’No place for a mother’: S. Korea battles to raise birth rate

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This photo taken on May 24, 2017 shows a social worker caring for a baby at the Jusarang Community Church in southern Seoul. (AFP)
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This photo taken on September 22, 2018 shows a man carrying a baby on a train platform at the Seoul railway station. (AFP)
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This photo taken on June 25, 2015 shows a child sitting at a piano in Gwanghwamun square in Seoul. (AFP)
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(FILES) This photo taken on March 22, 2016 shows a child gesturing to a woman at Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul. (AFP)
Updated 18 December 2018
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’No place for a mother’: S. Korea battles to raise birth rate

  • Now 27, she has been rejected at several job interviews as soon as she revealed she had a child, and has given up seeking employment, trying to set up her own trading business instead

SEOUL: When Ashley Park started her marketing job at a Seoul drugmaker she had a near-perfect college record, flawless English, and got on well with her colleagues — none of which mattered to her employer once she fell pregnant.
Nine months after she joined, Park said, “They said to my face that there is no place in the company for a woman with a child, so I needed to quit.”
All the women working at the firm were single or childless, she suddenly realized, and mostly below 40.
Park’s case exemplifies why so many South Korean women are put off marriage and childbirth, pushing the country’s birth rate — one of the world’s lowest — ever further down.
Earlier this month Seoul announced its latest set of measures to try to stem the decline, but critics say they will have little to no effect in the face of deep-seated underlying causes.
Many South Korean firms are reluctant to employ mothers, doubting their commitment to the company and fearing that they will not put in the long hours that are standard in the country — as well as to avoid paying for their legally-entitled birth leave.
When Park refused to quit, her boss relentlessly bullied her — banning her from attending business meetings and ignoring her at the office “like I was an invisible ghost” — and management threatened to fire her husband, who worked at the same company.
After fighting for about six months, she finally relented and offered her resignation, giving birth to a daughter a month later. Aside from a brief stint at an IT start-up that did not keep its promise of flexible working hours, she has been a stay-at-home mother ever since.
“I studied and worked so hard for years to get a job when youth unemployment was so high, and enjoyed my work so much... and look what happened to me,” Park told AFP.
Now 27, she has been rejected at several job interviews as soon as she revealed she had a child, and has given up seeking employment, trying to set up her own trading business instead.
“The government kept telling women to have more children... but how, in a country like this?” she asked.

The South’s fertility rate — the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime — fell to 0.95 in the third quarter of 2018, the first time it has dropped below 1 and far short of the 2.1 needed to maintain stability.
As a result of the trend, which has been dubbed a “birth strike” by women, the population of the world’s 11th largest economy, currently 51 million, is expected to start falling in 2028.
Many cite reasons ranging from the expense of child-rearing, high youth unemployment, long working hours and limited daycare to career setbacks for working mothers.
Even if women hold on to their jobs, they bear a double burden of carrying out the brunt of household chores.
Patriarchal values remain deeply ingrained in the South: nearly 85 percent of South Korean men back the idea of women working, according to a state survey, but that plummets to 47 percent when asked whether they would support their own wives having a job.
Employment rates for married men and women are dramatically different — 82 percent and 53 percent respectively.
Now nearly three-quarters of South Korean women aged 20-40 see marriage as unnecessary, an opinion poll by a financial magazine and a recruitment website showed. But almost all children in the South are born in wedlock.

Against that backdrop, the South’s government has spent a whopping 136 trillion won ($121 billion) since 2005 to try to boost the birth rate, mostly through campaigns to encourage more young people to wed and reproduce, without success.
Earlier this month it announced yet another round of measures.
They included expanding child subsidies of up to 300,000 won ($270) a month, and allowing parents with children younger than eight to work an hour less each day to take care of their offspring.
More daycare centers and kindergartens will be built, and men will be allowed — but not obliged — to take 10 days of paid birth leave, up from the current three.
But many measures were not legally binding and carried no punishment for firms that denied their workers the promised benefits, and the package met a disdainful response.
“The government policies are based on this simplistic assumption that ‘if we give more money, people would have more children’,” the Korea Women Workers Association said in a statement.
Seoul should first address “relentless sexual discrimination at work and the double burden of work and housechores” for women, it added.
The centrist Korea Times newspaper also questioned whether such “lacklustre” state policies would bring in real change unless the government tackled the real drivers of women shunning marriage and childbirth.
“Unless these harsh conditions for women change, no amount of government subsidies will convince women having children is a happy choice.”


