Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dr. Boas' reflections on the August 2010 trip

What made this trip, my 9th, particularly rewarding, is that the issue of unwed moms and their children has become quite visible, and very much on the "radar screen." Forums such as the ones in Jeju and Gyeonggido--with active participation at both by unwed moms themselves--and government officials in attendance, were a wonderful demonstration of the active interest in the moms' situation, and ways of addressing it. I was so glad to hear the matter discussed at the recent IKAA Conference, which also included a joint presentation between an unwed mom and adoptee about their joint business venture--so that adoptees themselves are now more aware, and in a position themselves to address the issue.

The moms themselves are increasingly coming forward. I long ago lost count of the number of media interviews they have granted. May their numbers, voices and impact increase, in the cause of a socially just and truly democratic Korea. A recent "first," which we were so pleased to be an audience to, was a joint meeting between the newly-formed unwed moms' organization, Miss Mammamia, and Hanbumo Association. They have much common ground.

Not only is the matter of assistance for unwed moms very much an issue, the type of assistance is being increasingly discussed. Our belief--and that of the moms--is that these single-parent families are best supported in the community. Not only is this more cost-effective, it keeps moms and their children in the community, where they belong, and helps to decrease the stigma against them.

A group that I want to see become more involved is the Korean philanthropic community--corporations, foundations and individuals. Existing NGO's working for the moms, as well as a new one, formed by the moms themselves, need assistance. I am so heartened by the great interest shown by Korea Foundation for Women. This need is real, Korea itself is responsible for--and capable of--addressing the issue.

It was a pleasure and privilege to meet and speak with Professor David Smolin, a US legal scholar, now very much aware of problems of Korean adoption and Korean unwed moms. I welcome his continued interest in and help.

Since I began my work on behalf of Korean unwed moms, I have been saddened by the belief among Koreans that the mother alone is blamed for her pregnancy, and saddled with the responsibility for child-rearing and financial support of herself and her child. So many have been pressured--by families and by fathers-to-be--to get an abortion (96% among pregnancies of unwed women in Korea) or to give up her child to adoption, lest the reputation of the father or either family be ruined. This is unfair, unjust and discriminatory. Unwed fathers' responsibility is becoming increasingly discussed in Korea, and taken seriously, an important step. Koreans we spoke with "got it" when I quoted a US academic article which states that when men are held responsible for the children they father, birthrates go down.

We are delighted to assist Salvation Army/Duri Home in setting up a new Thrift Store/Coffee Shop in Seoul. Not only do we hope this will become a viable business (as existing stores are), but provide employment and valuable business experience for unwed moms. It was exciting to hear from the moms who will be working there. I look forward to my white chocolate mocha at the new store.

A big "thank you" to KUMSN staff for everything you do on behalf of social justice and progress for the moms and their children. I remain confident that Korea will solve this issue, and am proud we are playing a part.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Last whirlwind days

The last two days of the trip were a whirlwind and now we are home. We talked with journalists (see the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network on Facebook for links to potential resulting articles), legislators, researchers and service providers. We visited the Hambumo Center for single and unwed parents located in one of the Seoul Healthy Family Centers and learned about their work and shared ideas about working with moms and their children.

One of the remarkable aspects of our conversations in the last few days and really all week, was the discussion of unwed fathers. When we started this work, the entire focus was on the moms. If we mentioned fathers, everyone said sure they exist, but no one will focus on their responsibility. Here we are just a couple of years later and many times this week, in many different settings, people wanted to talk about the responsibilities of unwed fathers, the fathers of unwed mother’s children. There are a number of efforts under way to submit legislation that would require fathers to pay child support. It is clear that the invisibility of unwed fathers is not going to last much longer.

Looking back on the trip, we have a sense of accomplishment. In the last year the government has increased funding for younger unwed mothers. The number of newspaper articles and television reports on the moms has increased dramatically. The national government and some provincial governments are funding programs and research on unwed moms and their children. One of three panels at the IKAA adoption research symposium was devoted to mothers who relinquish and those who don’t. We participated in two strong forums addressing the needs of unwed moms outside of Seoul, in Jeju and Gyeonggi-do. And we hosted the first meeting between unwed mothers and single mothers associations. We met with Professor Smolin and heard his talk at the IKAA symposium. And there was so much more. Wow!

