trip to Seoul (Feb/March, 2009) we were able to meet with representatives from Korean Womenlink. This is an organization founded in 1987 that advocates for women’s rights in terms of labor, education, participation in public life such as running for public office, and for the acceptance of many kinds of family structures.
We have been working with the Hambumo network – a national organization of single moms, for two years now. So I was happily surprised to learn that this network grew, in large part, out of the work of Korean Womenlink. For a number of years they have had public education campaigns, advocated for better legislation and government policy and helped single moms come together to support themselves.
About two years ago, Korean Womnelink decided that there was a critical need to address the situation of unwed mothers. They recognized that while unwed moms share some of the same circumstances as single moms, they also face many different challenges. So they initiated research last year as a precursor to action. This is one of the many things, by the way, that really impresses us working in Korea. So often both government and NPO’s do research in to a situation or area of concern, before doing public education or advocacy or providing services. They are very thoughtful about understanding deeply before planning and acting. And the role of researchers and professors is very important in this regard.
This year was to be year two of their project. However, the funding from the government for this work had increasing requirements attached and they decided to decline the second year of funding. The funding was to begin a public education campaign about the situation and needs of unwed moms. I hope we can find a way to help them pursue this anyway.
It is so refreshing to talk with people who have on their own, before even meeting us or hearing of our work, recognized the needs of unwed moms and decided to do something about it. It was also just enjoyable to be in their offices. When we asked questions that the senior staff with whom we were meeting couldn’t answer, they would go out and talk with the younger women and come back with various opinions and answers. There was such a sense of mutuality and cooperation. I just really enjoyed our visit and hope to work with them in the future on our shared interests.
To share a bit more, here is how Korean Womenlink describe themselves in their material: (see link below for their website)
Korean Womenlink has 10 local branches and about thousand members who actively participate in building a just and egalitarian society.
A world without domestic violence and sexual violence.
A society with an open family culture that accepts various family forms.
A society where women's sexuality and self-determination is repected.
A society where women's labor rights and equal employment are protected.
An open media, a media for the public! Eco-feminism based on life and women's perspective.
Alternative life-style movement:
A Little, a Few and Slowly Co-operative community movement to monitor environmental and life-related issues.
The director and consultants of Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (hereafter KUMSN) visited Seoul from late February to early March. Dr. Richard Boas (founder/director), Ms. Ellen Furnari and Dr. Cheryl Mitchell had actively participated to several ground meetings and public forums that were focused addressing the issue of Korean unwed mothers and their children.
Feb 24, 2009 KUMSN had participated to an informal gathering at Ko-Root with four of adoptee organizations (Ko-Root, GOAL, ASK, and TRACK) that serve for the needs of returning Korean adoptee. There were also a birth father, who had been looking for his son so hard at that time, and Mr. Hwang Pilgyu, a Korean human rights lawyer. Rev. Kim Do Hyun, Ko-Root representative, prepared nice breakfast for all of us and people were able to freely discuss about the various, the most current issues which are related to Korean unwed mothers, adoptee and birth parents. Personally, it was an interesting meeting of all, because the fact that birthparents, adoptee, and adoptive father had been involved in learning and discussing about the issue which affect their lives and, as far as I learnt so far, it does not happen often. There are many people who neither realize the facts that the unwed mother issue is highly correlated to the issue of intercountry adoption nor validate the relationships that the birthparents, the adoptee, and the adoptive parent have. However, at the Ko-Root meeting, those three persons (that consist of ICA) and their supporters (staff of organization) gathered listening and learning to each other and wished the best for each other. I felt it was meaningful. ,
I would like to introduce more about the birth father who attended the gathering at Ko-Root and love to share his recent news in his family. Searching for their son was a difficult journey for him and his wife. About a year ago, they had already agreed on relinquishing their baby for domestic adoption and the baby had already been sent to Korean adoptive parents (by the way, back then she was his girlfriend but they legally married after she gave a birth). Soon the birthparents realized that the choice was not made in the best condition with appropriate counseling, wanted to take their baby back from the adoption agency but the request was rejected. They had attempted variety of means of searching for their son. They did news paper interviews, uneasy negotiations with adoption agency staff, and attend to a number of related events (attending Ko-Root breakfast meeting was the one of the chances that he could appeal to public asking help). Now their son is with the birthparents and we all were exited about the wonderful news.
