Wednesday, August 26, 2009

further reflections on the August trip

It was a privilege to meet with a representative of The National Human Rights Commission of Korea. Established in 2001, NHRC guards against unreasonable discrimination (due, for instance, to gender, religion, skin color or marital status), and helps create a socially conscious nation. NHRC agrees that the issue of unwed Korean moms is one of human rights, and we will be discussing with them best ways of effectively approaching the issue.

Korean Women's Development Institute (KWDI) has just published Reviewing Issues on Unwed Mothers' Welfare in Korea: Intercountry Adoption, Related Statistics and Welfare Policies in Developed Countries, and Korean Public Opinion Survey on Unwed Mothers and their Children. These much-needed studies (both of which may be found on our website) were funded by KUMSN, providing objective data and scholarly discussion to Korean academics, policymakers, legislators, media and the public, providing a great opportunity for change beneficial to the mothers and their children.

Monday, August 17, 2009

reflecting on the trip

Our last day was an intense flurry of last meetings, back to back. We met with an artist who has created a beautiful piece regarding birth moms who relinquished their children, and a social work student who wants to study about the impact of social work counseling on unwed moms decisions to raise their children or not, and Dr. Boas had a final interview, did some work on our web site... and on. Then we ran for the bus to the airport and flew home.

Now, home and over jet lag we are reflecting on our trip. For all of us one of the main highlights was the meeting organized by unwed moms themselves. They are able to use the Seoul City Hanbumo Center to meet and discuss issues such as what kind of government support they may be eligible for and how to find jobs and the like. Eventually they plan to advocate directly for their needs. The energy in the room, as already written of in an earlier blog, was fantastic.

Another highlight was visiting the Me You Us center created by Aeranwon. Also mentioned in a previous blog, the number of women they are serving, with a very diverse range of services, after just 6 months of operation, is impressive.

Both of these stand out as they reflect two important changes. One is the readiness of unwed moms to become visible, to speak up for themselves. The other is the move of services to support moms while they live in communities. As there are so few places in group homes, most moms of necissity and probably to some degree choice, live with their parents, with friends, or in their own apartments. Community based, rather then shelter based, programs are essential for them.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Second to last day in Seoul, more meetings

Such a surprise, more meetings!

The highlights of today were visiting the Ae Ran Wan "Me You Us" center and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.

With support from KUMSN ARW started the first ( as far as we know) comprehensive, community based support center for unwed moms. (The government has since started several more affiliated with their family net program). In their first 6 months of operation they provided crisis counseling, small financial help to moms for medical care, job related expenses, housing and baby related expenses, parenting classes, helped moms finish school, learn how to search for jobs and then actually support them in the job search process, ongoing counseling, medical care, and organized and supported self help groups, all for the moms. In addition they shared training with a number of other organizations and have built a network they can refer moms to for various services. We were awed by how much they do, and how far they stretch their limited financial resources.

We asked Ms. Han, the warm and caring Director, what has been the most surprising thing so far, since opening the center. She said that it turns out they are in a great neighborhood, easily accessible to the moms, so that many moms have attended their programs or just dropped by they center. They have seen a quick increase in the amount of outreach and counseling they do and an increase in the parents attending parenting classes. When asked what is most challenging, she said that the social workers are overwhelmed and it is hard for them to work with so many people. Also, their space is too small for many of the programs they run, so they have to find other places to use.

Over all, we are just so impressed with the work the Me You Us center is doing for the moms.

The next stop was at the National Human Rights Commission. There we learned how the Commission works and the kinds of issues they address. They are concerned about discrimination and violation of human rights related to 20 areas of focus. Just a few are gender, race, religion, marital status, disability, mental health and age. They investiage individual cases and try to help the involved parties come to an agreement that respects human rights and Korean laws. They can make recommendations, review pending legistaion and initiate investigations. They do not have any enforcement powers however. We had a fruitful conversation about the rights of mothers to raise their own children, of children to be raised by their parents, of teens to finish school, of women to get health care, and to be safe from being fired or evicted based soley on their pregnancy or unmarried parent status. It is good to know about resources like this.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Another day in Seoul

Yesterday we met with some of the Korean Women's Development Institute researchers, who are working on research related to unwed moms. KWDI has just released two important research studies. One examines the attitudes to unwed moms ( the research study is available on their web site and on the KUMSN website as well). Not surprisingly the attitudes are complex. We were pleased there was support for social welfare for unwed moms, even if it isn't a top priority, and saddened by the continued prejudices. The other research study examines the effects of international adoption on unwed moms, examines the national statistics regarding unwed moms and finally looks at comparative welfare supports from several countries. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the national statistics is how much unknown or simply unclear, given how Korean births are registered. We deeply appreciate the professionalism and depth of these research studies which KUMSN funded.

