Gender in Korea

I remember reading a very brief news article about spousal rape in Korea when I was doing research in field. However, I didn’t have time to reflect or write about it then.

At the time I read that article, I was initially surprised that there weren’t stronger policies or penalties for perpetrators involved in sexual assault or spousal rape. And while I knew about the violence, unequal treatment and status of women around the world, I made a mistake in assuming that an economically advanced society would have developed and implemented policies that prevent and condemn gendered violence.

Another lesson in self-awareness took place when I realized that my automatic assumptions and reaction of surprise to reality is a reflection of my own experience and perspective as a woman in the U.S. For me, it took the experience of traveling abroad and living in another culture, to realize the social and legal protection of my rights and status as a woman are something that I have taken for granted, and that many women in the world do not have their rights realized.

Spousal rape hot discussion topic

The news article above was posted a few days ago on Korea Joongang Daily’s website and motivated me to blog and share this with others who may not know this human rights violation is happening in Korea. Some of the statements from those opposing legislation that penalize the perpetrating spouse were unbelievable.

“In Korea, once a woman is married, she is typically considered part of a family, which then in a way makes her no longer considered a woman.”

“In family relationships, a father does not see his wife or daughters as women.”

“If we punish the ‘marital rape’ cases without considering the special nature of the relationship between a husband and a wife, it could possibly give those wives who have a bad relationship with their husband a chance to bend the rules to their favor when they file a divorce suit,”

I thought I had gained a better understanding of gender inequality in Korea, but through my experiences in field and living in Korea, had sense of hope for very slow, but gradual progress for Korean womens’ rights. But reading this recent article and learning that people still view sexual violence as acceptable in the relationship between husband and wife puts me back to a place where I feel like I still know nothing.

As much as I try to consider and understand these gender and family issues with the cultural, societal, and historical context of Korea, I can’t accept it. Furthering my understanding about the universality of human rights and cultural relativism, which I first learned about in my program, would be worth doing as I think about gender rights and human rights violations in Korea.

Categories: Family issues, Human Rights issues, Korean Culture, Other Social Welfare Issues, Social Work, Women's Issues | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Return

To those who were worried because of the over-hyped news coverage on North-South Korean tensions, I am safely back in dreary Western New York.

The last few weeks have been crazy with finishing projects, preparing to return to New York, and saying goodbye to all the people I’ve met and friends I’ve made.  I was able to interview with a group of unwed mothers and participate in a few planning meetings for the 3rd Annual Single Mom’s Day, titled: “Accountability for the Past, Rights for the Future” with representatives from KoRoot, TRACK, Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association (KUMFA), Korean Single Parent Alliance, and other organizations as part of my final projects and activities related to field work with KUMSN. I also completed the draft of the grant proposal to the Global Fund for Women however this will only be used by KUMSN as an English example of international funding opportunities and will not actually be submitted.

KUMSN certificate of completion

KUMSN certificate

I wrapped up my final activities including the daily journal logs, the resource binder (relevant research, news articles, funding opportunities) and other work I completed during my time as an intern, and of course, evaluations.

I received a really nice official certificate from KUMSN marking the completion of my field placement/internship and had a farewell lunch party with KUMSN staff.

Sadly, my field experience has ended and although both KUMSN and I really wanted to stay until the end of April or early May (before graduation), I was unable to do so because of my current financial status. Being unable to work for almost 3 months while continuing to pay insurance premiums, rent, and other bills in addition to the expenses involved with living abroad has really cost me.

It has been difficult readjusting to what has always been familiar and routine for me. I definitely enjoy having my sense of independence back which I lacked when I was in Korea. Some weird feelings I have had with adjusting to familiar/typical activities after being away for more than 3 months are (1) time of day (jetlagged) (2) using U.S. currency (3) driving my own car and getting around without public transportation, and (4) availability of greasy, fried food in XL portions. I’ve already gotten a parking ticket near my apartment in Buffalo and gained some weight back. These past few days, I’ve been scrambling to get things back in order for school, work, insurances, and finances. And trying to get back into a routine or habit has been more difficult than I had expected.

I wondered if I would have any kind of reverse culture shock, difficulty adjusting back to American culture, or just having a different perspective on things back home and I realized that it may be too early to tell. There are definitely things about daily life in WNY and the U.S. that I can appreciate a lot more (such as using English and better driving – really!) but there are also things that I miss about Korea and wish I could access here (such as certain foods, being less conspicuous in public, and recycling).

