All Mothers Have the Right to Raise Their Own Children
- Richard Boas, MD, Founder and President of KUMSN
Korean Unwed Morthers Support Network
UNWED MOTHERS IN KOREA
Unwed Mothers in Korea are Shunned by Society and Discouraged from Raising Their
“…We don’t see a campaign for unmarried mothers to raise our own children,” said Lee Mee-
kyong, a 33-year-old unwed mother. “Once you become an unwed mom, you’re branded as
immoral and a failure. People treat you as if you had committed a crime. You fall to the bottom
rung of society.”
“Group Resists Korean Stigma for Unwed Mothers,” The New York Times, October 7, 2009
Despite the fact that unwed mothers in Korea view themselves as social outcasts, more unwed
mothers are choosing to raise their own children and civic groups and the Korean government
are stepping up to offer support and to change public policy.
More Unwed Moms are Raising Their Kids; More Say They Want To Raise Them
• The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs states there are over 140,000
unwed mothers in Korea every year.
• In 2007, 19.2 percent of all unwed and single mothers in Korea were raising their
children, representing a substantial increase in the last ten years. In 2009, there
were 2,464 unwed mothers living with children aged two and below and 15,783
mothers with children 18 an d below, according to Korean Women’s Development
Institute. Despite societal pressures on unwed mothers to relinquish their babies,
an increasing number of unwed mothers in Korea say they want to raise their
children. In 1984, 5.8 percent of unwed moms said they wanted to keep their babies.
By 2007, that number had risen to 32 percent, according to Korean Women’s
Many more might keep their children if there was more financial support and less societal
Miss Mamma Mia, a Group of Unwed Moms, Formed to Advocate
for Their Rights
A group of unwed mothers, calling themselves Miss Mamma Mia, has been meeting monthly
since March 2009. The group recently joined with single mothers and researchers to form the
Korean Unwed Mother Family Association. The organization, which will soon be registered
with the Ministry of Gender Equality, is working to change opinions about unwed mothers and
spearhead efforts to support legislation regarding the responsibilities of biological fathers and
rights of unwed moms.
Why this movement now?
More Babies in Korea are Born Out of Wedlock
• The number of children born out of wedlock has been rising steadily since 1989,
from 5,161 to 7,774 recorded in 2007, according to Korean National Statistical
Office, 2008 report, Vital Statistics.
• Today the number of children born out of wedlock in Korea is estimated to be
6,000 to 10,000 children per year. These babies represent 1.6 percent of all births,
according to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs (2008).
Korean Annual Birthrate Among the Lowest in the World, only 1.19 in 2009
Vast Proportion of Unwed Women in Korea End their Pregnancy in Abortion
• Government studies have estimated that in Korea, where abortion is illegal (except
in limited circumstances), there are approximately 350,000 abortion cases per year.
• 42% of abortions are provided to unwed pregnant women, according to research on
abortion, carried out in 2005 by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
• The New York Times reported that, according to the Ministry of Health, Welfare
and Family Affairs, nearly 96% of unwed pregnant women in Korea choose
A Vast Proportion of Unwed Mothers in Korea Relinquish their Children for Adoption.
• 68.3% of unwed mothers give up their children for adoption, because of shame,
fear, and lack of support, according to Korean Women’s Development Institute
• Only one percent of single mothers in the United States relinquish their children,
according to the National Center for Health Statistics, US.
• In 2008 nearly 90% of the 1,250 Korean children adopted abroad were born to
unmarried women. In case of domestic adoption, 81% of the 1,306 who were
adopted were born out of wedlock, according to the Ministry for of Health, Welfare
and Family Affairs (2009).
• More babies have been adopted
internationally from Korea than any
country in the world. Since 1958,
when South Korea started keeping
track of adoptions, 230,635 children
have been adopted. About 30 percent
of these children were adopted by
South Koreans. The rest were adopted
abroad (2008, MHWFA). Two-thirds of all foreign adoptees ended up in the
United States. The percent of children born to unwed mothers who were adopted
has doubled since the 1970s. The percentages from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s-
early 2000s are 42%, 73.6%, and 84.7% respectively. South Korea has set a goal to
eliminate foreign adoptions altogether by 2012, according to the New York Times,
October, 2008. Foreign adoption is often perceived as shameful to Koreans.
• Finances play a role too; 34.4% of unwed mothers who gave up their children cited
“lack of financial means” as a reason. Another 29.8% noted they made the decision
“for the future of their children.” Only 7.4 % said they gave up their children ‘for
the future of themselves.’
• Well-educated Unwed Moms More Likely to Keep their Babies. Education and age
are often key factors in whether or not unwed mothers choose to raise or relinquish
their children, found a recent study published by the Korean Women’s Development
Institute. Mothers who choose to relinquish their children are relatively younger and
not as well educated.
Services and Support for Unwed Moms: 12 Billion Won Allocated
to Help in 2010
Today, there are signs that the Korean government is recognizing the issues facing unwed
mothers and providing new levels of support.