In the afternoon we returned to the Seoul Hanbumo Support Center to discuss the parent child center model and in particular the alternative education program. At the Addison Parent Child Center there is a Learning Together Program that serves around 40 single parents a year, mostly young single moms. Everyone in the program does the following:
works in the childcare rooms taking care of babies in conjunction with professional staff
takes parenting classes
is working on the next step in their education ( tutoring, finishing high school, getting special supports, starting college)
participates in counseling - individual and/or group
attends group meetings of all participants.

While the parents engage in the program, their children are taken care of in high quality, early childhood education programs. This allows the parents to concentrate on their other work. Through these activities all parents learn good parenting skills. They advance in their education, which might mean finishing high school, getting their GED certificate, starting high school, or making progress in basic literacy and mathematics skills. As they progress they also engage in vocational training and eventually can do an internship and get help with finding a job. They have opportunities to work on emotional issues. They develop strong group bonds and help each other get through the challenging times, celebrate together their success, birthdays and other happy moments. Most moms after a year or two in this program will have completed high school and found a job.

The presentation was useful to the Hanbumo Support Center as they will be opening an alternative education program in September of this year - just next month. They are already offering some educational programs for the children of single parents and are able to offer not only the new education program but counseling, arts and crafts, and various other activities. The Hanbumo Support Center hosts the developing self advocacy organization of unwed moms. We are impressed with their facilities, and with their good thinking and plans for the future. The center is newly opened and we look forward to returning next trip to see how it is flourishing.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Unwed moms and single moms

Today we took the very fast train from Seoul to Busan. There we had a great meeting with the Korean Hambumo Network regarding their work with "little moms" or unwed moms. In Korea, they make a distinction between single moms, who were married when they had children but are now single and unwed moms, who were not married when they had children. While there is significant discrimination against single moms it tends to be less then that directed toward unwed moms. In the late 1990s with the rapid increase in divorce, there was a corresponding rapid increase in single moms. Many of these women have worked hard to improve the government support for single parents, and are currently working to guarantee the right to health care, housing and vocational education for all single parents. This would clearly benefit unwed moms.

The Hambumo Network also has developed a training program to train volunteer counselors to work with unwed moms via an internet cafe, to teach about sex education and relationships and out of wedlock parenting, in high schools. They established an in internet community for unwed moms that currently has over 50 members. They are committed to continuing to both advocate for better government support and protection for all single parents, and to work specifically with unwed moms, to support them in the ways that they can.

The meeting was followed by another great workshop featuring Dr. Cheryl Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell gave several workshops when she was here with us last year. As one of the founders of the Addison Parent Child Center in Vermont, a former Deputy Secretary of the Agency of Human Services in Vermont, and currently an adjunct professor at the University of Vermont, Dr. Mitchell has a wealth of experience and knowledge to share about how comprehensive programs in the US support moms ( see earlier blogs about our study tour in Vermont). She can share knowledge about the kinds of programs needed, program design, funding sources, and a more general public policy analysis. The workshop was well received, with lots of questions being asked and a lively exchange.

At the end of a great day, we took the fast train home to Seoul.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Moms are organizing

Saturday we started the day viewing a film about sexual violence in S. Korea. It was a documentary full of the stories of women who had experienced sexual violence at different ages and stages of life, and in various degrees of severity. As seems to be true in so many parts of the world, women are often blamed, often blame themselves, and/or freeze and are unable to defend themselves in their terror. The women in this film, however, are all doing things that indicate they are not just victims but survivors, that they are able to thrive in their lives, stand strong with each other, and while certainly intensely affected, the sexual violence does not define them.

We were inspired to think that sometime soon, there will be documentaries like this about unwed moms. Moms will tell their stories, will show the country how strong they are, what good moms they are, how despite very difficult challenges, they are able to work for changes in the legal and social service systems to better their lives.

And then we went to a meeting of a group of women who are unwed moms who are just beginning to form their own organization. They are learning about what it means to have an organization and run it. They are learning about many aspects of the current situation for unwed moms in terms of government supports, educational opportunities, child care, employment, etc. In the long run, they plan to advocate for better conditions for themselves and their children, and all the women and children like them, who are discriminated against because they were not married when they had a child.

The meeting was full of energy, commitment, caring, intelligence and wisdom. The moms ranged from a woman who is 8 months pregnant to a mom of a nine year old. The meeting also included some single moms, experts, journalists and the mother of one of the moms. It was such a privilege to be included. We have no doubt that this groups will grow, and will be successful in working for their own needs, while supporting each other through difficulties.

