Forget Me Not: an intimate film about unwed mothers in South Korea

The documentary film Forget Me Not premiered at the Nordisk Panorama Film Festival in Malmö, Sweden this weekend. Through a personal journey of identity and belonging, artist and filmmaker Sun Hee Engelstoft brings us up close to the shame, secrecy and structural pressure surrounding unwed young mothers in South Korea. In the making of the film, she follows the process that young women must go through to make the heart wrenching decision to give their babies up for adoption.

Forget Me Not raises the voices and perspectives of young women who have rarely – if ever – been heard. The sound of their silence is deafening as they sit across from their parents in a meeting to discuss the baby’s and the mother’s future. Although the three young women we follow in the film are anonymous and their faces blurred, the intimacy and emotion is palpable throughout. Sun Hee was herself adopted from South Korea as a baby and the making of the film is an attempt to understand and connect with her own mother.

In the Q&A following the film she spoke about the mutual curiousity between the young mothers and herself as an adopted Korean – one of those babies. “It was important to me to be very honest with them – also about the emotional stress that I was going through during the shooting of the film and when learning about their lives. I also exchanged my story and my experience growing up in the Nordics. The curiosity was equal. They wanted answers.

Of course they asked me if I was happy to be adopted – and I can’t really say that I was happy to be “traded” in a way. There is so much money in adoption, and has been for such a long time, which is deeply problematic. I am doing well, I am making a living, but I have spent most of my adulthood trying to track back my identity. I think that counts for something in the scope of things. I know a lot of other people who are adopted or who have been affected by adoption who have struggled with this issue.”

I had the opportunity to continue the conversation with Sun Hee about her experiences in South Korea, the complexities of human experiences, adoption, and her future work.

Julia: What really stood out for me in the film were the power structures within the families, and how little power these young women actually have to make a decision for their futures. How much of these underlying structures of power surprised you and what came to light during your time there? 

Sun Hee: It is very picturesque in South Korea, it is very beautiful and it is very rich – which happened in a very short time. I would never in my wildest fantasy have been able to fiction write these stories – because they are so wild. I just had no idea that it was like that and that was a shock to me. It was a painful thing to experience. It also gave me an understanding that I just did not have before, and I am happy to have that knowledge.

I came there and I am seen as a Korean, and then they discover that I don’t know anything. I am basically a big baby running around with a camera. And then they just start crying – I’ve met that quite a lot. I don’t understand why, because I’m from Denmark, I have a rich culture. It’s a weird thing, because it reveals what I have lost – even the painful parts of a society I don’t know about. I really wanted to find some answers. I have been brought up with some very strong narratives about adoption without anyone really being able to explain how it happens.”

Julia: It is a very personal story and something that must make you feel very vulnerable. Can you tell me a bit about the motivation of actually making a film and how you are bracing yourself now as you are exposing it to the world?

Sun Hee: I think the film was a way to investigate what was actually happening, and a chance to get close to some of these women who I wouldn’t have had a chance to have a conversation with. Looking at the women in this country that I also belonged to – I was brought up in a very white community in the countryside [in Denmark]. I thought I was white for the longest time – but I was not ever treated as white, which was a big reason for confusion.

I don’t think that most European countries have acknowledged that mirroring your origin or similar bodies has an effect on your self image growing up. It’s a feeling of always being different, treated slightly differently. I knew if I stood out too much I would be shunned, but it would be in a silent way.

I think that sort of disturbance growing up made me so curious to be in Korea, looking at these women becoming mothers. How do I relate to them? They were so foreign to me in the beginning, but now I so relate to them and our stories are so connected. This is an experience you can’t explain.

There is never a way to protect myself when doing something so personal. It is definitely not the easiest thing. I don’t think I could have done it any other way. This is the one subject that was important to me.

Because of the identity and adoption turmoil I was in – I fianlly realized when making the film that adoption wasn’t really about me. It is a women’s issue. It is not something that I as an individual can solve, and I don’t have to. And that was such a big relief.

