Thursday, February 25, 2010

Seoul February 2010 take 3

Days become like weeks and months, we meet so many wonderful people, in various organizations, concerned about moms, or hearing about unwed moms for the first time. It is amazing how much can be done in one day!

Continuing the saga from yesterday, some of the further highlights of our trip include.... we met with a team manager from one of the Seoul City Single Parent centers. They have a team that focuses in particular on supporting unwed moms. The center currently has about 30 unwed moms that come regularly to programs and for counseling and all and many more who come now and again. The center offers counseling, self help groups, some vocational training, cultural programs, and works hard to support moms self esteem. This program is less then a year old, and it is wonderful to see how quickly moms learn about this resource and get involved.

We visited the Anti Corruption and Civil Rights Commission. The division we visited investigates complaints under the ombudsman program, in social welfare and labor. They received complaints about adoption related issues, did a thorough investigation and published a strong set of recommendations relating to adoption but also support for unwed moms in November, 2009. We wanted to understand more about their work, and how they got interested in the issue. Their work is to follow up and investigate complaints relating to government actions and civil rights specifically in the fields of social welfare and labor. We had a good exchange of views and information with them, and they affirmed that if unwed moms have complaints about violations of their civil rights relating to social support and work, they would be happy to receive complaints. It is good to know there is such a strong recourse for moms and really for all Koreans.

One of the major highlights of this trip is the forum regarding social support for unwed moms, hosted by the Korean Women's Development Institute or KWDI. Papers were presented on the incomplete birth statistics in Korea which make it hard to know how many unwed moms there are; the painful impact for mothers of relinquishing a child for adoption; the experience of unwed moms who had to struggle to get their babies back from adoption agencies; and the results of research on the needs of unwed moms in Korea. After the papers were presented, there was a response from discussants, and then a general question and answer period. The papers and discussants came from KWDI, government, academia, journalism, NGO and unwed mothers themselves. The paper presented by an unwed mom about their struggles with adoption agencies was very well received. There were moms and their children in the audience as well. Everyone felt it was a great success, that it was the first time a number of important issues were addressed in such a serious forum. It was the first time one of the unwed moms spoke at this kind of forum as well. Many people remarked that even two years ago, this kind of forum could not take place. It is hard to describe how wonderful it was to be talking about unwed moms WITH unwed moms on the panel and in the audience. It is no longer talking about people when they are not there. It was a truly moving experience and rich food for thought in the presentations as well.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Seoul February 2010 take 2

We continue to be very busy. It is such an honor and privilege to meet wonderful Koreans who care so deeply about unwed moms and the issues they face.

We had a lovely breakfast meeting with Ms. Lee Myong Sook, an attorney who has a special concern about women and children. When she became a lawyer about 20 years ago, she was one of 10 women lawyers in the whole country. She told us that now there are over 1,200 women lawyers. Things change quickly here. She is also the first woman to chair the Human Rights division of the Korean Bar Association. She has been working hard to develop a network of lawyers willing to work pro bono on human rights related cases. She expressed an sensitivity and concern about the adoption issues and unwed mom issues discussed and it seems she will be a good resource for unwed moms.

One of the highlights of our trip was spending the afternoon in a workshop with the Miss Mamamia groups. The Miss Mamamias are unwed moms who are raising their children. Currently there are over 40 active members and a much wider network of members and supporters. The workshop presented a lot of information about services available in the community and in particular related to group homes that serve unwed moms. While the moms engaged in discussion and questions and answers, their babies were being cared for by volunteers. After the meeting, the steering committee of the group went to dinner with us and of course brought along their babies. Such a beautiful experience, talking with moms while playing with their children who ranged in age from about 2 months to 4 years old. Each of these moms experienced significant pressure to have an abortion and/or to relinquish their child for adoption. Many of them have endured extreme hardships and painful struggles to raise their children. They are strong and dedicated women and moms and it was such a joy to spend an evening with them. Each of these mother/child families is precious and a testament to their determination to keep their family together.

The Miss Mamamias will be establishing a formal organization this year, registered with the Ministry of gender equality. While they have a more extensive strategic plan, their priorities for the year include: strengthening their organization and outreach to new members; improving public attitudes toward unwed moms; and healing the relationships with their parents, as many of the moms have been estranged from their own birth families. For this last area, they plan to have some group activities and counseling and a three generation camp.

We also visited Doori Home again, which is a group home for unwed pregnant moms, and affiliated with the S. Korean Salvation Army. Women who keep their babies can stay there for several months while they figure out jobs, where to live, and just generally get themselves situated to be a successful family of two. Doori home is working on ways to help these unwed moms get job training, save money, find more secure living, learn about parenting, and many other very supportive activities. It was a pleasure to see our friends there. Doori Home is hoping to open a store, similar to others the Salvation Army already operates, which sells both new and used clothing and household goods, and operates a coffee bar, appropriately named "Sally's Coffee". It will be a place that moms can work, get experience, and also sell crafts and other home made items.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Seoul February 2010

We are happily back in Seoul. So many things are happening so quickly, it is an amazing testament to the capacity of Korean culture to change quickly.

One of our first visits was to the Korean Legal Aid Center for Family Relations, where we met with the President, Ms. Kwak. The center has been serving women and their children and families for many years. Much of their earlier work focused on issues such as domestic violence, divorce, and issues confronting seniors in Korea. They have seen a big change in the last ten years, with the dramatic increase in single moms and unwed moms raising their children. The rapid changes in family composition have been reflected in significant changes in a number of laws relating to families. For instance we learned that it is now possible for parents who divorce, or who were never married, to have shared or joint custody, rather then the previous system which granted custody to only one parent and which tended to favor the father. The Center is already a great resource for free legal services for unwed moms and they are committed to being available to support moms as needed. One of the ways they plan to support moms is to work for legislation that would require unwed fathers to help support their children in certain circumstances, even if they don’t have custody of the child. This would be a huge benefit to moms who have such difficult economic struggles.

We again visited the I/You/Us Center run by Aeranwon. This center served close to 300 women who were pregnant or raising their child alone via a crisis hot line, as well with ongoing counseling, concrete support such as helping with medical bills, rent, or other small, emergency financial supports, job training, a mentor program and generally being a place that unwed moms can come to feel connected and that there are people who care about them and their children. The center also facilitates popular self help groups, were moms are able to help each other out, share resources and hard won experience with newer moms, and generally build a supportive community for each other. It is wonderful to see the center growing and reaching ever more moms and their children.

Our visit to the Haja Center was exciting. The Haja Center is an alternative education center providing many kinds of educational experiences ( )for young people, emphasizing creativity and social change. They provide internships and job shadowing and support to develop social enterprise, and they serve a wide range of both younger and older people. We met with storytellers who help moms tell stories to their babies while still in the womb. We listened to one of the bands play an old John Denver song. We visited many different rooms full of the creative products of the people involved at the center. Our conversation with Profesor Cho Han Hae Joang, who founded the center helped us appreciate how committed they are to embracing the diversity of Korean people. We felt very hopeful that this could be a wonderful opportunity for some of the unwed moms to both learn new skills while developing renewed self esteem and confidence. There seem to be so many different opportunities for participants to explore different kinds of work and gain a better understanding of how they want to participate in the work world. We left hoping that by the time we return again in 6 months or so, that a number of moms will at least have visited and possible will have decided to join in some of the programs.

Our schedule is packed as usual and there will be more to report soon.