“Single Mothers are Ignorant Whores”: Update


As you’ll recall from last month’s article, about the Ministry of Health and Welfare (보건복지부; MOHW) once defining single mothers as having “low levels of education [and] impulsive sexual drives”, I promised to find out how recently that had been posted on the Ministry’s website, speculating that it was sometime within, say, the last decade or so.

You can imagine my surprise then, when Seunghee Han of the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (한국미혼모지원네트워크; KUMSN) informed me that wasn’t removed until as recently as May 2010. This was in response to Executive Director Heejung Kwon posting the definition on the Missmammamia (미스맘마미아) website, which prompted many mothers to write directly to the Ministry to complain.

Unfortunately however, the definition that has replaced it is also a little problematic, implying that most Korean single mothers are in their teens. Whereas that is certainly true of most Western countries though, and – if the 2008 Drama Little Mom Scandal (리틀맘 스캔들) above is any guide – may also be the Korean public’s perception, the reality is that most are in their late-twenties or early-thirties, as the following post on the KUMSN website makes clear:

(For a good introductory article to the plight of single mothers in Korea, see the New York Times here)

건강길라잡이사이트문제있습니다 / A Problem with the Health Guide Website

건강길라잡이는 보건복지가족부와 건강증진사업지원단에서 운영 중인 국민 모두의 건강증진을 위한 건강증진사업 홈페이지입니다. 그런데 여기에 쓰인 미혼모의 정의는 이상합니다.

The “Health Guide” is a website jointly run by the MOHW and the Management Center for Health Promotion for the public health of all citizens. However, the definition of single mothers on it is strange.

합법적이고 정당한 결혼절차 없이 임신중이거나 출산한 여자를 미혼모라고 정의내리고 있는데 마치 미혼 임신, 출산을 하면 모두 불법을 저지르고 있는 범죄인으로 여기고 있는 것 같습니다.

According to the definition, single mothers are women who are pregnant or who have given birth who have not gone through the legal and proper marriage procedures. Put this way, it sounds like all unmarried pregnant women or mothers have committed some sort of crime!

그리고 기본적으로 미혼모를 대부분 10대라 여기고 있습니다. 그러나 2010년 조사한 바로는 한 지역사회에 있는 미혼모의 경우, 평균 나이는 20대 후반 30대초반이라는 결과도 있었습니다.

Also, it basically says that most single mothers are in their teens, whereas according to the results of a survey of single mothers in one local area [James – unnamed] in 2010, most were in their late-twenties or early-thirties.

국민들의 건강을 증진하기 위해 유익한 정보를 제공하는 사이트에서도 이런 잘못된 정보를 제공하기 때문에 미혼모들에 대한 사회적인 인식이 더디게 바뀌고 있습니다. 잘못된 정보는 정정되어야 합니다.

Because there is wrong information even in a guide aimed at promoting citizens’ health, the public perception of single mothers is slow to change. This wrong information needs to be corrected.


And here is the section of the guide/website referred to:

10임신과미혼모 / Teen Pregnancy and Single Mothers

미혼모 : 합법적이고 정당한 결혼절차 없이 임신중이거나 출산한 여자.

Single Mother: A pregnant woman or mother who has not gone through the correct and proper marriage procedures.

산업화 도시화 과정, 성에 대한 가치관이나 태도의 변화, 이성교재의 범위가 늘어남에 따라 미혼모의 수가 계속적으로 증가. 미혼모 중 약 25%는 10대.

Because of industrialization and urbanization, people’s sense of values about and attitudes towards sex are changing, and more people [James – I think it means unmarried people] are having sexual relationships. Accordingly, the number of single mothers is rising, and roughly 25% of those are in their teens.

(James – Before you quite rightly point out that 25% isn’t “most” single mothers, the guide contradicts itself just two lines further down)

미혼모에 대한 정확한 통계는 없으나 전국 출산력 조사결과 18~34세 미만의 미혼여성들 중 3.4%가 임신의 경험이 있는 것으로 추정.