For Gaza grooms, crippling debt overshadows marital bliss

Updated 23 May 2019
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For Gaza grooms, crippling debt overshadows marital bliss

  • Wedding lenders have filled an important need in Gaza’s conservative society
  • But their number has dropped to five as business has withered up due to the blockade

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip: Two years ago, Gaza resident Saleh Abu Serdanah took out a small loan in order to get married and start a family. These days, the 31-year-old construction worker is on the run, hiding from police in a tiny rental apartment and unable to repay the money he borrowed.
Abu Serdanah is among hundreds of young men who have turned to Gaza’s small industry of wedding lenders for help, only to fall onto hard times because of crushing debt and lack of jobs in the impoverished territory. Many have been forced to renegotiate their debts, and others have gone into hiding. Some have even ended up in jail.
“I have never been into a police station and have never made troubles. Now I’m like a fugitive crook,” Abu Serdanah said.
Wedding lenders have filled an important need in Gaza’s conservative society, where young men and women are typically expected to marry in their late teens or early 20s. Facing a nearly 60 percent unemployment rate, many young Gazan men have been forced to put off their dreams of marriage because they cannot afford it.
Over a decade ago, a number of wealthy people launched charities to help young couples to pay for their weddings and settle post-marriage debts. The initiative was promoted through ceremonial mass weddings that thrived after Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after the Hamas militant group took power in 2007.
These charitable efforts, which still continue, paved the way for a profitable private industry to emerge, offering more substantial packages that included things like bridal dresses, invitations, bedroom furniture and meals for guests.
Allured by the idea, Abu Serdanah signed up for an offer of $2,500 through Farha Project, one of those companies, in 2017. He acknowledges that he would never have been able to marry without Farha. The November 2017 wedding included a bachelor’s party with a live band and a separate women’s ceremony the following day. The company threw in invitations, catering for 60 people and a suit and dress for the couple.
Abu Serdanah agreed to repay the money in monthly payments over two years, but managed to pay only for five months. Today, he regrets his decision.
“I was committed to paying on time for a while, but things have changed and made me unable to,” said Abu Serdanah, sitting on a mat outside the apartment he shares with his wife as a candle faintly lit the dark stairway. “There is no work, so where should I get money from?”
The blockade, aimed at weakening Hamas, has ravaged the economy. The skyrocketing unemployment rates, combined with foreign aid cuts and Hamas’ mismanagement, has left thousands of families dependent on food aid and social welfare.
Economic sanctions by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, ousted by Hamas in 2007, have worsened the situation. The internationally recognized Palestinian Authority says its measures, which include salary cuts to tens of thousands of former public servants, are aimed at pressuring the militant Hamas group into ceding control.
Hamas, however, remains in firm control, even as the World Bank says Gaza’s economy is in “free fall.”
A plasterer who earns 50 shekels, or about $15, a day, Abu Serdanah was certain that he would be able to manage the payments to Farha.
But due to the weak economy, there have been few workdays and he was unable to pay back his debt. Trying to save himself from prison, he asked the company to reduce his monthly installment by 50 percent, but its lawyer refused. Eventually, a police summons was delivered to his family’s home. He decided not to respond.
“I don’t want to stall for time, but I really can’t pay for now,” he said.
The Hamas-run Economy Ministry says at their peak, 20 such companies were registered in Gaza. But their number has dropped to five as business has withered up. The Hamas-run prosecutor’s office, the judiciary council and the police refused requests to interview people jailed for failing to pay their marriage debts, or even reveal their number.
But an official at Gaza’s general prosecution department, speaking in condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said that as of last year, courts have investigated 3,000 such cases.
This explains why the business is no longer thriving. Salama Al-Awadi, manager of Farha Project, says only 7 percent of his clients managed to pay the monthly installments fully this year and 40 percent could not pay back at all. The others pay less than the agreed amount.
“We see with our eyes that the situation is hard, so we try all possible ways before resorting to the courts,” Al-Awadi said, noting that his company has fallen into debt because of its customers’ struggles. Unable to collect payments, Farha owes money to service providers like carpenters and caterers.
With economic recession in Gaza, the number of clients is also dwindling. In 2018, the average monthly number of grooms signing up for contracts at Farha was 20. The year before, it was 35.
“This year would be way less,” Al-Awadi said. “I canceled many contracts and our plan for 2019 is to get by with the minimum. If it remains like this, I will have no choice but to shut down.”
One of Al-Awadi’s clients is 29-year-old Yehiya Taleb, whose four brothers, all married, believed it was problematic by Gaza’s standards to reach that age and still be single.
Taleb got a job working as a waiter at a cafe earning about $180 a month but that amount is not enough to cover wedding expenses. Anxious to fulfil the wish of their ailing mother, the brothers resorted to Farha Project and took out a $2,000 package.
After getting married early in May, Taleb and his wife now share a rental house in the Shati refugee camp with another brother’s family. Afraid of “failure,” he is already stressed out over how to repay the loan. He hopes to make ends meet with some help from his brothers.
“My salary can’t cover my demands. With installments, you can cover a little part of them,” he said.