The adoption scapegoats: Single moms
Adoption from Korea continues today because single mothers are promiscuous.
That was the offensive statement made by the former chairman of the nation's second largest adoption agency to a roomful of single mothers, adoptees, social welfare workers and academics gathered for a conference on May 11 held to launch the first Single Moms' Day in Korea.
The conference was part of events organized by four adoptee and single mothers groups whose goal was to replace the government-created Adoption Day with a day to raise awareness to the challenges faced by single mothers in Korea.
The man’s comment was offensive because it reinforces several long-held myths about adoption and single mothers in Korea.
Adoption began in the aftermath of the Korean War, but the situation has changed dramatically since then. Rapid changes in economic development have transformed Korea into one of the world's major economies.
Presently, many women who become single mothers don't want to give up their children. But they live in a society still bound by patriarchy that, when combined with a persistent social stigma and a lack of social welfare, forces them to relinquish their parental rights.
As a result, three children are sent overseas for adoption every day. And of the 1,125 children adopted to foreign counties in 2009, 1,005 children, or almost 90 percent, were the children of single mothers. (In Korea, single mothers are classified as women who are divorced or widowed as opposed to unwed single mothers, who have never been married.)
Today, international adoption continues because of an antiquated system that has virtually replaced social welfare, discriminates against women and the poor and prioritizes adoption over family preservation. And although domestic adoption is believed to be an alternative to international adoption, it does nothing to help the women who are the mothers of the children in the adoption system.
Adoption agencies play a significant role in this system. But while they emphasize the importance of placing children with families, they often ignore the fact that many children already have families - just not the dual parent families that stand as the traditional definition of family in Korea.
The four agencies authorized to facilitate international adoptions — Holt, SWS, ESWS and KSS — are part of a global industry financed by the West. Adoptive parents pay the Korean agencies up to $20,000 for international adoptions, versus just $4,000 for domestic adoptions. It’s an industry designed to export babies.
This system is so lucrative that the agencies now seek to find children for families instead of finding homes for children in need.
With an increasing number of unwed single mothers in Korea coming forward to talk about their experiences, the agencies' tactics are slowly coming to light.
Some women have talked about having agency workers offering them money before or within hours after they've given birth. Others report having their babies taken by relatives and relinquished for adoption without their consent.
The agencies also maintain single mothers' homes that provide temporary care for women. Some women have reported that while under the agencies' care, they have received "counseling" encouraging them to give their child away.
Choi Hyong-sook, a single mother who fought to reclaim her child after relinquishing him for adoption, reported in February 2010 that "adoption agencies advise unwed mothers before they give birth to sign a written consent for adoption and relinquishment of parental authority" with little counseling about their options. She also said that women using the Internet to get this information “can see the list of unwed mothers’ facilities run by adoption agencies.”
"It is almost impossible to get information from adoption agencies or from consultations about how to raise your children, while it is not hard to get much information about adoption," she said. Her comments were made at a forum hosted by the state-run Korean Women's Development Institute and sponsored by the non-profit Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network.
"In fact, insufficient time and information is given to unwed moms for deciding whether to send their children for adoption or rear their child," Choi said. "Korean unwed moms are not abandoning their children, but giving up their babies under inevitable circumstances."
These circumstances — created by adoption agencies, the government and social discrimination — combine to rob single mothers and their children of their rights.
It is a system that has virtually replaced social welfare in Korea and will continue to do so unchecked — unless the law is revised to protect single mothers and their children. And because adoption agencies play such a significant role in perpetuating the system, their practices must be challenged.
In the interim, we need to support single mothers by working to change the negative perceptions of them in Korean society, reform social welfare law and encourage adoption agencies to change their ways.
Jenny Na is a member of Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK), an adoptee-run organization whose mission is to effect change in Korean adoption policy and practice. The opinions stated here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Groove Korea. To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was published in print in the June edition of Groove Korea. — Ed.