While it is difficult to get accurate statistics about single mothers, based on the results of a national birthrate survey [James – unnamed] it is estimated that 3.4% of single women aged between 18 and under 34 have had the experience of being pregnant (source, right).

미혼모는 대부분 10대 임신으로 교육적 경제적 정도가 낮아 충분한 건강관리를 받을 수 없으며 부모로서의 발달과업을 달성할 수 없다.

As most single mothers are teenagers, with inadequate access to healthcare and low levels of education and earning ability, then they can not really succeed as parents.

신체적인 미숙과 영양부족으로 유산, 조산, 저체중아 출산 등 고위험 임산부와 고위험 태아 및 신생아가 된다.

Teenagers that are not fully physically developed, and/or are malnourished, are at high risk of having miscarriages, premature births, underweight children, and/or complications during their pregnancy.

미혼인 여성이 임신을 하면 임신한 결과를 인공유산과 분만 중 어느 쪽을 선택할 것인지를 결정해야 하고 분만을 할 경우는 자신이 키울 것인지 입양을 시킬 것인지를 결정해야 한다.

If a single woman becomes pregnant, her two options are having an abortion or delivering the baby. If she chooses the latter, then she has to decide if she will raise it herself or offer it for adoption.

우리나라의 경우 84.8%가 인공유산, 분만은 15.2%(김승권, 1992)

In Korea, 84.8% of women in such a situation choose to have an abortion, and 15.2% choose to deliver it. (Kim Sung-gwon, 1992)


Apologies for not being able to find the title of the book referred to for the last figure, but I’m afraid I’ll have to recover from the shock of seeing a 19 year-old source used before I start looking. Moreover, combine that with the sloppily-written, contradictory, and incorrect information provided earlier, then frankly – and ironically – it’s only as I type this that I realize how bad things must be for single mothers here.

Sure, call me melodramatic, and/or reading too much into what is most likely simply a hastily-written piece of work, but recall that it comes from an organization presumably charged with supporting single mothers, promoting their rights, and trying to overcome stereotypes. Yet if that’s the best that it can do, then I shudder to think of how other organizations and segments of society treat them, with the sterling exception of the KUMSN.

But to end on a lighter note: has anybody seen Little Mom Scandal, and/or know how sympathetic it was to single mothers? Please let me know!

(Thanks to Seunghee Han of the KUMSN for the information. And also to Marilyn for putting me in touch with her, and again for translating October’s much longer article!)

21 thoughts on ““Single Mothers are Ignorant Whores”: Update

  1. You know, I would not be surprised at all if the Ministry of Family Affairs and Women was actually quite hostile towards single mothers, because if I’m not mistaken, quite a few of their most influential members are zealously Christian. I know this, because the religious convictions of some of the Ministry’s members motivated the banning of the newest remake of the legendary song “고래사냥” (“Whale Hunting”) because it mentions taking a shot of soju.


    1. I hadn’t considered the religious angle. Not that being religious precludes someone from being sympathetic and providing assistance to single mothers of course, but certainly very conservative Christian beliefs have been at the core of Lee Myung-bak’s politics since at least his devotion of Seoul to God in 2004, and he’s well known for packing just about ever government organization with his cronies. Having said that, ridiculous censorship is a slightly different issue, and may be at least if not more due to fighting for influence and jurisdiction between the plethora or government organizations involved, as I discuss here and here.


  2. Out of curiosity:

    How common or uncommon, are unwed people in a relationship with children.
    And what is their status in Korea?


      1. Couples ho have children but aren’t married and aren’t separated, I think is what’s meant. So they don’t fall under the banner of single parents because they’re together, presumably cohabitating, but haven’t got married.


        1. Sorry, there was a long gap between me writing that and actually pressing the post button (hadn’t logged in, thought it was posted when it wasn’t) in which time someone else answered.