This is a women’s issue, which makes it a human rights issue and a children’s rights issue. That just opened it up in a completely new way for me – to see things on the structural level. It opened up so many more questions. Is it OK to buy a child from someone who is coerced to being seperated from that child? Should we reconsider how things are done? To become adopted internationally, you have to become an orphan on paper. Even if your parents are known, they have to write this paper. Adoption becomes a cover up story for something else.

Julia: This has been a project you’ve worked on for 8 years, is there a pause in your work now or are you continuing with the story in some way? 

I am definitely continuing. I am doing several things. One thing is studying the dads, because the fathers are really not recognised and they are not protected by law. We have these young fathers who are losing a child in the family. Time goes by and they maybe start their family and may have a different idea of what having a family actually means, and there is no tracking back.

It is an issue that nobody is talking about and could be really important to take a closer look. It is really difficult to find the dads that would be willing to participate in a documentary though. So, it will probably become more of a fictional story.

Disruptive Voices: Breaking Gender Barriers in South Korea

Disruptive Voices is a South Korean Facebook group, that not only functions as an online social network, but actually organizes in-person discussions about gender in Korea, which I think is awesome.

Disruptive Voices is an offshoot of Varyd, a clothing line launched in June 2013. The founders of Varyd, Rydia, a Korean National, and Vanessa, a Korean-American, both survivors of physical and sexual violence, market their clothes using models of different shapes, sizes, colors, and age, to remind us that we are all beautiful.  Varyd has been featured on CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Korea Herald, DaeguCompass, Groove Korea, and Korean Buddhism

While working on their clothing line with the aim of improving their community, they established Disruptive Voices,

..a community/movement to help support, empower, validate, and further raise awareness (about gender issues) especially in Korea.

In an interview with the founders, Vanessa explained, “we are survivors and know there is a lack of communicative and safe support for people to come together (on this issue).” Through her own experience, Vanessa realized that psychological support and a space of safety is vital. “In order to move forward, I felt that (for myself) having a ‘circle’ or safety was essential, if not life saving.” 

Disruptive Voices hopes to curb the objectification of women. Rydia explained that in Korea there is a “ focus on materialism and external beauty as a means to prove your worth.”

The issue of plastic surgery and the obsession of it in Korea…shakes up values. Women are expected to become ‘perfect’ and young men are raised to value that. Women are no longer fellow humans, they are objectified. I worry about how this effects and harms the youth and how they value themselves and one another. There is (also) a stigma with reaching out for psychological support or therapy. People are concerned with how they are viewed and judged, this negatively affects potential self-security.”

The founders hope that Disruptive Voices can be a place of “embrace, safety, support, and care” for those who do not find support from family, peers, or police, and who may be ridiculed for coming forward about surviving sexual violence.”

We are warriors with and for those that feel alone.

Vanessa suggests, “for the older generation, Confucian roots are a big reason behind a lot of thinking. Some of (her) students are adults and they are very open minded and bright, but they have used Confucianism as a reason behind why women should cook and tend to children and men should work and drink.”

Disruptive Voices 1
Image courtesy of Disruptive Voices

Disruptive Voices has hosted “Womyn’s Talks” covering the topics of Violence Against Women, Dating, Media and Body Image. Women may only attend the “Womyn’s Talks”, however, Disruptive Voices has not forgotten about the vital role men play in closing the gender gap. Disruptive Voices held their first “Men’s Talk” this past Sunday. Disruptive Voices co-leader, James, has taken on the instrumental role of leading the “Men’s Talks”.

While talks are regulated by gender, workshops are open to everyone. Both talks and workshops focus on raising awareness about specific gender topics. The talks are held in Seoul, South Korea, but the group hopes to expand nationwide. Individuals from Korea, US, Ireland, India, and Pakistan have attended.

An important point Rydia shared is that “one of the greatest cultural traits of Korea is the collective mentality. Unlike the Western societies, Korean culture highly emphasizes ‘one for all’ instead of individualism. While it may sound like a negative thing, it helps get top-down initiatives by authorities and the government trickle down faster to citizens.  By targeting the power of media, celebrities and … collaboration with bigger establishments, we most definitely can make a great impact in Korean society.” Additionally, through including expats in the discussions, “people are able to expand their views, listen, and understand others.”

