South Korea: Low Birth Rate Blamed on Women

On Dec. 9, Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul organized an event titled, ‘Happy Childbirth – Rich and Strong Future‘, aimed at trying to raise awareness about the country’s very low birth rate.

It sparked controversy when the organizers requested women students in the audience to submit a sworn statement that they would have children.

A fourth year student who prefers to remain anonymous, told IPS “the organizers almost forced female participants to write a sworn statement for childbirth despite many participants asserting that the low birth issue is a social problem rather than mere individual choice.”

South Korea‘s birth rate – 1.19 in 2008, according to the Korea Statistical Information Service, is the lowest among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries – has been in the news recently.

In November, the government’s Presidential Council for Future & Vision announced “comprehensive plans for low birth rate.”

Disabled WrongedFor disabled women in South Korea, the issue of women’s reproductive rights has emerged as an important concern.

Their case is one of the most extreme examples of violation of women’s reproductive rights.

Under the current ‘Mother-Child Protection Law’, women with eugenic or hereditary mental or physical disease are allowed to abort.

Jisung, an activist working with Women with Disability Empathy, a non-governmental organization, said, “this law definitely violates disabled women’s reproductive rights; rights to choose whether they will deliver babies or not.”

The reality is that “sometimes disabled women are forced to abort regardless of their consent,” she added.

Abortion, she advocated, has to be discussed within the framework of women’s reproductive rights, for both disabled and not-disabled women.

The plans include a crackdown on abortion.

Women’s groups have expressed strong reservations. “This plan illustrates the anti-human rights stance of the government which portrays women as an instrument for child birth rather than human beings with reproductive rights,” groups said in a joint statement issued on Nov.26.

The government’s position echoes a recently launched anti-abortion campaign by a group of obstetricians and gynecologists.

The group is planning a second round of campaigning on the streets from Dec. 20, and one of their stated objectives is to initiate criminal action against medical professionals who are providing clandestine abortion services.

Abortion is illegal in South Korea except in cases specified under the Mother-Child Protection Law. However, the reality according to a 2005 survey conducted by the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs is that there are some 340,000 abortions annually across the country. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher.

At an open forum on Dec. 3, ‘Should we let abortion be – an inconvenient truth as it is’ organized by parliamentarian Il-pyo Hong, Eunsang Lee, director of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center (한국성폭력상담소), observed that there is no link between the country’s low birth rate and high abortion rate.

Describing the former as a “social problem”, she said: “The government’s approach of linking low birth rate to abortion is highly problematic since it plans to solve a social problem through state intervention and control over women’s bodies.”

It is not the first time that women’s reproductive rights have been considered marginal in political discussions on South Korea’s birth rate.

Even the current President Lee Myung-bak had remarked during his presidential election campaign in 2007, “If women do not abort, we (Korea) can solve the problem of low birth rate.”

But if you were to ask women, specially married working women, for a solution to the serious birth rate problem they would advocate that the workplace should be transformed into a more women friendly domain.

Hayeon Cheon, who said she has been married for two years and is currently looking for work, was angered by the government’s simplistic solution to the birth rate problem. Based on her personal experience, she told IPS that the “low birth rate is fundamentally caused by the hostile working environment for married woman. In Korea, it is not easy for a woman to work once she delivers a child.”

She added: “Nowadays 90 percent of female high school students go to university and many with access to good education want to pursue a career, but it is very difficult for married women to take maternity leave and continue to work as the labor market and workplace conditions are not favorable.”

Unless the problem of married women in the labor market is solved, she said, “the phenomenon of low birth rate will continue unhindered.”

In South Korea, discussions on women’s reproductive rights have not been either very public or open. The issue should not be the low birth rate and abortion, but “how women’s reproductive rights including abortion rights can be guaranteed in a reasonable way,” said Eunsang Lee.

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