We are celebrating how quickly things change in Korea and how strong the unwed moms are becoming. Their voice is getting every stronger and they speaking out in more forums then every before. At the same time, we are sobered by their suffering and the continued prejudice and discrimination they experience. While the government has increased some kinds of funding for younger moms, most moms continue to struggle with housing and financial needs. There is much more to be done.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Gyeonggido Family and Women’s Research Institute Forum

Wednesday, August 4, found us in Gyeonggido participating in a forum addressing the needs of unwed mothers in their province. This was the first forum to address these issues in this province. Gyeonggido is the most populous province, as it is the area around Seoul, and is considered a microcosm of the country, containing cities, towns and farms, and of course mountains. The forum was attended by legislators from local councils, researchers, service providers, and unwed moms themselves. The turn out was much higher then they expected, over 50 people.

Dr. Boas gave an opening talk and Ellen Furnari delivered a talk written by Dr. Cheryl Mitchell, sharing information about services for families in the US, mostly based on economic need rather than marriage status. The highlight though was the research presented. This research is the first in the province on unwed mothers. They chose to focus on mothers in the community. They sent a questionnaire to over 700 mothers and approximately 40% were returned.

While the research has not been completed yet, and there is more analysis to be done, they shared some important findings. They estimated that between 400 to 600 children are born each year to unwed moms. Thus they estimate there are at least 2000 unwed moms in their province, and they believe the number is rising rapidly. The average age of the mothers in the survey was 30 and 51% had completed high school. About 10% are still connected with their babies father, while 49% reported no contact at all with the father. Interestingly 21% said they wanted vocational training but only 8% were aware of vocational training opportunities in the province. Most of the moms live in apartments paying monthly rent and many of the apartments are in basements. Perhaps related to this 42% of the moms reported themselves as in bad health with 12% of the children also in bad health. The average of the their children is 4.5 with 66% of the children 6 or younger ( Korean age starts at 1 when a child is born, so in American terms 66% of the children are 5 or younger). The moms reported that receiving financial support for their living expenses was the number one issue for them, with the need for housing support being a close second. As soon as we can KUMSN will post a copy of the research results as it provides important guidance for policy makers.

After the presentations there was a very lively question and answer session where a number of unwed moms spoke about their own experiences being treated rudely by social workers, needing financial support, the challenges of being discriminated against in finding work and other aspects of their struggle. One of the moms asked why the shelters for unwed moms do not hire unwed moms themselves. The session closed with a clear commitment from Gyeonggido leaders to work for an increased budget to support the moms and in particular to create more publicly supported housing, job training, more child care options and financial support. Better training for government social workers was also highlighted as an important element in treating moms with respect.

Over all it was a very satisfying forum and we left with high hopes about changes to come in the next year.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Research Symposium of the International Korean Adoptees Associations - IKAA

Today we spent the whole day at IKAA'a research symposium. This was the first day of IKAA's gathering in Seoul. Of particular interest was the first panel that addressed the situation and concerns of unwed moms. Research was presented about the history of discrimination against women in Korea and the changes over the years to recognize women’s equality in Korean law. However it was pointed out that while laws can change, it is much harder to change social practices and there remains a big gap in the salaries between men and women, and in their roles in society.

Han Boon Young and Yang Min-Ok presented their research on the counseling received by pregnant unwed moms in facilities. For the moms who stayed in facilities run by adoption agencies, the research found that these moms received counseling that urged them to relinquish their children, for their own sakes and for the baby to have a better life. They also reported stories of agencies adopting out babies without proper consent or within a shorter time frame then was promised. These moms had to fight to get their children back. Overall it was a sobering look at current practices and certainly highlights the conflict of interest between the adoption side of an agency and the side that serves pregnant women.

Given our interest in unwed moms, the highlight for us of the afternoon sessions was a presentation by Professor Smolin, whom we had met earlier in the week. He gave a good overview of the current situation in international adoptions world -wide. His focus is on unethical adoptions, for the purpose of improving the systems so that all international adoptions, and really ALL adoptions are conducted within the parameters of international conventions and laws. He discussed the ways that children are ‘laundered” after being acquired by force, financially or via fraud. In some cases children are kidnapped, in some cases families are offered what seems to them like large sums of money at a time when they are very poor and struggling to feed themselves, and sometimes families are told their children will be in school or it will be just a temporary separation to help them out. These children are then given papers with some other story which presents them as orphans, and adopted to other countries. He discussed what he is beginning to understand about the Korean system, in terms of the tremendous pressure put on women to either have an abortion or relinquish their children, and the closed system of domestic adoption. He ended with a call for Korean adoptees to work to expose the unethical and possibly illegal practices of Korean adoption agencies, both in Korea and in their home countries, in particular with the adoption agencies in their home countries.