Although leaving KUMSN and Korea has been bittersweet, it is not the end of my journey. I definitely plan on going back to Korea someday and for a much longer stay. I would like to live and work there for a year or more and work with unwed mothers, single parents, or adoptee organizations in some capacity. I also have some personal matters to attend  to that I was not able to fully process or invest time and effort into while I was focusing on my social work studies and field experience. And now that I have more time to process and reflect on my experiences – I intend to continue using this space, so check back from time to time. I have so much more that I want to say and let people know about.

There are so many people that I want to thank for making this all possible, for continuous support, and who have touched my life. And to those who’ve been reading and following along, thank you for your patience and feedback! Please continue to raise awareness and supporting organizations like KUMSN, unwed mothers, women, and other marginalized groups in Korea.


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Australia’s National Apology for forced adoption practices, Korea, and Social Work

What happened?!

For many across the globe, March 21st, 2013, will be remembered as a very important day in child welfare. It was on this day that Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, delivered a National Apology to those impacted by forced adoption practices in Australia, which you can view here:

Australia’s National Apology for forced adoption practices

My first impression:

When I first listened to this speech, I was taken by surprise at how great it was. The speech was well written, very informed, and well-delivered byPM Gillard. She not only made an official apology to members of the adoption triad and others who had been affected (including natural fathers and extended family members) but she also spoke to the systemic and societal environment between the 1950’s and 1970’s which left unmarried mothers feeling as if they had no choice but to give up their children for adoption. Even mothers who intended to keep and raise their child on their own, were often coerced, disempowered, and even bullied into signing the consent form which would free their child for adoption.

According to a report that the Australian government released last year, it was found that many medical personnel, social workers, and adoption agencies used coercion and even administered prescription drugs to unwed mothers as a way of attaining their infants for adoption.  These methods were frequently used in maternity facilities in order to obtain more infants and meet the demand of the adoption industry.

This reminded me of what I had learned through journal articles and class discussions about truth and reconciliation as well as national apologies came to mind. I also wondered if the social workers, agencies, organizations, and hospitals that implemented these methods felt the need to apologize since they were the ultimate system which oppressed and exploited these women. After the weekend had passed and I searched the internet news, I was surprised to find that one of the hospitals did issue an apology.

Melb hospital joins PM in adoption apology

While these apologies do not take away from the disenfranchised grief and marginalization that unwed mothers and others in the adoption triad experienced, recognizing the experiences of “victims”, the unethical malpractice of adoption, and as Gillard put it perfectly, the denial of the “fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children. You were not legally or socially acknowledged as their mothers. And you were yourselves deprived of care and support” by “the bullying arrogance of a society that presumed to know what was best” is one way the Australian government can take responsibility.

How is the South Korean government and/or public reacting to Australia’s National Apology for forced adoption?

I was not surprised to learn that the news of this historical moment in Australia did not reach headlines in Korea, especially with everything being centered on the increasing tensions between North and South Korea and the recent cyber attack on South Korea. However, I didn’t think it would be almost invisible since South Korea is noted by many as the “#1 baby exporter” and one of the “founding fathers of adoption practice”. If there were to be another national apology for forced adoption practices, I would immediately expect it to be South Korea next (or possibly China).

While searching for more information about the case of Australia, I was not able to find any kind of coverage from a Korean publisher about this issue. Using the keywords “Australia”, “forced adoption”, “South Korea”, “Korean adoption” on a Google search, I was not able to find any news articles related to the issue. In fact, I could not locate any recognition or news story written about the forced adoption apology in Australia on the three Korean news websites published in English: Korea Times, Korea Herald, and Chosun Ilbo. Since I have a barrier with Korean language, it is possible that I am wrong about it being “missing” from Korean discussion. If this is the case, please let know if and where there is any information about Australia’s National Apology in the Korean news (written in English or Korean) or discussion, please let me know since I’d be interested to hear the opinions and views of Koreans on the recent event.

On the other hand, Australia’s National Apology has had an international impact and seems to have started a movement as other countries are beginning to question their own adoption practice and policies in their own countries: New Zealand, Canada, Scotland, and most recently, Great Britain and Ireland. I found it very interesting, but not surprising, that adoption practices and child welfare programs across the globe are in speculation. I think I can make an educated guess that the use of coercion and force, the lack of economic and government support, and the societal stigma and values surrounding unwed or single mothers is not specific to Australia (i.e. similar experiences and historical context of women, children, and families in the U.S.)