Disruptive Voices 2Rydia explains, “I am Korean. I love Korea. I want to do my best to make individual’s lives better. I don’t kid myself that I can change the entire nation and that they will all listen to what I have to say. But comments after the talks make me and the Disruptive Voices team happy.”

Disruptive Voices is partnering with TGN Korea for a nationwide campaign called “the S.H.I.E.L.D” occurring from April to May 2014. The campaign aims to inhibit sexual violence through self-defense classes and a neighborhood watch program to patrol heavy alcohol/party districts such as Gangnam (the neighborhood made world-famous by Psy) to make sure drunk individuals get home safely. K-POP stars and actors will be speaking and performing in support of the campaign.

All are invited to join Disruptive Voices events, but not required to share personal experiences. Please remember to be respectful and keep the space safe and confidential.

Disruptive Voices is open to topic ideas for talks, and is currently seeking LGBTQA individuals to serve as leaders for upcoming talks on issues affecting that population. Additionally, Disruptive Voices is in need of interpreters to translate from English to Korean and vice-versa. Email the founders at disruptivevoices (at)!

Follow Varyd on Twitter @varyddesigns.

In Korea, We “Hollaback” Against Street Harassment

bg-header korea

Last week Korea launched its own Hollaback! website. Hollaback! is an organization and online platform that delivers resources, research, and initiatives aimed at ending street harassment. Most importantly, Hollaback! is a portal for individuals to share personal stories about being harassed or having witnessed someone else being harassed, and for others to show their support for those individuals.

hollaback-flyerAccording to Hollaback!, “Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces. At its core is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups (women and LGBTQ folks, for example) of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces. It reinforces sexual objectification of these groups.”

A Hollaback! initiative called “I’ve Got Your Back” encourages bystanders to get involved when they witness street harassment, as a way to let harassers know it will not be tolerated. Because it can be dangerous to intervene, find out how you can safely prevent an instance of street harassment.

Hollaback! explains,

The real motive of street harassment is intimidation. To make its target scared or uncomfortable, and to make the harasser feel powerful.

Hollaback! creates a simple way to take that power away by exposing it. Hollaback! utilizes the technology of smart phones to allow individuals to post occurrences and photos of street harassment in real time, and get immediate support. Hollaback! also maps where street harassment occurred (pink dot) and where bystanders have intervened (green dot) as a way to inform individuals, lawmakers, or police, where harassment may be occurring more often.

Hollaback! emphasizes the importance of reassuring those who are harassed that they are supported, not guilty of bringing a situation upon themselves, and to be empowered to stand up to harassment.

Hollaback! began after Thao Nguyen was sexually harassed on a New York subway and did not find support from the police. Her harasser, Dan Hoyt, a well known NYC restaurant owner, locked his eyes on a young woman (Thao), opened his pants and began to masturbate”. Because Thao did not find assistance from the police, she posted a photo of the man masturbating onto her Flickr page. After a social media uproar, she gained the support she deserved, and Hoyt was swiftly charged with public lewdness.

Since Hollaback!’s inception, a new awareness of street harassment in New York has occurred and an international fight against its occurrence is underway. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority joined with the NYPD in a campaign to encourage victims of sexual harassment to report, and Hollaback! websites have been launched in 25 countries and 14 languages.

Hollaback Launch Discussion
Hollaback! Korea Launch Discussion in Gwangju

I found out that there are distinctions among all Hollaback! sites, and each site creates its own goals. Despite the fact that street harassment happens everywhere, the way people respond to it can be influenced by culture and norms. Hollaback! provides resources for individuals regarding how to respond effectively to street harassment. Hollaback! Korea emphasizes the intersectionality of street harassment in Korea. One of their goals is to remain conscious of the fact that anyone can face street harassment regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity, and that their service is responding appropriately to all victims.

One distinction of Hollaback! Korea is that it does not allow photos to be posted to the site because Korean law prevents it. A local police officer participated in the Hollaback! launch Discussion, and provided her insight on effective ways to intervene and report cases of street harassment legally in South Korea. She suggested that it is still important to gather evidence such as taking a photo and contacting the authorities immediately. Her involvement is a sign that there is police support for this issue as well.

