[Op-ed] A Birth Map to Raise the Birth Rate?
Is the Korean government blaming women for the low birth rate?
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The population of a country is closely relevant to its economy and future. Looking at Korea’s situation with lowering birth rate and aging society, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that there is a red light on its future. At least a 2.1 birth rate is needed to maintain Korea’s concurrent population, but 1.24 is what Korea is dealing with. While young people avoid having babies, baby boomers (people who were born between the years 1946 to 1964) already have or are retiring from work. If the situation continues, the number of elderly people will be surpassing that of the young, taking a toll on the nation's productivity and wellbeing.
So what has the government done?
From 2006, the Korean government has been setting out a plan every five years to encourage more young couples to have babies. The plan proposed as their third, which will last from 2016 to 2020, includes incentives that support couples to buy their own houses, pay hospital bills, and to take maternity leave. However, it is said by a lot of young couples that such plans are not enough as they are implemented only under very specific conditions.
What recently went viral online was a rather inventive but shocking plan suggested by the Ministry of the Interior. It is a so-called 'birth map of Korea', which displays shades of pink to rank provinces and cities in Korea by the number of women who can bear children. The Internet buzzed with furious outbursts from netizens. People were outraged at how the government considered women as a means to produce children. Pure disgust was directed at the map, which was only a manifestation of how a civilized modern society still denigrates women. As civic reaction was overwhelmingly strong and negative, the government’s website was shut down within hours.
It is true that the government’s desperate tryout was seriously lacking basic sense. The birth map is completely incapable of raising the birth rate in Korea. It merely appeared as a belittlement towards women. Women are not the only ones needed to produce offspring- men are also entitled to the responsibility as much as women are. Such a map solely bears throws accountability to women as if the lowering birth rate is their fault.
What really makes people hesitate
There can be various reasons as to why young Koreans refuse to have babies, which are also inevitably linked to other changes or problems within Korea. The reasons can be discussed in two different cases. First, there are more Koreans who even do not want to marry, and one significant reason behind it is the enhancement of women’s rights, which is of course, a legitimate phenomenon.
From the 1960s to 1970s, women were expected to have babies without much choice. Compared to men, women also had a lesser chance of being educated. From the 70s, an increasing number of women received college degrees rather than merely graduating from middle or high school. As women began to have more freedom and a wider selection of to what to do with their lives, they were able to focus on developing professional careers as men do. Thus, marriage and childbearing became a choice rather than a duty.
Second, even when a married couple decides to have a baby, they need detailed financial plans for the future. According to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA), a couple generally spends 46% of their income to raise one child. In the case of Korea, that rate can be even higher considering the costly educational fees parents expend every month. Consequently, Korean couples have more to consider when deciding to add up a family member.
Of course, a married couple can have babies with less restraint when the woman is willing to give up her career. Generally, it is extremely difficult for women to keep their jobs at Korean companies and be a mother at the same time. Even though there are policies that allow both the father and the mother to take a year-break from work for their newborn, there are still invisible pressures for women from their workplace. Such discrimination results in women giving up their professional life, irrelevant to their abilities or accomplishments.
As such, it is imperative to recognize that Korea’s low birth rate is not something that can be solved with a one-dimensional approach, like dispensing small sums of money to couples or mapping out fertile women. Rather, the issue requires an overall change in cognizance, along with effective policies. Korea needs to step alongside women’s changed roles in society, which is now more equal to that of men than ever.
Policies regarding maternity leave should be ensured for all women, and companies that covertly refuse to follow along should be penalized. Financial support given to families with newborn babies should be more generous, including differing standards according to social class. Most importantly, daycare centers should be built more and supported for by the government, with prolonged hours for working parents. If such measures could induce couples to consider producing offspring, that would be because babies will no longer be considered a burden, but a gift.
Yun Ji-hyun firstname.lastname@example.org
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