Calls for probe into forced adoptions (Ireland)

Irish Women emerge from shadows of ‘National Shame’ (Ireland)

Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries: I hope my birth mother can now rest in peace (Ireland)

Australia’s scandal of forced adoption is happening here in Britain (Great Britain)

Origins Canada

Origins Scotland

I believe that organizations in Korea such as KUMSN, unwed mothers, and other organization’s or women’s groups should look to Australia as an example of the power that collective social movements can have. I also think it is also important to increase public access to these types of stories and help them to make the connection between what has happened in Australia and what is still a common practice in the maternity homes and hospitals in Korea. Since the majority of the population is not getting the information from the news media and may not be aware there is an issue, it is the responsibility of NGO’s, volunteers, and anyone else who feel strongly about the issue and social justice for unwed mothers and women in Korea, should assume this responsibility.

Forced adoption practice and the role of social workers

In the U.S., many people do not fully understand or are unable to explain what social workers do or who they are because social workers work in a variety of environments and in a variety of roles. However, a common perception of the social worker’s role is the ‘family divider’ or ‘child remover’. This is most likely because of the establishment of Child Protective Services and the role of social workers in America’s child welfare history. As the privacy of the family and home became a public issue and the issue of child maltreatment and domestic violence was revealed, CPS workers (called social workers) removed children from their families and home for their protection. While the focus has shifted to the preservation of families with programs such as kinship care and the increase in parental rights, some still have negative views of social workers.

The exposure of unethical and malpractice in adoption by social workers, medical professionals, religious groups and non-profit or charitable organizations in Australia will most likely perpetuate these views and the perception that social workers are “breaking families apart”. In reality, it IS what social workers did and it IS what happened. While I’d like to believe that most of those involved in practice at that time were well-intentioned and following the practice standards of the time, social workers from that time and afterward should take responsibility. It wouldn’t be the first time that the social work field has evaluated past practice as being poor or malpractice, but it is more important that future social workers learn from past practice and work towards improving the standard of practice. It is also important for social workers to advocate and seek social justice for the populations we serve to prevent systemic marginalization and oppression as exemplified by the recent events in Australia.

More resources:

Australia PM Gillard sorry for ‘shameful’ forced adoptions

Categories: Child welfare, Family issues, Field Experience, Social Work, Women's Issues | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Organizational sustainability and the problem of funding

I actually finished the “birth mother syndrome” project last month at the same time that the study group was finishing their study on Family Ties by Lee Jun-Il.  The author who is also a professor, actually came to the last study group meeting to discuss his book and members were able to ask questions and give feedback.  I attended and was able to follow the discussion thanks to the help of another adoptee, who was nice enough to provide me with the basic translations throughout the meeting.

My field educator, Han Seo Seung-hee (who was sadly leaving KUMSN to advance her studies), gave me the opportunity to choose what kind of project or work I would like to do next with my interests in mind. Because KUMSN is a new organization, my initial interests were in developing more formal tools or processes that would help the organization with future funding and enable them to collect concrete data on their effectiveness or to demonstrate the need for tangible and societal support to unwed mothers.  My ideas included creating an intake process, creating and conducting a needs assessment, and either begin to think about or develop measures for program evaluation.  However, KUMSN is almost too new as an NGO and the main priority is to secure long-term funding or fiscal partnership in order to continue operating and be able to sustain in Korea.

However, the donor and community giving atmosphere in Korea is very different than it is currently in the U.S.  While there seems to be a shift in the business and corporate world to community giving and its impact on social and environmental issues (as well as greater tax incentives), there is little pressure on leaders in the Korean corporate world to give back. Most financial opportunities and grants that are available in Korea are through the federal government, institutions for higher education, foundations, and private opportunities.

Also, there is a much greater level of involvement for donors and grantors in the organization’s operations and activities than what is common in the U.S.  That is, financial contributors have greater power and influence as a stakeholder in NGO’s which often do not align with the organization’s value system or mission.  There is also the problem in Korea and for KUMSN especially, with an unwillingness to fund or donate to an organization because the cause or mission is seen as controversial or radical.  Since there is still such a strong stigma on unwed mothers who are pregnant or choose to raise their children, many companies and organizations are not interested in supporting or are concerned about their image if they became affiliated.

From what I have heard from others, the topic of unwed mothers is a hot issue currently and support (or opposition) may change in the future as a result of a popular Korean drama called “Childless Comfort” or 무자식 상팔자 in Korean.