          1. Yeah, thats what i meant!
            Man and Woman living together in a partnership, and having kids together.

            Sorry, I was grading some papers on German late-nite, and hazy mind switched wording the wrong way.
            Lost in translation, literary!

            Sorry ’bout that.


    1. I would guess he/she means people who are in a relationship and bring up their children together, but are not actually legally married.

      MiniMax, I have no statistics to back up my claims, and I’m just going by anecdotal evidence/personal experience alone, but I would guess that such situations are nearly nonexistent, considering that this is a society, after all, where celebrities and other prominent figures get fingers pointed at them just for concieving a child before marriage, even if the parents were engaged and committed to each other before the fact.

      Life is extremely hard for single mothers and they receive very little support from the society at large, so few unwed mothers are that way out of choice. Most single mothers, I would venture, raise their children alone because the fathers of their children are not available in the first place: if the father is in the child’s life, the parents almost certainly marry, if only due to the stigma applied against children born out of wedlock.


      1. Just about to turn off my computer and get back to preparing a class I’m afraid, but before I do I don’t agree that celebrities and so on get criticized just for conceiving a child before marriage sorry. I did use to think that, but a couple of years ago someone pointed out to me that Korean society is actually very very forgiving of such couples if they’re fully committed to marrying, and indeed ever since I’ve heard of many celebrity marriages in which the woman is pregnant (the last I remember is Go So-young and Jang Dong-gun).


        1. It was also extremely common in Laural Kendal’s excellent “Getting Married in Korea” – she found that the working class Koreans she studied were very cavalier about the exact circumstances of conception, as long as the couple got married in the end. There was also quite a bit of liberal sentiment over registration of marriages v. the beginning of cohabitation. Also, anecdotally, I know of several couples who used pregnancy as a way to overcome parental objections to their marriage.


      2. Hmm. I suppose that’s possible, as different segments of Korean society are liberalizing at disparate rates. I was just going by the reactions of people around me (classmates–but then again, I’m in a field of study that tends to attract people from conservative backgrounds–as well as family–but then again, my family is probably more conservative than most Koreans.) I guess that’s the danger of taking one’s own personal experience as a microcosm of larger society: there’s no guarantee of any one phenomenon being applicable at a more general level.

        Still, I wonder if this greater generosity towards such couples is mostly because, while the older generation still regard out-of-wedlock pregnancy with considerable disapproval (albeit a bit less extreme than was the case 10 or 20 years ago), 20- and 30-somethings seem very open to the idea of premarital sex in general. So there’s a large generation gap here, and any liberalization in the older generation comes across (to me) as a resignation to the licentiousness of their children’s generation, and not a true acceptance of their lifestyle and values. And this distinction may have implications, as it’s the generation currently in their 50’s and 60’s that are currently in positions to make decisions for the larger society, as well as having more voting clout. Of course, this theory may be wrong, but I think it’s something to think about.

        At any rate, my original point (that unwed parenthood in Korea is something entirely different from what it is in other more liberalized societies, and therefore few people are likely to become unwed parents by choice) still stands. Even if forgiveness is forthcoming, that’s still dependent on the condition that the parents do eventually marry and follow the normative family model. There’s still no room for, say, a woman who got knocked up by then left a crappy boyfriend she didn’t want to stay with, in that scenario.


  3. Then, how about the mother who loses her husband (her husband dies), gets divorce, or rape victim? They are also single mother but they are not ignorant whores.

    It seems to me that Korean perception on divorce woman is also bad.


  4. To paraphrase an old adage: When you don’t have anything not completely ignorant to say, you should probably just keep your damn mouth shut.

    I question why the Ministry even felt the need to put out this “definition” as it doesn’t seem to provide any actual information and reflects only the worst public perceptions. What’s worse is that being a government office gives the writing an air of authority when any really seeking information would be much better served by seeking out social organizations like the ones you mentioned.


