Ewha University has grown to become the largest women’s university in the world and the Institute of Gender and Law decided to celebrate their first anniversary by hosting this forum. The forum was entitled Unwed Mothers, Adoption and Gender Law and this seems an ideal topic to be addressed by such an institute. The conference was an important event at a high profile educational facility and attracted interest from the media.
The university campus is very impressive and it was wonderful to see so many young women in a environment of higher learning, considering a hundred years ago women could only attend lectures at Oxford and Cambridge universities with special permission and they were not allowed to study for degrees. It was a commonly expressed view at that time that allowing women to study would distract them from their domestic duties. That may amuse us now, but it is an indication of how much progress has been made already in women’s issues.
Evelyn with Hee-Jung (beside me), Jane (L) and Pastor Kim.
It was clear from the conference and from my discussions over the few days that I spent in Korea that attitudes towards unmarried mothers and illegitimate children in Korea are very similar to the attitudes experienced by mothers in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom from the 1950s to the 1970s. Thankfully those attitudes have changed enormously since that time and they are changing in Korea. Social changes such as these come about because people are prepared to make a stand and refuse to tolerate discrimination and inequity.
Adoption has always been largely a women’s issue and has been linked to the status of unmarried women in society. It is closely linked to the empowerment of women, their ability to control their own fertility and their freedom to make informed choices around parenting, safe from coercion. In countries like Australia we take these freedoms largely for granted nowadays, but they only came about because women were prepared to fight for change - sometimes with the assistance of informed and supportive men.
Records indicate that at least 200,000 Koreans have been adopted out of Korea in recent years and raised in other countries. We know little about the long term impact of this loss on the Korean mothers and families, because few of them have felt confident to speak out about their experiences. We are, however, hearing more and more from adults who were adopted out of Korea as children about what it has meant for them to have been raised apart from their families and heritage. Many of them are now returning to Korea in search of family and in an attempt to connect with their sense of being Korean and are describing their sense of cultural displacement. Their stories are harrowing, but their enthusiasm and commitment are admirable and they are a powerful force for change.
Now that the prestigious Ewha University has begun to acknowledge these issues, it is to be hoped that they will go on to produce valuable research, which will convince the Korean government that they can learn from the mistakes of the past and that sending Korean children to live in other countries is not solving any of the problems which exist in Korea and is, in fact, creating long term issues for those involved. All countries have social problems of various kinds and I have no doubt that social attitudes will change in Korea, as they have done in other countries and that, over time, there will be both government and community support for families in difficulties.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Korea. The Korean people I met were extremely welcoming and hospitable and Korean food is amazingly creative and interesting. I met with not only the staff at the university, especially those from the Institute of Gender and Law, but also Hee-Jung Kwon, Executive Director of KUMSN (the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network), Jane Jeong Trenka, co-editor of Outsiders Within and President of TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea) and Pastor Kim Do-hyun, founder of KoRoot, a guest house which welcomes and supports returning Korean adoptees. These are some of the people who are working in Korea to support those whose lives have already been affected by adoption separation and to bring about social change and replace intercountry adoption with more family-focussed alternatives.
The Korean people I met were delighted to hear of the progress that has been made in Australia, where we no longer coerce mothers into agreeing for their children to be adopted and where we provide post-adoption support services for family members who have already experienced adoption separation. They are managing to make their voices heard in Korea, in order to educate the community about the issues for unmarried mothers, who are struggling to resist the pressure on them to part with their children for adoption and for those who have already experienced adoption separation and are suffering complex long term grief and loss issues.
Unmarried mothers in Korea are disempowered in the way that they once were in Australian society and because of the shame they are being made to feel, they are being coerced into parting with their children. We can support them by encouraging our government to stop colluding in this situation by accepting these children into Australia. If we are genuinely concerned about the needs of children in Korea, there are more positive ways we can assist them, rather than removing them from their families and heritage. There is a growing awareness in Korea of the importance of family preservation and we can play our part in that by encouraging those who are working there for more social supports for the underprivileged.
The solution to Korea’s social problems lie within Korea and those of us outside of Korea can assist the Korean people to take responsibility for solving those problems and offer positive assistance where we are able. I’m delighted to have been given the opportunity to lend my support to those who are working for positive social change in Korea and who are offering ethical, family-focussed solutions.
Please feel free to share.