The more the merrier
A Korean county is making childcare easier for women to encourage them to have more babies.
WHEN she was in her 20s, Moon Ji Hee, like many friends her age, left her small seaside hometown and moved to a bigger city to find a job.
But the primary school teacher returned after marriage in 2013, knowing that there is no better place than home to start a family.
It was not just her parents whom she could count on for help when the kids came along, but also the county itself.
Located at the south- western tip of the Korean peninsula, Haenam started introducing pro- family policies from 2008 and has since managed to achieve the seemingly impossible mission of encouraging its residents to have more babies.
Haenam, which means “ocean’s south” in Korean, is the only county in South Korea with a birth rate of 2.4 children per woman, almost double last year’s national figure of 1.24 and the highest in the country.
More than 800 babies are born here each year – much to the delight of public health officials who have spent the last eight years formulating policies to boost population growth. They were driven to act after a drastic drop in numbers, from almost 250,000 in 1976 to around 80,000 in 2008.
“We had to act because we were losing too many people. It was a crisis situation,” said Haenam mayor Park Cheol Hwan.
Public Health Centre ( PHC) officials, led by director Kim Chung Jae, formed a special team to address the problem. They started offering cash benefits – 3mil won ( RM10,000) for the first child, 3.5mil won ( RM12,000) for the second, 6mil won ( RM14,000) for the third, and 7.2mil won ( RM25,000) for the fourth and above – paid over 18 months. This is on top of the national childcare benefit of 200,000 won ( RM700) a month.
They started a 10 billion won ( RM35mil) fund to provide scholarships for all students from secondary school to university. They provided naming and babysitting services for free, and delivered gifts including 1kg of raw beef and baby clothes to every new mother. Korean women eat miyeokguk, or beef seaweed soup, to nourish their bodies after childbirth.
They are also bringing back childbirth- related services stopped years ago due to a lack of demand. They opened a public postnatal centre last September, the second in the country, and will recruit two obstetricians for the county’s general hospital so mums can deliver there instead of in bigger cities nearby.
Their efforts seem to have paid off, evident in the increasing number of babies born each year, from 496 in 2009 to 811 last year. The county’s population is 76,000 and falling at a slower rate now.
A total of 438,700 babies were born in South Korea last year, raising the fertility rate slightly to 1.24 from the previous year’s 1.21.
Spurred by this growth, the government has announced a fiveyear proposal to further raise the birth rate to 1.5 by 2020, with a 200tril won ( RM0.7 tril) commitment in about 200 projects. This includes making housing more affordable for newlyweds, such as building more rental homes and raising loan limits.
South Korea’s low fertility rate has been a source of worry in a country faced with rapid ageing, delayed marriage and high youth unemployment amid a slug- gish economy.
A 2014 study predicted that South Korea could face natural extinction by the year 2750 if birth rates remained unchanged.
Birth control policies imposed in the 1970s and 1980s to curb excessive population growth to achieve economic growth and modernisation, worked so well that fertility rates fell below the replacement level of 2.1 from the mid- 1980s.
Singapore, which implemented a similar “Stop at Two” birth control policy around the same time, is also facing a low fertility rate of below 1.4 that the authorities are now trying to raise with incentives.
Haenam’s PHC director Kim remembers the old days of going to villages to spread the birth control message and convince residents to go for surgical sterilisation. Each civil servant had a target of encouraging 60 such surgeries a year and “we hit the target 100% ”, he said with a laugh.
Now he is doing the opposite of encouraging more babies – a task which he feels is even more challenging. “The younger generation is a lot more individualistic and unwilling to listen to advice to have kids, regardless of their age, profession and financial status,” he said.
Still, Kim and his team have done an exemplary job and their family- friendly policies are being studied to see if they can be implemented elsewhere in the country.
Haenam has also introduced matchmaking for singles and a “Daddy Camp” to promote bonding between fathers and their children.
The county offers cheap loans and low rents to appeal to families who have left to return home to try farming. More than 2,000 residents have responded to the plan since it started four years ago.
“The birth policy is our top priority now,” said the mayor, Park.
Moon, now 33, beamed as she counted the benefits she received for her second child – a boy born late last month. She has an older daughter aged four.
“It felt really nice to get the box of beef, seaweed and baby clothes. There was so much beef, I only managed to eat a little bit,” she said.
She also spent two weeks at the new postnatal centre. For the birth of her elder daughter, she had to travel to the nearby Mokpo city for the confinement service.
She spends time with her newborn with little fear of losing her job and facing little peer pressure for her to resign after childbirth.
South Korean women are allowed by law to take three months of fully paid and a year of partially paid maternity leave.
But not many mums use their full entitlement for fear of losing their jobs or burdening their colleagues with extra work.
In a recent survey by the Health Ministry, about 80% of respondents felt unspoken pressure from their peers and superiors for taking leave to care for their children.
Figures from the Labour Ministry reveal that over 26,000 employees on maternity or childcare leave were fired or forced to resign from 2010 to last year. It is illegal, but employers are rarely penalised for it as victims often stay silent.
Mums in Haenam seem to have it easier though. Moon said she got to finish work two hours earlier when she was pregnant, and for her second pregnancy, she took advance maternity leave so she could spend more time with her first child before the sibling came along.
“Having a child here is not so stressful because of Haenam’s good policies. If they can be applied to the whole of Korea, I’m sure more people will want to have kids,” she said.
Housewife Kim Jeom Sook, 43, is the happy mum of a pair of newborn twin girls – the latest addition to her family. She has two older children – a son, 13, and a daughter, 11.
She was full of praise for the postnatal centre, where she was staying. She could rest most of the time as there were nurses caring for her babies. She also got to attend yoga and other classes. “I get so much help here that I can’t imagine how I can cope when I go home,” she said.
For those worried about expenses, Mayor Park said the county will continue to provide support to make their parenthood journey easier. Third and fourth kids get more financial assistance and the county also pays for their national insurance.
Park has only two sons, but he hopes they will give him five grandchildren. His elder son has a son and a daughter.
“The more the merrier!” he said with a hearty laugh. – The Straits Times, Singapore/ Asia News Network
Bundle of joy: Moon Ji hee returned to her hometown to start a family because it was the best place to raise children.
haenam public health centre officials have been working hard to boost population growth.