23 October 2016
Single mothers in South Korea are seen as 'unchaste, as not conforming to social norms', and find it more difficult to find jobs. Photo: Korea Times
Single mothers in South Korea are seen as 'unchaste, as not conforming to social norms', and find it more difficult to find jobs. Photo: Korea Times

S Korea backs single parents, unwed couples to boost births

South Korea wants to end traditional prejudices against single parents and unmarried couples who live together.

It’s the government’s latest attempt to encourage more people to have children so as to cope with the country’s stubbornly low birth rate and rapidly aging population, Reuters reported.

As policymakers scramble to avoid the problems a dwindling population has brought to neighboring Japan, South Korea’s finance ministry is taking aim against social and regulatory prejudice in its economic policy plan for next year.

“We plan to change the social perception on various family forms to boost the birth rate,” the ministry said in a statement released Wednesday, although it did not give details.

The report quoted an unnamed finance ministry official as saying: “We want to expand support for single mothers and also launch campaigns that will change people’s perceptions of couples living together.” 

South Korea’s birth rate of 1.21 children per woman is the lowest among those of the rich countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and it is also aging the fastest.

Its working-age population will start shrinking in 2017.

Young people are compelled to delay marriage and having children by a sluggish economy that has pushed up youth unemployment.

The average age of first-time South Korean mothers is the world’s highest, at 30.7 years, Statistics Korea says.

It will be tough to alter attitudes in a country where young couples living together before marriage is almost unheard of, and where just 1.9 percent of children are born out of wedlock.

That compares with Sweden, where unwed mothers accounted for 54.4 percent of births in 2013, and the birth rate is 1.89 percent.

Job-seekers in South Korea are often asked their family status, which can put single parents at a disadvantage, and children of single parents are often stigmatized, even into adulthood.

Single parents living alone with children pay higher taxes than married couples with children and a similar income.

“It is especially difficult for female single parents to find work because of gender discrimination in employment,” said Park Yeong-mi of the Korea Unwed Mothers Support Network.

“Single mothers are seen as unchaste, as not conforming to social norms. Single fathers are viewed with even more social stigma, because of the patriarchal culture.”

Several government departments will collaborate in the effort to change views on marriage, although detailed plans are few, the finance ministry official said.

A committee chaired by President Park Geun-hye released a blueprint to tackle the population crunch and said last week it planned to raise acceptance of “various forms of family”, including teenage parents. 

But change could take time, the finance ministry official acknowledged: “This will take persuasion and if the pushback is hard, we will slow things down. We will have to play this by ear.”

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