Defining Family: International Widows’ Day

The 26th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council will come to an end this week. The Council discussions included an annual discussion on gender integration, panel discussions on preventing and eliminating child, early and forced marriage, gender stereotypes and women’s human rights and sustainable development. A resolution was also put forward on the Protection of Family, a resolution that was originally put forward back in March at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council. However, it was set aside for the next session as many member states blocked the resolution citing the resolution as controversial and damaging to progress made in the aspect of the rights of both children and women.

Image c/o Wikimedia Commons
Image c/o Wikimedia Commons

I would like to take this opportunity of the annual International Widow’s Day to highlight just why this resolution is harmful and has the potential to perpetuate the suffering and injustice faced by widows, young women, girls and boys worldwide. Firstly, the resolution builds on recent resolutions that recognise the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society; this in itself is not a bad thing. However, it does not recognise the diversity of family formations for example a single mother with her children, a widow and her son, gay couple raising their adopted child, etc. This resolution notes that family is a man and woman and their children. Hence, it is the protection of the ‘traditional-social’ definition of family.

2014 is the UN’s International Year of the Family, further highlighting the importance of family. In this regard 2014 should be a year to celebrate family in all its diversity. It is an opportunity to advocate for those who do not fit into the concept of a ‘traditional family’ – for example women who are widows or people who cannot start a family due to discriminatory laws and practices.

Take the case of widows in India, who account for an estimated 40 million and approximately 10% of all the nation’s women. Their suffering and voices must be heard. In many cases these women are ostracised and have no means of making an income; forcing them into poverty. In the northern Indian state of Punjab, a widow is referred to as randi, which means “prostitute” in Punjabi. In this region, they usually arrange for the widow to marry her deceased husband’s brother as the social belief is that being owned by a man is a way to avoid being raped. Sadly, this practice of forced marriage exists in many other parts of the world and in this vein women and girls are treated as property not humans. Also, the deceased husband’s family in the majority of these cases will forcibly take actual property and land from the widow and claim it as theirs. Margaret Ngii, a widow from Kenya and mother of seven describes her traumatic experience;

After his burial, things drastically changed for the worst, my in-laws took all the properties my late husband had bought, nothing was left to me; the culture does not recognise the well-being of a woman.”

This is gender based violence against women and is a direct violation of their human rights. The story does not end here; let’s look at single mothers (like my mum). Outcomes from the International Report on Mapping Family notes that children are more likely to live with one or no parent in the Americas, Europe, Oceania, and Sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions. Globally, one-quarter to one-third of all families are headed by single mothers. Who has the right to tell these women that as single mothers they are not families? Take the USA, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of 12 million single parent families in 2013, more than 80% were headed by single mothers. Today, 1 in 3 children – a total of 15 million – are being raised without a father and nearly half live below the poverty line.

If we as nations support the UN resolution on the Protection of the Family that is being proposed at the Human Rights Council, we condemn those that do not fit into the rigid box of a ‘traditional family’ to a life of misery and discrimination. But there is another way. We can support and advocate for a more inclusive definition of family and continue to raise awareness on the discrimination faced by widows, single parents and LGTQI community. It is essential that we advocate and work with policy makers and law decision makers to ensure the law protects and promote human rights for all regardless of marital status, background, race, gender or sexual orientation.

This International Widows’ Day, learn more about the plight of widows from Girls’ Globe bloggers:

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

If You Aren’t Married, You’re Incapable of Raising Your Own Child

Of the 200,000 Korean children who have been adopted overseas since 1953, 89% were born to unwed mothers. Single mothers in South Korea have little autonomy when it comes to decisions regarding their children, are highly stigmatized, and lack support from their communities and from the government. They have a difficult time finding employment and childcare in South Korea. A survey found that unwed mothers in South Korea felt the most prejudice after homosexuals in the country. Another survey found that 60% of South Koreans believe unwed mothers “lack judgment and a sense of responsibility.”

Until May of 2012, the South Korean Ministry of Health & Welfare included the following definition of unwed mothers on its website: “…usually low levels of education, with an unstable job. Lives by herself or in a boarding house, has open and impulsive sexual values. A person whose socioeconomic situation is low, and who lives apart from her parents.”

Keeping in mind this negative perspective of single mothers in South Korea, it is not surprising that South Korean laws regarding single mothers are anything but supportive. According to a talk given at the 3rd Annual Single Mother’s Day conference held at the Gwangju International Center in Gwangju, South Korea, a woman can only receive government assistance for a child if her entire family’s financial situation is taken into account. In this case, if her parents earn enough money she may not be eligible for benefits herself and must rely on her parents for financial support. Often, parents of single mothers are the ones who determine whether a child should be given up for adoption, and make other significant decisions for the unwed parents.

Although South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, the Korean government still promotes adoption for unwed mothers rather than creating better support systems for women with children.

In addition to the stigma against unwed mothers in Korea, the rate of adoption of children born to unwed mothers is exacerbated because of Korea’s voluntary birth reporting system. This system “allows for the circumvention of legal documentation.” A birth is not officially recognized until it is recorded at a local office which allows for “predatory agencies to profit from adoptions and enables adopters to sign on as the child’s biological parents.”

This practice violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 7, paragraph 1 that states: “The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.” Many Korean children who try to locate their biological parents later in life, are unable to do so.

Mother and sonThe high rate of adoptions for children of unwed mothers is due to a combination of the stigma associated with being a single mother and the lack of decision making power that South Korean women face, often being pressured towards adoption by family and community members.

There are various organizations in South Korea taking action to assist unwed mothers to care for their children in spite of the obstacles. In addition to advocacy and various other services, the Korean Unwed Mothers Families’ Association (KUMFA) provides housing and food for 24 mothers and their children, for up to 2 months at a time. You can visit the KUMFA Facebook Page to learn more and show your support!

Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), an organization developed by Korean individuals who were adopted internationally and have returned to Korea to seek out their birth families, creates awareness around the issue and lobbies for transparency in adoption practices in Korea. Visit the TRACK website for more information.

Additionally, the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN) provides resources for South Korean unwed mothers. KUMSN facilitates “Single Mother’s Day” each May in Korea to provide awareness about the struggle of unwed mothers in the country. The organization also promotes domestic adoptions as an alternative to international adoptions. You can visit the KUMSN website here.

Although these organizations are providing an invaluable service to unwed mothers, more awareness of the issue is needed to reduce the stigma around being a single mother, and the Korean government should put forth more efforts to keep its families intact.

It is a tragedy that women who are capable of caring for their children are stripped of this innately human experience. These women are presented with additional obstacles by their own communities due to prejudice and irrational ideals of what a family is “supposed” to look like. Please show your support for the organizations that are working to end the stigma toward unwed mothers in South Korea.