▲ Founder and director of AeSuhWon Sisters’ Heights Im AeDuk is trying to make Jeju a better place for single mothers. Photo courtesy AeSuhWon Sisters' Heights
The mothers would not accept "No" for an answer.
Following multiple denials via regular channels of petition, the young moms took their babies to the Jeju City mayor’s office and demanded that he agree to the social welfare budget he had thus far denied.
Taking a photo with him against his wishes, their leader cried out, “This is history in the making.”
Even as their fear threatened to overwhelm them, and despite societal discrimination, these unwed moms were determined to obtain the help that they needed.
They won. Led by Im AeDuk, the founder and director of AeSuhWon Sisters’ Heights Center for Single Mothers in Chungsu Village, these women stood up for themselves in the first activist effort any had ever experienced.
This is empowerment of women at the most basic level.
“These moms and babies are good citizens of Jeju,” Im has repeated to multiple public officials. “One of them may one day be mayor – or governor, or president.”
Unmarried mothers have few resources in Jeju. Prejudices still abound, as is true in many societies around the world; they are sometimes rejected by their families and often shunned by others. Their opportunities for marriage are generally dim. Korean society’s negative attitude toward adoption is another contributing factor.
What’s more, though unwed mothers have the same legal rights as mothers who are divorced, subtle discrimination is the reality.
For example, underage mothers – whether married or not – are not permitted to attend school in Jeju’s public education system, despite the fact that this is not supported by law and that a precedent-setting case was settled in their favor.
Three years ago, Im fought against Jeju’s educational administration for the right of a pregnant student to remain in school.
The teachers’ board refused to admit the student, and Im filed charges with the Human Rights Commission. Six extremely challenging months later, she won the case – by which time the young girl, unable to withstand the pressure, had dropped out of school and registered for online classes.
Then, online education was not a legally accepted alternative to meet educational requirements, though today it is – in part as a result of this case.
Im then fought the teachers’ board, stating that as they had illegally refused the girl her education, they should pay for her online school tuition. Ultimately, the girl and her family were awarded 30 million won, money with which they were able to buy a home, from the educational department.
And the young mother? She finished her middle and high school education online, went to vocational school, and is now a nurse’s aide – a contributing member of Jeju society.
AeSuhWon, established in 2004 – its name indicating “a paradise of love and hope for the future” – is the only center of its kind on Jeju. The center has an affiliated “halfway house” in Jeju City known as “Agi-Sarang” – “Baby Love” – for those new mothers who are not yet ready to live on their own.
The center, run by a staff of three social workers, a nurse, a cook and a custodian in addition to the director, provides shelter, medical care and counseling for young mothers-to-be. Job training and placement, as well as classes to meet educational requirements, are also offered, and a college scholarship fund has recently been established.
A community volunteer program, also founded by Im, of approximately 300 members consisting of parents and children provides additional services. There remains a need, however, for English-speaking and child daycare volunteers plus one additional nurse.
Located in a bucolic setting of gardens, surrounded by farmland, the center provides a sense of safety, security, and comfort for these women in need. Further, the center has an explicit purpose to empower unwed moms for “social movement against discrimination,” Im said.
Currently a Ph.D. candidate in social welfare and lecturer at Jeju National University, Im is also the chairperson of the government’s Women’s Development Fund, which allots grants to women’s organizations throughout Jeju. She is a member of the provincial Committee for Handicap Accessibility, Jeju City’s International Cooperation Committee, and more.
Ten years ago, Im designed and delivered the first HIV/AIDS awareness program throughout the Jeju public school system to an estimated 10,000 students.
She has been involved in several other programs for social welfare, including a stint as director of a social welfare institute. She is currently focused on educational reform – especially for the legalization and development of alternative schools, an MOU for which was signed by the Educational Administration earlier this year.
Deemed a “warrior” by many in Jeju society, Im is committed to fight for the social welfare of Jeju.
As to the future of Jeju’s single moms, attitudes are changing.
In 2010, Im initiated an annual writing contest in Jeju’s school system on the topic of unwed mothers, with the Governor’s Award going to the contest winner. This year, the same contest will be nationwide.
And the greatest factor in changing society’s perception?
Ironically, the present extremely low birthrate in Korea, a trend which could lead to the country becoming one of the most aged populations in the world, is shifting attitudes toward a joyful welcoming of all babies – those of single mothers and of multicultural parentage included.
Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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