|A “Birth Map” launched by the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs which earned a harsh criticism.|
More than 20 countries around the world are going through hard times owing to low birthrate. For example, Singapore, Romania, Poland, Japan, Italy, and Germany are a few of them whose birthrates are at around 0.88 and 1.44. Yet, South Korea is no exception. Its total birthrate was 1.25 last year, and the number has been constantly decreasing for the past 40 years.
Regarding how low birthrate can seriously damage one country’s economic productivity, Korea is putting forward a number of schemes to overcome its circumstance. Still, such plans are not only failing to prove their efficiency but are also criticized for being misogynistic.
Specifically, the recent “Birth Map”launched by the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs earned a harsh criticism. The “Birth Map,” which was introduced in the Ministry’s website, used pink shades to rank the town and cities according to the number of women of childbearing age between 15 and 49. People became highly anxious in that the Ministry perceived women as a tool for pregnancy. Likewise, several efforts to overcome low birthrates have been done in other counties; with negative reviews that they are only shifting the responsibility to women.
Misogynistic approaches to low birthrate in Korean society
Focusing on the circumstance in Korea firsthand, the “Birth Map” ranked the regions on the standard of which had more women of prime age to have children. It wrote regional entitlement programs to pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare, which were said to be included in order to encourage competition between different regions. As a result, the Ministry closed its website, the map lasting not even a day in a reaction to national criticism.
Some male-oriented websites such as Ilbe Storehouse and DC Inside derided the map by asking if it was telling them to go to those regions and rape them.
Kim Young-mee (49), a mother with two children, said, “The map and some sexually-harassing reactions to this is what shows how women are treated in the current Korean society.” The map brought a huge criticism and further led to numerous social and women’s organizations to stand up for women’s rights.
The policy measures against low fertility introduced by the Ministry of Strategy and Finance this year could not escape from criticism neither. They were “Reinforcement of maternity protection act,” “Support for building more workplace nurseries,” “Increasing pay for maternity leave,” and “Creation of superb workplaces with paternity leave.” Some experts pointed out that apart from the last article “Creation of superb workplaces with paternity leave,” the Ministry clearly put their focus on women in dealing with childbirth and childcare. People explained that it feels like the country is pushing women to do more while a lot of mothers are already giving birth, doing childcare and working at the same time.
In addition, an EBS (Educational Broadcasting System) workbook for fourth graders in elementary school was caught up in the controversy. The correct answer to one multiple-choice question asking the cause of low birthrate was “It is because the number of working women increased.” People criticized that the book threw the entire blame on women. It provoked a lot of reactions ranging from worry to anxiety, and to outrage as it was a reflection of how youngsters were understanding the problem of low birthrate. Park Ga-hyun (22) said, “When I was in elementary school, I was also taught that the main cause to low birthrate was the increase of working females. It was difficult for me to think of other reasons for it while the essential problem was not in females but in the society.” She added, “I am quite scared that a great number of current elementary students will think the same as I did.”
Misogynistic approaches to low birthrate in international society
Tragically, it seems like such misogynistic circumstances are happening in other countries, too Foreign government policies are lacking enough consideration and understanding of women. Instead of approaching to the difficulties that working moms face practically and realistically, they are just concentrating on creating the outcomes in a short time; strongly persuading them to have more babies. Not only that, the ideology that does not count males as important subjects of childcare prevails throughout global society.
Some governments are blindly cajoling and persuading women to deliver more babies without establishing sturdy systems that protect their rights. In Italy, its Department of Health launched a national “Fertility Day” in 2016. Some of the slogans used for advertising the “Fertility Day” were “Beauty has no age, but fertility does.” and “Hurry up! Don’t wait for the stork.” In response to this sexist campaign, people in Italy rallied against it and argued that the government should focus on the economic struggles and the children that they already have.
A similar situation happened in Russia. Its government declared a national “Day of Conception” in 2006. On this day, Russians are given a day off work and encouraged to have babies. Moreover, couples who give birth on this day are rewarded by the regional governments, receiving some money, refrigerators, or even a car.
In Romania, its government compulsorily controlled women with aggressive legal force in the 1980s to solve the problem of low birthrate. Women were forced to take gynecological exams every month in a bid to identify whether they were capable of bearing a baby. Those with no child were interrogated about their sex lives as well. Furthermore, the government prohibited abortion in any case unless a woman had five children while all of them had to be under her care at the same time. Ironically, while severely oppressing women to be pregnant, the financial support for them to raise a baby was poor under the country’s stagnant economic situation.