  5. Interesting post. I can’t help but wonder about the evolutionary reasons for this kind of social stigma. Perhaps it was a historical social mechanism to discourage parenthood for those who might have had trouble obtaining enough food to support a family.
    Regardless, it’s outdated and hurtful in modern society. Time to evolve.


  6. Well, I’m sure the budget has something to do with continuing the vilification of single moms as incapable whores. At the time of the New York Times article, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/08/world/asia/08mothers.html, the public assistance for unwed moms was 50,000 won a month. The money given to people willing to adopt was double that. Since that article they raised the amount to 100,000 for single moms, but only for the YOUNG unwed moms. Moms older than (I can’t remember the age – 19? 21? and sorry I don’t have the reference for you, but it is fact-checkable) still can only receive 50,000 won, and even that paltry sum is taken away if the mom should find a job, most likely woefully under-employed. Since the majority are older, it pencils out better while the government can still say they’ve increased their support. The government has also started a program to help single parents – BUT IT IS ONLY FOR THOSE THAT WERE MARRIED AT SOME POINT.

    Not only are there financial reasons for continuing to stigmatize unwed moms, but their progeny are still the major source of adoptable INFANTS, and in this country where adoption is not government-run but all privatized, then contributing to making it difficult to preserve families substantially reduces the government’s/society’s financial burden to take care of its own citizens.

    Many of us who were adopted internationally from Korea are deeply concerned about the stigmatization (and exploitation http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2009/10/137_54575.html ) of unwed moms.

    Living here, I too, believe that the government represents the established oldest and more conservative generations and that public attitudes are quickly changing. However, I feel our (unwed moms and adoptees) interests and welfare will continue to be the lowest priority in a society that can only visualize one path to success and where the tax base is only around 6%.

    And, there are other deep issues amongst Koreans. As new money, with all the pride and conspicuous consumption that goes with it, opening wallets and giving aid to people of developing countries has a much better narcissistic effect than helping their own. As illustrated by a student said to me about teen suicides, “too bad for them: one less messed up person in Korea.” Raising others up, improving all society, does not benefit the individual, but keeping the most challenged down certainly does reduce competition.


  7. I just wanted to post that recently, there was a daily drama airing in South Korea about single parenting which might help you see what the media/society view is still about the single parent being a young girl who is unmarried and not too bright. They did show her getting her education done but only because she gave up her child to her mother and claimed it as her brother. The drama was called “Love By My Side”. I personally found the show to be a bit too much, especially in the way of abuse and the harsh judgement set against the young woman when the truth was known.
    Currently, there is another drama airing called “A Thousand Kisses” which is trying to deal with a divorced single mother who has it against her because she gets blame for the divorce and being a single mother although the husband was a flagrant cheater. The show was slapped with a broadcast warning for showing products too much to the point of being a commercial on the show but they were also told they are broadcasting issues that are too sensitive for such a drama being showing at a time that is considered family viewing time. (Poor kids must not know about divorce or single parents). There is another show (“Hooray for Love”) that has the same subject and issues (an older woman who is divorced that hooks up with a younger man who is related to her by marriage [another taboo]), yet they don’t get their hand slap (a warning) and the only difference is that in this drama, the Ahjumma isn’t a single mom.
    Honestly, an unmarried single mom or a divorce single mom seems to be played in the same light as a gay couple in the dramas. A sad thing to see.
    I hope to see this change as it is been seen more often in dramas now a days but as of now, the single mom character is still very cookie cutter and filled with the misconceptions that the society has of the single mom.
    Wicked Ahjumma


  8. Even Mary had to make up being impregnated by the ‘spirit’ and marry Joseph in order to prevent being stoned to death and keep her baby, Jesus. Wasn’t Mary a teenager too. I think Mary was smart and it worked out for her too!


  9. I’m super late to the discussion but I’ve often wondered of the social role of divorced single parents in Korea. The only information I ever find is about unwed (meaning “never-wed”) single parents. Is the social stigma about the same? What about widows and widowers? Just looking for personal insight.


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