A study of street harassment in 143 countries from 2010 found that 43% of people surveyed in one Korean city experienced street harassment, and 79% of those individuals were women. About 72% of the incidents occurred on subway cars, 27.3% on buses, and 1.1% in taxis. Eighteen percent “strongly protested against their assailants” and 6.3% shouted. To see how your country compares, view the data here.

Although Hollaback! Korea was only launched last week, the site has already gathered several stories in both Korean and English, and has hosted four public awareness events around the country!

Hollaback! Korea wants to invite any interested party living in Korea to contact them if they would like to participate in the site’s development, especially those who have experience working on websites, translating from English to Korean, and event planning.

For those of us living in Korea, attend the Hollaback! Launch Party this Saturday in Seoul to show your support!

Hollaback Korea Seoul Launch Party Team 2
The Hollaback! Korea Seoul Launch Party Team

If you live in a country or city that does not yet have a Hollaback! site, you can start one—check out how here!

To easily take part in the fight against street harassment, like the Hollaback! Korea Facebook page and follow them on Twitter @HollabackKorea.

Don’t forget to post when you see street harassment occur wherever you are. You can use the free Hollaback! App to do so in real time, and be a part of helping people everywhere feel safer.

Career or Family? Choose One.

Songi - My local translator
Song-i – My local translator

Last weekend, I interviewed eleven Korean women at Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea. My Korean language teacher, Song-i, accompanied me as my translator.

I asked the same two questions to the eleven women I spoke with:

What is the biggest challenge or issue for women in South Korea today?

What is the biggest inequality among men and women in the country?

The responses I received varied; however, the top response to both questions was inequality in career opportunities.

In a previous Girls’ Globe article, I included data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2012. According to the report, education attainment and healthcare are ranked highly and equally for men and women in South Korea. There is a universal healthcare system in South Korea allowing for relatively equal access to healthcare. In countries where education and healthcare are equitable, usually the other indicators of gender equity, employment and political power, also improve. In South Korea, however, employment and political power remain unequal. After combining all four indicators, South Korea ranked a meager 108 out of 135 countries in gender equity. The results of my survey seem to capture the dilemma of gender inequality in employment in South Korea accurately.


Six out of eleven interviewed women thought the biggest inequality among men and women is in job opportunity and career advancement, and five out of eleven women said that this topic also represented the biggest challenge or issue for women in South Korea. All of the women who spoke about job opportunities said that the challenge was related to the fact that women are expected to stop working when they get married and/or start having children, and, in fact, most women do stop working completely to raise their children. Of the women who do go back to work, most have diminished opportunities for promotions because of the time they spent out of work.

One woman I spoke with is studying to become a doctor, and said that if she chooses a career in medicine she will have more GGFamilyCareerConflict family/career conflicts than a man would have in the same profession. She said the challenge is not the same for men.

Other responses to the question regarding the biggest challenge South Korean women face included: the threat of sexual criminals, viewing illegal abortions as a viable option instead of deciding to be more “responsible”, making sure their children get a good education, and increasing their social status. Some of the women I spoke with believe that current laws are inadequate in addressing sexual crimes in South Korea, and that sexual crimes have increased since people have become more open about sexuality in the country.

Other responses to the question regarding the biggest inequality among men and women included finding space for leisure time and political inequality. A few women I spoke with think that public facilities such as parks and gyms are geared toward men.

Two women responded that there is no inequality among men and women in South Korea, and one of those women suggested that the two year military service requirement for men evens out any employment inequalities faced by women in the country.

My translator, Song-i believes that the biggest inequality is also career opportunity. She said,

Compared to decades ago, many women get higher (job) positions than men. Many women are working and they do have a career and they have money, but after getting married it becomes a problem. Once they get pregnant they need to give up their career. Their company or job never offers benefits for that. That’s the problem. They need to give up several years for giving birth and taking care of their babies and their families. Men never do that in Korea. There are a few, but almost none. I think both parents should take responsibility for their children. It should be fair because they both have their career, but why do women alone give up their career?


