The stories of adoptees are often recounted in the media, especially around this time of year, when focus on the government-designated Adoption Day produces articles about adoptees who have returned to Korea or are seeking to reunite with their birth family.
But behind every adoption there is another story to tell about a woman who has surrendered a child, and oftentimes not by choice.
What keeps these women from raising their children is a persistent stigma in a still patriarchal society that says they are unfit to raise their children alone and don’t deserve the social or financial support to do so.
Until recently, their stories remained hidden, a dark secret at the core of the adoption issue.
But many of these women have begun not only to fight the system and demand support for their choice but also to speak about their experiences in an effort to gain recognition for the rights of other women to keep their children.
One adoptee group joined the fight by organizing a Single Moms’ Day on Adoption Day, May 11, to shift the focus from adoption to family preservation. At a conference organized for the occasion, single mothers recounted the sometimes harrowing experiences of seeing their children sent for adoption by relatives or agency workers while adoptees voiced their support for the actions of a single moms group that is working to change the law so future generations will have the option of raising their children.
||Jane Jeong Trenka, far left, and Single Moms’ Day participants distribute cakes celebrating single mothers and those who spent their first birthday away from their family. By Jes Eriksen
Single Moms’ Day was organized by Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (Track), an adoptee-founded group that advocates for family preservation and adoptee rights; KoRoot, a guesthouse for adoptees returning to Korea; the Korean Unwed Mothers & Families Association (Kumfa), a single mothers’ advocacy group; and the Korean Single Parent Alliance. It included a gift drive, conference and cake give-away and was held May 11 at Community Chest of Korea in Jeong-dong, central Seoul.
“By raising public awareness about this issue, we can challenge the Korean government to meaningfully and sufficiently support children in the families in which they are born instead of sending them for adoption either domestically or internationally,” said Jane Jeong Trenka, a Korean adoptee who was adopted to the United States when she was 6-years-old and the author of two autobiographies and an anthology about adoption.
Single moms speak out
Having few options and little money, one single mother, who wishes to remain anonymous, signed papers relinquishing her rights to her child before giving birth. She was 24-years-old and on her own and it was the best option she could imagine.
But after her daughter was born, she decided she couldn’t bear to give her daughter up and decided to do what she needed to do to raise her. She returned to the agency to try to get the child back, but was unsuccessful, though the agency did allow her visits. The last time she went, the social worker told her that she wouldn’t be able to see the child anymore if she kept asking to get her back. When she persisted, the social worker told her that even if it were possible to reverse the adoption process, she would have to repay the agency the money spent on the baby and the birth.
At the conference, she encouraged the government to support women who want to raise their children and create an environment in which a woman can raise a child on her own.
“A child is not something we can give to someone else,” she said. “Adoption should be considered after the birth mother is given a chance to raise her own child.”
The kind of institutionalized international adoption that exists today began on a large-scale following the 1950-53 Korean War with orphaned and mixed-race children. But it is a different entity today, with around 90 percent of international adoptees the children of unwed single mothers.
According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 158,703 children were adopted abroad from 1953-2005, though some estimates put the number closer to 200,000 because of the large number of unrecorded adoptions.
But of the 1,250 children adopted abroad in 2008, 1,114 were the children of unwed mothers, or 89.1 percent, according to a 2009 study by the state-run Korea Women’s Development Institute.
The Korean government has tried to stem the tide of overseas adoption, most notably following an article published in The Progressive in 1988 that branded the country as a “baby exporting nation.” The article, which appeared ahead of the Summer Olympics in Seoul the same year, shamed the country and lowered adoption rates, but it wasn’t long before the numbers rose again.
Later, in the face of a plunging birth rate, one of the world’s lowest in 2008 at 1.19, the government began making policies to encourage couples to have children – offering money to families with more than three children and, recently, by providing free day care for multiethnic families.
But experts say the government’s effort to boost the birthrate while ignoring the needs of unwed single mothers is indicative of its bias against these women, who are viewed as unfit to raise their children.
The government created Adoption Day in 2005 to promote domestic and reduce international adoption.
Although the international adoption rate is on the decline, with 1,125 children adopted abroad in 2010, the increase in domestic adoption has been minimal, from 1,306 children in 2008 to 1,314 in 2009, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
At the conference, Trenka pointed out that the imbalance in gender roles has had a significant impact on women’s rights and unwed single mothers in particular.
Lack of adequate social-welfare support, Trenka said, is another obstacle for single women raising a child. She cited a 2010 Alternative Report by Korean NGOs to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, that said child and family expenditures accounted for 1.7 percent of the national budget, the lowest level among OECD countries.
Conference participant Gahm Eun-nam, a single mother, spoke about her own struggle to apply for welfare support.
When she went to register as the head of a single-parent family, she was told she was ineligible because she earns more than 800,000 won ($737) a month.
“Wealthy or poor, old or young, single mothers share similar problems,” Gahm said. “It is not right to equate our social status with the amount of money we make.”
Many of the experts and single mothers who spoke at the conference pointed to a need for greater social acceptance of a woman’s right to raise her child, in addition to an increase in welfare support.
Choi Young-hee, a Democratic Party lawmaker, is working on a revision to the country’s Special Adoption Law in a coalition with several groups including the Single Moms’ Day event organizers. She said that through the law, which shifts the focus of the current law from adoption promotion to family preservation, she would strive to set a new paradigm for single mothers and adoption.
“Children in adoptive and foster families get 1.07 million won per year from the government,” Choi said. “But a single mother raising a child only receives a monthly subsidy of 50,000 won until the child turns 12. We are now challenging this archaic system.”
Though the law revision, which is set to be considered in an upcoming National Assembly session, focuses largely on adoption, there are also provisions for single mothers, most notably a requirement for unbiased counseling that is free from adoption agency interference.
At the conference, several adoptees spoke about their experiences, including Jes Erikson, a Danish adoptee, who also discussed his view of Korean society.
“I grew up in a society with a very robust welfare system in which equal opportunity, including gender equality, is a primary asset. So I find it only natural to question which laws and social norms constitute the root causes for inequality,” he said. “And this is why I find it interesting to question the system of overseas adoption as a symptom of an underlying social infrastructure that can and should be changed over time.”
During the conference, all of the single moms, whether their child had been relinquished for adoption or not, pointed to the social stigma against single mothers in Korean society. But what’s changed is that more of them are willing to stand and be recognized.
“I’m ready to go out in public and say I’m a single mother. I’m ready to say that out loud, but I don’t know if the public is ready to accept me as I am, and of course my child as well,” said Choi Hyong-sook, a single mother.
Choi has a 7-year-old boy who used to ask why people called his mom a “single mom” and Choi remembered having to explain her situation to him. Now, she says, he is proud to be the son of a single mother. He even says it out loud in restaurants when talking to his friends, she said.
“I’m happy he is not ashamed of who his mother is, and he doesn’t need to be,” Choi said. “But it hurts when I sense how other people at the restaurants stare at him.”
By Lee Sun-min [email@example.com]