A baby sleeping in volunteer’s arm in Jusarang Community Church, Seoul, South Korea | REUTERS
An unidentified young woman with her newborn baby in her arms opened the metal hatch built into the wall of a church in Seoul. She put her baby inside and walked away after she decided to give up raising her son.
It was captured by a CCTV camera at Seoul’s Jusarang Community Church in late November.
Pastor Lee Jong-rak who runs a “baby box”, where mothers can leave unwanted infants, says one of reasons that the country has the lowest birth rates in the world is that the current social system cannot protect mothers. It is worse for mothers who give birth outside marriage, the pastor said.
“They are alienated and treated with contempt,” said Lee who has saved the lives of more than 1,500 babies since 2009. Last year, 261 children were abandoned across the country, according to Statistics Korea.
In just over a decade, South Korea has spent the equivalent of a small European economy trying to fix its demographic crisis, yet birth rates have dropped to the lowest in the world.
This year, President Moon Jae-In, who describes himself as a feminist president, is testing a new angle: showing women more respect.
At the end of last year, South Korea announced plans to remove some of the disincentives for employing women, allowing both parents to take parental leave at the same time and extending paid paternal leave. Employers also get incentives to allow either parent to work fewer hours.
South Korea is the worst place for women to work in the OECD, despite women being among the organization’s best educated, and more highly so than men.
About 56 percent of women aged 15-64 work in South Korea, below the OECD average of almost 60 percent, and 72-75 percent in Denmark and Sweden, where birth rates are among the highest of advanced economies.
Recruiters say married young women are less likely to get job opportunities due to discrimination.
But the measures go beyond the workplace: mothers can choose to give the baby their own last name and a tickbox on birth certificates showing whether a baby was born outside marriage will be removed.
Fertility treatments will be offered to single women and unmarried couples as well. Social campaigns will encourage men to participate more in child care and household chores.
Professor of Family and Resources Management at Sookmyung Women’s University, Yoo Ji-sun, said the new roadmap focusing on gender equality is ‘remarkable’ but cautioned the signal that the government was finally sending will take a long time to filter through the conservative and patriarchal society.
Births outside marriage, for instance, are so widely frowned upon that they amount to only 1.9 percent of the total, the lowest anywhere. Experts compare that to France, where the ratio is over 50 percent and the birth rate is 1.9 versus South Korea’s 1.05. Abortion is illegal and adoption rules very strict.
Still, critics say while Moon’s approach to birth rates is an improvement, his job and housing policies discourage parenthood. Minimum wage hikes have led to higher unemployment, while larger downpayment requirements have made homes unaffordable for many.
If birth rates don’t improve, South Korea’s economy could be 5 percent smaller by 2060, as productivity falls and higher spending for elderly care leaves less room for investment, the National Assembly Budget Office estimates. — Reuters