• Previously, unwed and single moms faced extreme poverty, but The Ministry of
Health, Welfare and Family has recently passed a new budget to the Ministry of
Finance and Planning, with 12 billion won allocated to support unwed mothers. Last
year’s budget for unwed mothers was 1.6 billion won.
• Only unwed moms between the ages of 18-24 and living below poverty line will
receive the monies for childcare, medical expenses and housing. However all
possible supports are provided to adoptive families, regardless of their income.
• The monies are insufficient to support the unwed mom and her children. According
to Sisa-In Weekly (January 21, 2010) “As for a standard of support, there have
been no differences between now and twenty years ago, even though the number of
the child-rearing unwed mothers has increased. Based on the Single Parent Family
Welfare Act, the support from the government is limited to the low-income families.
In fact, the unwed moms desperately need supports such as child caring.”
• And, while unwed mothers may be guaranteed support, there are many unwed mothers
whose income is below the poverty line who do not receive support. In theory, young
mothers under 18 are supposed to be supported by their parents and covered by their
parents’ health insurance, even if their parents will have nothing to do with them. It
appears as if government welfare workers have a lot of discretion and may choose not
to enroll unwed moms for
certain benefits. Adding to
the problem, both national
and local budgets are
insufficient in many cases
to cover the needs of all
qualified individuals and
families, so funds may not
be available even when
unwed mothers qualify for
Here’s How Support Benefitted One Unwed Mom
Unwed mothers who receive support say that even the smallest amount can make a great deal
One mother’s account as told to a representative at the Korean Foster Care Association, March
2009 and published in the Association’s booklet: “Korean Child Rearing Unwed Mothers’
“Thanks to The Millennium Project, I was able to receive diapers, formula and
wet tissues for the baby, so I haven’t had to worry about that, but I still think that
to raise a baby alone in our country is still extremely hard. I am always exhausted,
because I alone have to be the baby’s mother, father, and friend, but when I’m sick
or tired, I have no one to talk to about it.
My current expenses, not including my child’s medical bills, total 660,150 won.
Although I try to spend as little as possible, after the fixed monthly bills are paid, it
is hard to even afford a piece of fruit. I wish that I could receive just a bit of aid in
living expenses. If I can receive some stipend, only then can I finish my education. I
would like to get a college degree and study more, but since I have to work and take
care of my child, I will probably have to wait until my child is independent.”
Korean Laws Support Adoption
According to an article written by Jane Jeong Trenka, “Rethinking Birth Parent Consent to
Adoption,” Korean Adoption laws are written to support adoption. These are currently being
revised by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family. The Special Act on Adoption was
enacted in 1976 when the country was poor and international adoption was regarded as the best
way for children, has had its name changed to “Special Act Relating to Adoption Promotion and
Procedure Law.” The law provides simple procedures and qualifications to promote adoptions.
The article goes on to note:
One major point that both the government and activists agree upon is the need to lengthen the
deliberation period during which it is illegal for a mother to relinquish her child for adoption –
currently, mothers may relinquish a child while still in the womb.
However, the opinions of activists and the ministry differ greatly on the amount of time that
mothers are required to deliberate before making a life-altering decision for herself, her baby
and future generations. While the bill drafted by adoptees and unwed mothers demands 30 days
after birth for deliberation, the ministry proposes 72 hours after birth for domestic adoption,
followed by a court procedure. For international adoption, no court procedure is necessary.
Activists disagree with the ministry, for two reasons: First, 72 hours would continue to
give the legal base for preferring domestic adoption over family preservation. Second,
there is nothing in the bill that changes the way overseas adoptions are conducted. This
means that overseas adoptions are again being preferred over domestic adoption, which
is itself being preferred over family preservation. This
hierarchy is exactly the opposite of recommendations
by international laws on child welfare, which state that
family preservation must come first, followed by domestic
adoption, and finally international adoption as a last resort.”
Conventionally, adoption agencies ask unwed mothers to
sign a document giving up parental rights in the process
of adoption. However, Korean law states that the parental
right can not be given up without transferring that right to an
adoptive family. So, if a baby has not yet been adopted, the
unwed mother still holds the parental right. Despite the law,
most unwed mothers believe that they relinquish their rights
to their children simply by signing an agreement to give up
The Rights & Support for Unwed Mothers and their Children in
In Germany and Sweden, as well as many other developed European countries and Australia,
relinquishing children for domestic adoption is rare because there are adequate legal and
economic protections for single-parent families.
• The majority of developed nations have policies in place to support unwed mothers
and their rights to raise their children.
▸In Sweden unwed mothers are eligible to receive a childcare allowance,
housing subsidy, and paid childcare leave at the birth of a child through 15
months at 90% of her salary.
▸In Denmark, unwed mothers are protected under all of that country’s welfare
laws. And the the law requires that an unmarried father is responsible for
supporting his children.
▸Germany provides a child-care allowance for unwed mothers up to 24 months
▸In Great Britain and the United States, programs are in place to prevent teen
pregnancy and to support teens should they become pregnant.
▸The United States offer public assistance to unmarried mothers whose family
has been designated as a mother and child family.