The Confucian roots in South Korea are deeply imbedded. Although the Korean society has changed drastically in the past 30 years, these roots still have a strong hold, especially in terms of family values. Confucian society clearly defined roles for men and women, and a woman’s role was in the home.  These values are still in motion today. In August, the South Korean government sponsored a speed-dating event for singles in Seoul as a way to encourage marriage and increase the birth rate. A recent Girls’ Globe article discusses the challenges and stigma that single mothers face in the country.

I think the responses I received from my survey also relate to these deeply imbedded values. The responses regarding abortions, sexual criminals, and sexual openness are a result of the conservative social views held in the country.

The interviews I carried out with these women clearly show that they are concerned about employment inequality. If a women has career aspirations, she usually also faces pressure from her parents and society to make sure family comes first. Women in the United States and other countries face a similar conflict, but it is considered much more of a social faux pas to be unmarried and career oriented if you are a women in Korea. There is an cultural difference.

In a previous post, I documented some of the measures South Korea is taking to close the gender gap. Improvements are happening slowly, but the resiliency of women in South Korea is apparent. The gender gap has improved since 2009 and should increase with continued awareness and global pressure.



Busan Hosts the 27th International Population Conference

The 27th International Population Conference of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) took place this weekend in Busan, South Korea. The focus of the conference was to seek global solutions to low birth rates and aging populations. Over 2,500 researchers from 140 countries, including 500 from Korea, presented their theses and policy recommendations on global population issues.

The IUSSP holds an International Population Conference every four years, and this year was the first time it was held in Korea.

Busan was chosen as host partly because Korea has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates. At the end of 2012, the fertility rate in Korea was 1.3 children per woman of childbearing age. The fertility rate in 2009 in Busan was 0.94. There was a fertility rate improvement made in Busan over the past few years that was discussed at the conference.

The IUSSP was originally established by the World Population Conference, a conference developed by public health heroine and women’s rights advocate, Margaret Sanger, and was held in 1927 in Geneva. The conference was the first to bring together international experts to discuss population, food supply, fertility, migration, and health. The first World Population Conference succeeded in sparking an interest and research on population issues and established the IUSSP which has continued the important work.

One topical paper presented at this year’s conference discussed fertility in South Korea and how gender equity plays a role in improving fertility rates in the country. Soo-Yeon Yoon of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign presented her paper, “Why is it difficult to achieve the ideal number of children? Answers in the case of South Korea”.

Her paper examined individual experiences of gender equity to explain low fertility rates. She incorporated “individual lived experience, attitudes associated with gender roles, and women’s household decision making ability” into her research.

She chose to study this issue in South Korea specifically because “both institutional forces of lowest-low fertility (meaning institution-level forces influence families to have few children) and massive social and economic changes come into play in shaping women’s childbearing behavior” in the country.

Soo-Yeon Yoon’s paper is based on the Korean Longitudinal Survey of Women & Families from 2007 to 2010. Her findings suggest that individual-level gender equity may play a role in influencing how many children a women will want to have and her family planning decision-making power in South Korea. Therefore, women who feel that they have more decision-making power within their homes will make their own choice about the number of children they have rather than be influenced by outside institutional forces. If gender equity is improved, perhaps women will choose to have more children in South Korea.

This study suggests that the overall problem of gender inequity in South Korea could be an influential factor in the low birth rates in the country, and one more reason why the gender gap needs to get much smaller in South Korea.

© Ginaellen | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
© Ginaellen | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

The following themes are other highlights of the conference that specifically relate to women:

Adolescent Girls and Migration in the Developing World

Individual, Familial and Contextual Factors Influencing Fertility

Promoting Sexual and Reproductive Health among Adolescents

Prospects of Fertility Recovery in Low Fertility Societies

Evaluation of Maternal and Child Health Policies, Programs and Services

Contraceptive Use Dynamics in Developing Countries

Women in Aging Societies


Fertility and HIV

View the entire conference program list and list of research abstracts to learn more!

Follow IUSSP Busan and IUSSP on Twitter to find out more about the results and policy recommendations from this conference.

Featured image by author.

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.