The topic of the day was governmental income support and housing support they might be eligible for. It was clear very quickly that there are many rules and regulations that are confusing and maybe even contradictory. The officials who implement the programs have a wide range of discretion, so much depends on the attitude of the official in the local office where moms apply for benefits. As in the US, if you start to earn money, you can loose all your benefits, so it is hard to transition from government support to self support. We were surprised to hear that the income and assets of many relatives are taken in consideration, not just the unwed mom's parents, in making a determination. Even if the woman is not supported in any way by these relatives, she can be denied benefits because the government assumes these relatives could support her. It helped us understand one of the reasons why there is a gap between the government programs available and the actual experience of many unwed moms of being unable to qualify for them.

The housing supports available sounded equally confusing. There are several different kinds of support available. In order to qualify, you are rated not only on income and need, but also if you do volunteer work or other positive things in the community. Again, there seems to be a lot of room for the government official's own judgment of who is deserving of support.

The women shared information on how they had applied, what information was needed, when they had been able to receive support and when not. It was clearly a group committed to helping each other out.

Overall we thought the good news is that there are a number of important government income and housing programs available. The challenge is to make them accessible to moms who need them. Moms need to be free of the discrimination made possible by the high level of individual discretion available to officials, and to be able to qualify based on their own situations, not that of their families. So many unwed moms have difficult relationships with their families and may even be estranged. And the government will need to look at how to make the transition from receiving benefits to self support more gradual. Lastly it was clear that there is insufficient governmental funds to make these supports available to all who apply. AGain, the local officials seem to be the one to decide who gets the limited resources. If the Korean people decides to support these moms and their children, there will need to be an increase in allocations and clear directive to qualify moms with their children.

Another thing that struck us was the way women are let go from work or removed from school when their pregnancy is apparent. And that their personal registration document, which must be shown when applying for a job, includes their status as unwed moms. This level of legal discrimination is a huge obstacle for these women. It reminded us of how far we have come in the US in making this kind of discrimination against women illegal. While it undoubtedly continues, it has dramatically decreased, given the legal protections for women and their children in the US.

Listening to the moms, we have complete confidence that they themselves will be able to educate government officials and legislators on their needs, very soon. We left thinking that in just a couple of years, these powerful women will have changed their world for the better.

Friday, August 7, 2009

We are in Seoul now

What a busy month. A few weeks ago KUMSN hosted the study tour in the US. Now the US staff are here in Seoul. Amazing.

Today, August 7, 2009, we started the day with Dr. Cheryl Mitchell giving a lecture to elementary school teachers on teaching in multi cultural classrooms. Among many things, she shared the approach that can see multi cultural as not only including children who are literally different ethnicities, but also gender, income, abilities and disabilities, religion, etc. She challenged the teachers to think of ways that all children, and all parents of their students, can feel welcomed and validated in the classroom. She deftly wove in the implication that this includes the children of unwed moms, and the moms themselves.

The afternoon was spent at Doori House, a program of the Korean Salvation Army. Started in 1926 as a home for women, it became a program specifically for unwed moms in the 1990s. They provide housing, food, health care, vocational education, arts and crafts, music and art therapy, counseling and a wonderful, home like atmosphere that is very warm and welcoming. Truth in advertising..... they fed us delicious treats!

The program has seen a dramatic shift in just the last 4 years. In 2005 only 13% of the moms decided to raise their children, the rest opted to relinquish their babies for adoption. In 2008 53% of the moms chose to raise their children and they can tell that in 2009 that number will be even higher. This has huge implications for their program - women and their babies stay in the home longer and need different kinds of supports. In answer to this, they have opened a group home for moms and babies, where moms can stay for up to a year. They have a growing number of moms who have "graduated" from their program and are now part of an online community to stay in touch and support each other. THey see that they will need to expand their services to women living in the community.

There have been changes in the women they work with as well. The women today are older and have more education. Many of them were self supporting until they became visibly pregnant, when they then had trouble at work. While in earlier years many of the moms had babies "by mistake" because they missed the time when they could have had an abortion, many more women today are choosing to have and raise their children.

While the government supports some of the costs of the program, they must fundraise for the rest. They get support from the Community Chest of Korea, from the Salvation Army itself, and they get volunteers from various churches and companies. This program actively supports moms talking to people in the government to advocate for their own needs for improved government support. One of the critical needs we discussed was the need for more child care support, and for child care programs that run longer hours. Most working women need to have childcare after 6pm.

Overall it is a very impressive program and we were happy to be able to connect and look forward to staying in touch.