South Korea’s Solo Mums -101 East
What drives single mothers in South Korea to abandon their babies?
Park Da Hoon was 25 when she became pregnant and her boyfriend left her. She hid her pregnancy from her colleagues and parents, and gave birth in a hospital alone. Park says her family would have made her abort the baby. Abortion is illegal in South Korea unless under exceptional circumstances, but an estimated 300,000 cases take place every year.
Soon after childbirth, Park left her baby at a church in Seoul.More than 500 other desperate mothers have done so since 2009, after the pastor, Lee Jong Rak, set up a baby drop box in response to news of many abandoned newborns. He offers the mothers counselling and gives their babies temporary refuge.
Seen as irresponsible and unreliable, single mothers like Park suffer social discrimination. She even lost her job for “not fitting in with company values”.
Her parents eventually let her retrieve her daughter but she is among the lucky ones. The stigma against unwed mums is so strong in South Korea that most of them either give up their children or are left to raise them with minimal support. Children born out of wedlock are also ostracised in school.
In 2012, the Korean government passed a controversial adoption law intended to make it easier for children to find their birth parents and to deter unwed mums from giving up their newborns. The law makes it compulsory for a single mum to nurse for seven days before deciding whether to keep her child. She also has to register the birth in official records. Giving a baby up for adoption now requires consent from both the baby’s parents and sometimes grandparents.
Pastor Lee says the law “kills babies” by forcing more mothers to illegally dump their newborns. The number of baby box drop-offs has more than quadrupled since the law passed. Lee has folders full of letters from desperate mothers who left their babies with him, often depressed and even suicidal.
Lee’s church records reveal one in four mothers retrieve the babies.
The remaining children are sent to shelters where many are adopted by overseas couples. Local adoptions are rare because of the stigma attached to unwanted babies.
Through the eyes of single mums battling the odds in South Korea, 101 East explores their struggle to hold onto their babies and their dignity.
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