In 2020, South Korea had 1.5 million single-parent households. Gender inequality is a pressing issue in many Asian countries, South Korea included. In 2017, women in South Korea earned 63% less than their male counterparts did, and, according to a 2018 OECD working paper, “16.5% of poor Korean households spend at least 30% of their income on children’s education.” With such inequality and heavy demands on childcare, single mothers in South Korea continue to struggle. This article will explore the difficulties that single mothers in South Korea face.
South Korea’s widening educational inequality pressures families to spend more on their children’s education with private education becoming increasingly important. On average, Korean households pay for roughly 42% of their children’s primary and secondary education in comparison to the OECD average of 22%.
On top of that, Korean households also pay for “Hakwon” or “cramming schools,” which are private tutoring sessions that cost “18% of median household income per student.” As the educational system grows increasingly more competitive, these cramming school costs also increase in importance. For single mothers, particularly unwed mothers, supporting their children through the educational system is difficult as women cannot avoid the social stigma of having children outside of marriage because Korea’s birth registry, which is visible to schools and workplaces, labels their children as extra-marital.
Almost half of women in South Korea did not work in 2017 as many of them left the workforce to raise children. In Korea, more women than men have tertiary education qualifications. In fact, 76% of Korean women between the ages of 25 and 34 “had a tertiary qualification in 2020 compared to 64% of their male peers.” Yet, many women are not part of the labor force and those within the workforce earn significantly less than their male peers.
As one can imagine, single mothers may not have the option of leaving work due to the burden of financial responsibilities falling on them. Furthermore, South Korea’s workplace demands long hours. According to the OECD, in 2018, 71% of working women in South Korea worked at least 40 hours and 17% worked at least 60 hours; both of these averages are significantly higher than the OECD average.
The government also provides little financial support for single-parent families. If a single parent makes less than 1.55 million won ($1,400) per month, the government gives them 200,000 won ($180). Considering that the average monthly income of a Korean household is 4 million won ($3,640), an amount sufficient to cover most costs, the government payment to single mothers does not equate to much. Lastly, single motherhood, particularly for unwed mothers, carries a social stigma that prevents even families from providing support.
Although the pressing demands on single mothers in South Korea grow, statistics show wins for single-parent households. The educational attainment of impoverished single parents has risen, reducing from a low-level education rate of 40% in 2006 to 23% in 2012. This has led to a rise in these households’ standards of living and disposable income.
For single mothers, particularly those who face the social stigma of being unwed, the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association (KUMFA) aims to create a society in which unwed mothers can raise their children without the social stigma of their situation impacting their lives.
A group of unwed mothers founded KUMFA in 2009 as a place for unwed mothers to meet monthly. Since that time, it has grown into an organization. According to its website, “KUMFA holds camps for each major holiday in Korea in order to provide family environments for moms and children during holiday seasons.” In addition, the organization “also provides educational, advocacy, and counseling support programs for unwed mothers.”
Single mothers in South Korea face the crunch between rising educational costs and low wages for women. On top of that, the social stigma around single motherhood follows them everywhere and embeds itself even in the registration of their children’s births. Despite this, women have shown resilience and KUMFA is a great example of solidarity between those facing the same circumstances.
– Rachael So
Photo: Wikimedia Commons