▸In Canada, unwed mothers receive social aid from the government and in
Australia, services in the social welfare system are provided regardless of
This is a Human Rights Issue
The rights of unwed mothers are not an adoption issue, they are a matter of basic human rights.
Keeping children with their original families is a valued goal in all cultures. The development
of adequate resources to assist people who choose to raise their own children is critical to
assuring that expectant parents are not coerced into making adoption decisions due to a lack of
support, including a lack of financial resources.
As Korea sorts out its fiscal responsibility towards unwed mothers, the country is bound by
international doctrine to provide support for women and children.
• As a member of the United Nations, Korea has ratified the Convention of the Rights
of the Child and the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
Against Women. Both international treaties contain significant clauses outlining a
nation’s responsibilities towards women and children.
▸The CRC is the most widely ratified international human rights treaty.
Children have rights as individuals, and, importantly, these include the right
to be raised in their families and their culture.
▸The CRC further states that “In order to protect a child’s right to be raised in
the context of her family, State Parties to the CRC must render appropriate
assistance to parents and legal guardians in the performance of their child
rearing responsibilities,” and must “take appropriate measures to assist parents
and others responsible for the child to implement this right and shall in case
of need provide material assistance and support programs, particularly with
regard to nutrition, clothing and housing.”
▸The Convention of the Rights of the Child asserts the rights of the family to
• Korea has also signed the CEDAW. Despite that, there remains significant
social and economic discrimination against women in families, education and the
workplace that set the context for unwed moms. Even married women struggle
with many issues related to child rearing, education and employment.
The Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network
The Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network advocates for the rights of
unwed pregnant women, unwed mothers and their children in Korea. The
Network’s goal is to enable Korean women to have sufficient resources and support to
keep their babies, if they choose, and thrive in Korean society, rather than feel compelled
to give up their children for adoption or risk a life of poverty.
Founded by Dr. Richard Boas, an American father who adopted a Korean daughter
over twenty years ago, the Network’s primary focus is on raising awareness in Korea
and, amongst Korean groups in the US, to effect positive change. The Network works
to educate, inform and promote discussion of the difficulties facing unwed mothers and
their children in Korea in order to elevate their economic, political and social potential in
After only two years,
KUMSN is making a
difference in Korea. We’ve
provided moderate grants
for scholarly research
and direct support for
some women and children
(including setting up a
for them, which provides
counseling and crisis
intervention), as well as agencies advocating on their behalf. In addition to the workshops
and forums that we have sponsored, we have met with Korean academics, policymakers,
legislators, unwed moms and the organizations serving them, and the media- who are
now actively discussing the issue- and we have been well-received.
We have already seen positive changes, and the prospect for more change is real. But,
according to the Korean government, there are over 140,000 of these women. Our work
is only the beginning.
Right now, our program is unique to Korea, but we know there are women and children
worldwide who could benefit from similar work. Our program can serve as a model for
them and their respective countries.
Helping unwed Korean moms keep and raise their children- a basic human right- is part
of a larger issue, which the world sorely needs to address if it is to truly move forward.
A b o u t D r. R i c h a r d B o a s , Fo u n d e r, K o r e a n U n w e d M o t h e r s S u p p o r t
Dr. Richard Boas, 60, an American ophthalmologist, and his wife adopted a baby
girl from Korea over twenty years ago. After practicing medicine for many
years, Dr. Boas gave up his practice in 2001 to turn his attention full-time to philanthropy.
In October 2006, Dr. Boas visited Korea and met with unmarried, pregnant women, who
intended to give up their babies, and visited infant orphans who had been relinquished
by their mothers. He discovered that the majority of these women did not want to give up
their children for adoption; rather they felt compelled to relinquish them due to economic
and societal pressures. Dr. Boas realized that his daughter’s mother was likely one of
those women. This insight prompted him to found the Korean Unwed Mothers Support
Today, Dr. Boas is on a mission to not only help Korean women and their children by
supporting organizations set up to conduct research, but to effect a sea change in
attitudes, support and empowerment for unwed mothers and their children in Korean
society itself. He frequently travels to Korea to focus on having respectful discussions
about these issues with the political, policy-making, academic, adoption and not-for-profit
communities. Dr. Boas continues his campaign in the United States, where he frequently
networks within the adoption community.
KOREAN UNWED MOTHERS SUPPORT NETWORK PRIORITES:
• Supporting unwed mothers to advocate for themselves
• Education, job training, counseling and resources that will help unwed mothers
make the best decisions- both for themselves and their babies.
• Scholarly research on the demographics, needs, and experiences of Korean unwed
women and their children is a necessary prerequisite to advocate for change and a
sound basis for government programs.
• Public awareness and public education about the situation and needs of unwed
• Efforts to ensure equal treatment to all Koreans, no matter their family status, in
school and the workplace.
• Improved sex education in Korean schools so that all young Koreans are able to
make thoughtful choices about pregnancy.
“We have not chosen to be a social minority, but to raise our
children. If we have to fight to raise them, we will be happy
to. We do this because our children are not a burden, but our
(Miss Mamma Mia, a group of Korean unwed mothers)