Overall, we learned a great deal about not only the areas of concern to us, but also about issues related to language, the struggle of adoptees who now live in Korea after growing up elsewhere, and aspects of artistic expressions that reflect the challenged identities and emerging reflections of adoptees who grew up in other countries, in primarily white families and cultures.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Talking about adoption and unwed moms

Yesterday we had our jet propulsion packs on. The morning started with a great meeting with Professor David Smolin. Professor Smolin is an expert on ethical adoptions. He has been in S. Korea teaching a short course and will speak at the IKAA research forum today (Tuesday, 8/2). We had a lively exchange about the situation for unwed moms in S. Korea, how that relates to adoption practices, the Hague Convention and other related topics. As the large majority of babies adopted from S. Korea abroad are the children of unwed moms, we discussed the stories we have been told about women being pressured to relinquish their children in facilities run by adoption agencies and the heartbreaking stories of moms who had to fight to get their babies returned when they changed their minds just days after relinquishment.

Later in the day we spent time at the Duri Home unwed mothers facility. They also have a group home for moms and their babies. Women can enter the group home with children under 24 months and can stay for up to 3 years. This provides crucial help during an important transition period. However, there is only room for 8 moms and their babies in the group home. There are a number of such group homes around the country, but not enough for all the moms. Many moms live with friends and family when they can’t afford a place of their own. Precarious living situations add stress to moms' lives and thus to their babies early years as well.

After visiting the group home we returned to Duri Home for a great home-cooked meal with the moms in residence. Duri Home is a program of the Salvation Army in S. Korea. They plan to open a resale store soon, similar to ones in the US, with support from KUMSN and the Korea Foundation for Women. The store will sell used and donated new clothes and have a coffee shop. It will provide a place for a number of the moms to get work experience as well as a place to sell their craft and art work. We were able to hear from the mothers who will be in charge of the various new ventures. They are extremely committed to making the store a success. This is an exciting and much needed program. Duri home expects that with the help of some start up funds, the store can become self-sustaining within one year.

After twelve hours of stimulating conversation and encouraging site visits, it was time to go home and get some rest. Today we are off to the IKAA (International Korean Adoptees Associations) research conference.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Sunday in Seoul with unwed moms, single moms and KUMSN volunteers

We began the day with a lovely brunch for the KUMSN volunteers. Several of the volunteers tutor moms in English. One volunteer does art therapy with the mothers and with their children. Several volunteers help with translation and proof reading. It was very inspiring to hear how committed and thoughtful they are about wanting to help create change. The sincerity of the moms is an inspiration to all of us, including our excellent volunteers.

In the afternoon we had a ceremony with the Korean Foundation for Women to formally acknowledge the work KUMSN is doing with the Foundation. Dr. Cho is the President of the foundation and a thoughtful woman who is very supportive to the unwed moms and the work of KUMSN. After the more formal presentations, two groups shared their current work and plans for the rest of the year. The Miss Mama Mia group of unwed moms is transitioning into a more formal organization, the Korean Unwed Mothers Families Association (KUMFA). They are hard at work on many projects, including:

1. Providing counseling via email and phone and occasionally in person, to moms who are faced with difficulties regarding the choice to raise their children, or other child-raising issues.

2. Building the membership and involvement of new unwed moms.

3. Outreach to women in unwed mother facilities.

4. Working with journalists to help bring their stories to the wider society.

5. Working to make the government services currently available work better for moms and to increase the support the government provides for moms.

The Hanbumo (which means "single parent" in Korean) Association also shared their current work. The Hanbumo Association is a coalition of single mothers' organizations. Single mothers were married when they had children, but are now divorced or widowed. Korea had a huge increase in divorce in the late 1990s after the economic collapse and this high rate has continued. It has created huge social issues, since divorce used to be very uncommon. Like the unwed moms, the Hanbumo Assocation provides outreach and counseling to single mothers. They have ongoing street campaigns where they engage in street theater and hand out information to pedestrians about single mothers' issues. They are engaged in training and study to improve their own understanding of Korean society, to strengthen their own self-confidence, and to become better counselors. In addition they are working to improve their own internal structures and organization. They are all about empowering single mothers to make certain that government policy, laws, and social programs in Korea better serve all single parents.

After the initial presentations, there was a long and lively discussion during which both organizations shared experiences and developed ways they can support each other. As this was the first joint meeting, there was a lot to learn from each other about the work to improve the lives for all families, for all mothers and children. It was very exciting to listen to the exchange and imagine how they will work together.

We finished the day with a fantastic Korean meal with many of the participants. Among the delights was watching the little children run around so happily. It is painful to realize that without each others support and caring, these mother-child bonds might have been broken. It is such an honor and joy to be part of their support system.