"Do your chores in advance, so your family isn’t inconvenienced." This sums up the content of a "pregnancy information" document posted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government on its website. The information made clear that pregnant women were like housekeepers, defining childbirth and housework as separate matters. The guidelines were dismissed by Korean women as trash and heated up calls for improved rights for pregnant women.
|▲ Contents of 35th-week of pregnancy section provided by Seoul Pregnancy and Childbirth Information Center website (Photo from JTBC News)|
The Seoul Metropolitan Government and Special Agencies launched the website in 2019 to provide information on pregnancy and childbirth. It offers readers information about infertility, pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare, including the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s mother-and-child health services. Among the texts posted, a section labelled “Pregnancy Information” introduces major physical changes and behavioral tips in the early stages of pregnancy (1-12 weeks), mid-term pregnancy (13-27 weeks), and late pregnancy (28-40 weeks). The content around the 35-week mark, lists daily chores, so that families are not inconvenienced while the mother is in hospital delivering the new baby. “Check the remaining amount of toilet paper, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, and detergent so that the rest of the family is not inconvenienced.” “Prepare some instant food, such as instant curry and soup for your husband who cannot cook. It will be easier for him to prepare them.” “Organize the underwear, socks, dress shirts, handkerchiefs, and outerwear in the drawers, so your family can find them while you are in the hospital.” Overall, they described a pregnant woman’s hospitalization for childbirth as a burden for family members. People were outraged that this kind of information was posted to an official website of the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
|▲ The envelope distributed by the Yongin Regional Health Center to pregnant women has become controversial with the phrase on it. (Photo from YTN)|
This is not the first time controversy over the treatment of pregnant women by other public institutions has arisen. A few days after the controversy over Seoul city's maternity manual was posted, the Yongin Public Health Center was criticized for handing out plastic bags to pregnant women with the quote, “A teacher’s ten-years of teaching is not as good as his mother’s ten-month prenatal education, and his mother’s ten-month prenatal education is not as good as his father giving birth to one’s body in a day.” The disputed sentence was extracted from the world's first prenatal book written during the Joseon Dynasty. Since it was written in the 18th century, the book contains male-centric Confucian ideas, a far cry removed from modern perspectives of childbirth and childrearing. After a photo of the bag was uploaded to an online community by a pregnant netizen, the health center faced harsh criticism that the comment did not fit the sentiment of the present generation. Netizens posted, “We do not live in the Joseon Dynasty. It’s so unpleasant.”, “It’s totally anachronistic. It’s a waste of printing cost.” A center official explained the plastic bags were used to help pregnant women carry home the gifts provided by the center in 2017. He continued, “We missed the fact that as times change, the way people understand the sentence might also change. We accept the complaints and decided to discard the leftovers.”
This is not the first time controversy over the rights of pregnant women has arisen. A website called ‘birth map’ which shows the number of females of childbearing age by city district and region launched by the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs (MGAHA) in 2016 was also controversial. People criticized the birth map as an effort to shame women for not having babies and treating them as baby making machines. Some people condemned the government for treating the birth rate issue as a woman-only problem, pointing out that there were no men pictured on the website. In the same year, a page labelled the 'Beautiful Chest' was uploaded on the National Health Information Portal, run by the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW). The page detailed an ideal shape for a ‘beautiful chest’ and included pictures and figures. The offensive page was sharply criticized for advocating a standard for physical beauty on an official government site. In the face of harsh criticism, the MOHW deleted the content from its website within a day of posting.
Some argue that Korea's sexist social climate is responsible for the increasing number of women forgoing the idea of marriage. According to a social survey from Statistics Korea in 2020, half of those surveyed think marriage is unnecessary. In response to the pregnancy information posting backlash, Song Da-young, head of the Women's Family Policy Office in Seoul, said, "We are sorry that we did not thoroughly check for the inclusion of sexist contents on websites run by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. We will strengthen the pre-inspection process based on gender sensitivity." The problem exposed the fact that the protection of rights of pregnant women was only a minor commitment, and that much more remains to be done.
김민경, 김서연, 박지안 firstname.lastname@example.org