Childless Comfort or 무자식 상팔자

Childless Comfort or 무자식 상팔자

As many of us know, the depiction of a social issue in the media can have a significant impact on the attitudes and beliefs of the general public which may help or hinder the efforts of organizations like KUMSN and KUMFA.

Since the current funding source for KUMSN has only agreed to a two-year contract in which this will mark their final year, there is a significant amount of pressure for KUMSN to become self-sustaining or to locate other sources of funding in order to continue with their activities and advocacy for unwed mothers in Korea. Recently, they received a donation of 1,220,000 KWN ($1112 USD) from Nuffic Neso Korea which will go towards the education of the general public about the issue of unwed mothers and raising awareness.  KUMSN also receives in-kind donations such as baby clothing and other items from other voluntary groups through the “cafe network” in Korea, which seems to be similar to “”.

Because of the lack of domestic support on the issue of unwed mothers and the poor environment for charitable giving in South Korea, KUMSN is seeking international opportunities for funding, grants, and fiscal partnerships or sponsors. It is an area that I am not very familiar with but I have had a desire to learn more about writing grant proposals since securing funding is not limited to the interests of South Korean NGO’s but is in demand worldwide. I have located a few opportunities including the Global Fund for Women at, Mama Cash at, as well as other international women’s and human right’s funding websites and will begin drafting a prelimary proposal or application to the ones I have located.

If you or someone you know is interested in supporting KUMSN or has information about international funding and grant opportunities, please contact me or the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network directly:

Information about the organization’s activities, achievements, impact, and how you can help can be found on the “About Field Organization: KUMSN” page linked above or visit their website Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network



Unwed mothers in Korean media:

‘Childless Comfort’ looks like TV game-changer

Speedy Scandal (2008)

Categories: Family issues, Field Experience, Human Rights issues, Korean Culture, Other Social Welfare Issues, Social Work, Women's Issues | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Birth mother syndrome”

Just wanted to update everyone on how things have been going here in Korea and I have much to report! After finally demonstrating that I am a capable student and have an understanding of the situation of unwed mothers and women in Korea, I have been involved in many KUMSN activities and projects. Most recently, I developed a curriculum for KUMSN’s study group with research regarding “birth mother syndrome”, which is not actually a clinical term but encompasses all the long-term effects experienced by the birth mother as a result of relinquishing a child for adoption.

Birthmothers by Merry Bloch Jones

Because of the language challenges and the difficulty of reading research articles (especially for those not used to reading them), I created a comprehensive summary of the literature that I reviewed in English and provided to the study group members ahead of time. Topics include the working definition of “birth mother syndrome” as described by Merry Bloc Jones in her book Birthmothers,

various theories contributing to the issue, the “symptoms”, possible causes, the situation of birth mothers viewed through a human rights perspective, and how the experience of birth mothers relates to the issue and problem that unwed mothers face in Korea. The summary is still about 15 pages long and does not include all the research that I would have liked to include but for the sake of time and interest of the study group, I shortened it.  Two themes that I found to be the most significant because they underlie every aspect of adoption are social constructionism and gender inequality through mostly a feminist perspective.

The study group will begin discussing the subject of “birth mother syndrome” beginning with the theories and symptoms or effects.  The research topic was very interesting to me and I did not have any frustrations or impatience with the readings. I also learned a lot thanks to the work of others and was able to access a lot of material related to PTSD, trauma, and the effects of state/regional and national apologies for forced adoptions that occurred in Australia.

Australia’s National Forced Adoption Apology 3/21/13

There are also national inquiries by Origins International in Canada, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States.

Origins International

I wonder when it will begin to catch on in South Korea because of it’s reputation as the #1 Baby Exporter and one of the leading supplying countries of intercountry adoptions. Actually, the majority of my research on birth mothers and the long term effects of relinquishing a child for adoption was based on the studies and narratives of those in other countries. I suspect that coercion and possibly even the use of prescription drugs in some rural areas is still prevalent in Korea given the strong stigma that still exists for out-of-wedlock pregnancies and domestic adoptions.  Similarly, there still seems to be a great amount of shame, secrecy, and silence among birth mothers in Korea and I am not quite sure where or how this population could be accessed. If there are any studies or research on Korean birth mothers, they must be in Korean because I was not able to locate them in any of the U.S. databases that I am allowed access to.

If anyone has any information or insight about the experiences of Korean birth mothers and the absence of their voice, I would be very interested to learn and understand.

Categories: Child welfare, Family issues, Field Experience, Human Rights issues, Other Social Welfare Issues, Social Work, Women's Issues | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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