Countries that overcame low birthrate: guaranteeing social environment with gender equality
In contrast, some nations have overcome their low birthrate, which was possible in the way they concentrated on reforming the core social systems and approached the problem from a gender equality perspective.
France is one example. In 1993, it ranked number one in low fertility. Nonetheless, after constantly improving welfare systems regarding childcare and education, its fertility rate increased from 1.65 to 1.93 in 2016, becoming the number one country with a highest birthrate in Europe. The French government reinforced their welfare policy regarding childcare by providing financial incentives to the whole family including the child. They also offer tax breaks for families with children and 300 euros in monthly allowances, and parents can use subsidized full-day childcare facilities which are free from age three.
Sweden is another example that overcame its low birthrate. While its fertility rate was 1.6 in 1978, it increased to 1.9 which ranked in the third place in Europe. To explain, Swedish government expanded the gender equality policy and formed a social consensus that it is hardly possible to maintain its fine economy and welfare system unless they change the fixed gender roles which set males as primary earners in the family and females as care-givers. Hence, they supported double-income families, encouraging both men and women to work and take care of the family together.
Another aspect it emphasized was that it was difficult to secure the talented in workplaces if they kept hiring only males since half of the citizens who received higher education were females. Moreover, the Swedish government actively promoted parental leave systems which enabled both mom and dad to take care of the baby at home for 15 months. Instead of calling it maternal leave or paternal leave, the government chose to name it as parental leave to encourage both men and women to use it. If both mom and dad use this system for three months each, they are given an additional two months of parental leave.
What Korean society should pursue: a new social structure that deters conventional gender and family stereotypes
Then, what should Korea do to overcome the misogynist perspective that is prevalent in the solutions to low birthrate? Park Jia, the head of Gender Equality Education Center of Seoul Women’s Association, noted that we can approach this problem in two big ways: asking ‘WHY’ low birthrate is a problem and understanding the causes of it.
To begin with, the government explains that low birthrate leads to the decrease of workforce, which ultimately increases the burden to support the ageing or non-laboring population. However, Park Jia said we need to ask the following questions: 1. Is birthrate really a problem in the current Korean society where unemployment rate is high? 2. Is our society taking care of the ageing population or just putting burden on individual families? If the answer is the latter, for whom does this system exist? She explained, “It is difficult to feel the crisis of low birthrate in a reality where labor conditions are poor.” People are already exhausted and therefore cannot be convinced that more population will make a better society, guarantee their old age and jobs. This demonstrates that struggling to overcome low birthrate is directly related to seeking for the right direction Korean society should follow.
Moreover, Head Park mentioned that there are two different situations we need to consider. The first one is the case in which females do not want to give birth, including not only women who do not give any birth but those who reject to bear more after having a baby. People in the second case, are in a difficult situation to do so even though they want to. Firstly, the fear-promoting measures loses its validity in that nowadays people can choose their own life cycle. It is a natural right to do so, and therefore the policies that target them should be abandoned; if not, it becomes a national violence.
Secondly, both social and economic conditions should not compulsorily control one’s life cycle; meaning that the people who choose not to give birth, even though they want to, should be guaranteed with freedom of choice. Thus, the society need to eliminate the economic burden put on individual families and women to pay the extreme childcare costs.
At the moment, Korean government remains sluggish and its policies are doing no further than just recommending women to have more babies. This drags on the enlightening approach insisting "One should grow up with a sibling, or she will grow up to be selfish." Furthermore, Head Park emphasized, “Current policies are analyzing the phenomenon while leaving the conventional social structure and discriminative gender stereotypes as they have been.” Just as what the EBS workbook said, believing low birthrate is because of increasing working women assumes numerous prejudices: "Childbirth is female responsibility," "women do not give birth in order to work," "childbirth is an obligatory and natural desire for women." She clarified that the reason why the childbirth-promoting policies and advertisements constantly target women and contain misogynic contents is because the society considers childbirth as a natural and bounden duty.
The continuing international phenomenon of low birthrate is a crucial social problem which should be carefully dealt with. However, Korean society as well as the global society must pay their highest attention to avoid misogynistic policies which suppress females. It is all about stereotypes; the conventional gender roles and family forms that are considered to be "normal." We need to do away with them, or it will be hardly possible to expect the childbirth-promoting polices to do their jobs and they will constantly stay to be violent and attack women.
Lim Ji-soo firstname.lastname@example.org
<저작권자 © 동국포스트, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>