Another, there is good news right after KUMSN trip ended. On March 8, a day before the World Women’s day, the popular news programs of Korea TV stations had dealt with the unwed mother issue on the prime time. It begun with Arirang TV News and the other was SBS 8 News. KUMSN had actually influenced on both TV interviews directly and indirectly; Dr. Boas and Dr. Cheryl Mitchell had interviewed with Arirang TV reporter at the Ae-Ran-Won’s new community center and at the KWDI public forum. A child-rearing mother and Dr. Lee Mi Jeong, a KWDI research fellow, had an interview with SBS TV team. During the news, they focused on the current change in Korean society; giving birth and raising children out of wedlock is no more needed to be in shady spot and ignored. There are more women who choose to keep their children and the public perception towards unwed mothers has been shifting slowly, accepting the current change. However, there is still lack of government support, and the issue of the social stigma is challenging for the unwed mothers. That news introduced the KWDI forum and its research outcome as well.
One might consider this as a fine sign for the unwed moms and their children; Korean unwed mother issue is getting more public attention in Korean society. I hope the issue would continue to be maintaining on the public agenda so it would lead Korea to find its own best solution. I hope Korea would become more mature society that is willing to give a “second chance” to those brave women who choose to raise their children by themselves. Thank you.
You could watch the Arirang TV News and SBS News segment (it is in Korean language) below:
What a delight it has been to know and work with Dr. Mitchell! She has vast knowledge, experience and expertise in planning, setting up and running parent/child centers in Vermont, also served for ten years as the state’s Deputy Secretary, Agency of Human Services. So it was significant that she could join us—as presenter, discussant, and advisor.
On February 26, Dr. Mitchell presented an all-day workshop, attended by 100 (including social workers, unwed moms, representatives of adoption agencies), Supporting Unwed Mothers and Their Children: Challenges, Strategies, and Benefits to Mother, Child and Community.KWDI
It was a great opportunity for the attendees to hear from someone who understands the situation of unwed mothers and their children, and has set up successful programs to serve them (a model now used in other states). The workshop provided a springboard for those in attendance to improve services for unwed moms and their children, in ways that will work in a Korean context.
On March 4, the Korean Women’s Development Institute (KWDI) held its 52nd Women’s Policy Forum, Improving Attitudes Toward Unwed Mothers and Promoting Support,
at the National Assembly, sponsored by KUMSN. The room was full, approximately 20 legislators attended, and proceedings were broadcast live on TV. Moderated by Prof. Nam Soon Huh, Hallym University, presenters included Drs. Hyeyoung Kim and Mijeong Lee of KWDI, Prof.Yunkyu Ryu, Seoul Theological University, and
Dr. Mitchell. One of the discussants was Dr. Hyeseon Kim, Ministry of Health and Welfare, who is taking an increasing interest in the situation of unwed moms. I was very moved to know that the issue of unwed mothers and their children is gaining visibility, and is being taken more seriously.
In addition to seeing him at several meetings (including the Forum), it was a real pleasure to have dinner with Rev. Do Hyun Kim, director of KoRoot (which provides housing and assistance to returned adoptees). Rev. Kim, who is passionate, articulate, candid and unafraid, is one of the only men in Korea speaking strongly on behalf of unwed mothers and their children (and openly critical of adoption agency practices). He is a man of integrity, truly inspiring. He is a supporter, friend, and a real asset to the cause of the moms.
From Richard S. Boas, MD, Founder and Director, Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network
Two and a half years ago, on my first trip to Korea, I was suddenly and deeply moved by the plight of unwed mothers there—especially that of my own daughter’s natural mother, years before. My response was to establish the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network. I am so gratified that, after a relatively short time, we are truly making progress toward improving the situation of these mothers and their children. There is a real commitment—from academia, policymakers, legislators, organizations directly serving the mothers, advocacy organizations—and the moms themselves, to providing a brighter future for these women and their children, so that they become equal, productive members of Korean society. What an opportunity for Korea to do well by them!
The sixth—and most recent—trip, in late February/early March, was particularly rewarding, as the unwed mom issue is gaining traction. We met with a lot of individuals, organizations, sponsored a workshop and a major forum, and held several interviews. What follows is a series of reflections by my staff, by Dr. Cheryl Mitchell, Research Professor, University of Vermont, who accompanied us, and by myself, about what we felt were the most significant parts of our wonderful trip.