Monday, April 6, 2009

Trip Highlights from Dr. Cheryl Mitchell

Reflections on my visit to Korea.
Cheryl Mitchell

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.

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