The more the mer­rier

A Korean county is mak­ing child­care eas­ier for women to en­cour­age them to have more ba­bies.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FAMILY - By CHANG MAY CHOON

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.

— Pho­tos: ANN

hae­nam pub­lic health cen­tre of­fi­cials have been work­ing hard to boost pop­u­la­tion growth.

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