There is a fierce controversy over the transfer of childcare administrative duties from the Ministry of Health and Welfare to the Ministry of Gender Equality.
The emerging opinion is that childcare should no longer be focused on welfare alone, that is, on "care for infants and toddlers whose guardians cannot provide childcare due to work, illness or other circumstances" as stipulated in Article 1 of the Infant Care Act; childcare should be regarded from an overall point of view that encompasses issues concerning women, family, children, birth and childcare.
Professor Kim Jong-hae of the Social Welfare Department of Catholic University explains, "Childcare service is a multi-faceted issue that isn't limited to just children."
This implies that the issue of childcare is no longer a private issue that each family and mother has to deal with but a public issue that concerns the entire society. This is the standpoint from which Professor Kim recommends that "childcare policies should be implemented as part of comprehensive policies related to childbirth and childcare," and that "temporary leaves from work for childbirth and childcare, as well as childcare allowances, should be implemented from a pro-family point of view."
Going into the details of the pro-family point of view, the position of women groups is that a gender equal point of view is much needed in implementing childcare policies. As Secretary-General Nam Yoon In-sun of the Korea Women's Association United (KWAU) put it, "the time has come for childcare policies to be regarded from a woman's point of view."
Society has hitherto fixed childcare as a woman's role. In the name of 'motherhood,' women have been responsible for giving birth to and bringing up children. The value of care-giving has made childcare an unpaid labor in the home for housewives and a low-priced service in nurseries based on the reasoning that childcare is a calling rather than a profession. Under the circumstances, women groups are for the transfer of childcare administration to the Ministry of Gender Equality, since the Ministry will be able to deal with childcare from a more comprehensive point of view that includes gender equality.
Secretary-General Nam Yoon also says that education should now be seen from the demand rather than supply side. In other words, "implementing childcare policies from the supplier's (private childcare facilities) point of view brings on complications due to conflicting interests, making it difficult to implement a consistent philosophy or vision for childcare, thus the goal should be to widen the range of choices for parents."
But if childcare administration is handed over to the Ministry of Gender Equality, won't childcare be regarded even more than before as a woman's responsibility? Superficially, that may be the case. But childcare administration is an important link in the pursuit of a gender equal society. Childbirth and childcare are the main stumbling blocks to women's social participation; the current reality is such women are forced to give up their jobs after marriage or accept unstable contract-based employment just because they have children.
Talking about women's response to this reality, Sociology professor Cho Ahn Hye-jeong of Yonsei University says, "Woman are going on childbirth strike and mothers are living with serious anxiety and confusion. Korea is turning into a society that shuns childbirth." Says Lee Yoon-kyung, representative of the Korean Union of Childcare Workers, "Our organization is currently putting the administrative transfer to a vote. Many questions have been raised about the procedures involving the transfer. Our organization will take all the time needed for the convergence of our members' opinions before we announce our position on this issue."
Lee emphasizes, "Although deciding which ministry should be in charge of childcare administration is an important issue, what is needed is a review of how far we've come in terms of the 'socialization of childcare.'" Korean society is facing rapid changes in the family structure and labor market, while people's mentality is lagging behind. As Lee put it, "We need discussions that break away from the simplistic view that women's social participation infringes on the child's rights."
Lee also says, "As I teach young children, always on my mind is what kind of person I want these children to become. I hope to put into practice from nursery stage the kind of education that stresses all-rounded character-building rather than academic performance."
Research professor Kim Jeong-hee with the Ehwa University Korea Women's Institute stresses the need for "in-depth discussions on the philosophy of childcare," saying, "In these times when there is a global emphasis on education for Nature and peace, efforts to follow this trend exist in Korea as well. For example, we have community childcare or eco-childcare education, and such institutions should be researched and supported."
This means that gender equality in childcare will be furthered when discussions move beyond talking about the transfer of administrative duties to touch on the actual quality of childcare. This is the essence of the 'paradigm shift in childcare policies' that women groups are talking about.
KWAU is planning to hold a 'Women's Discussion for the Development of Childcare Policies' at 2 p.m. on April 29, in the theater of the Seoul YWCA. Panelist presentations will include alternative family policies and advice for the childcare paradigm shift in the times of low birth rates. Many people feel the need to widen the scope of discussions on childcare issues, encompassing not only women groups but also various interest groups.
On May 23, the Social Welfare Committee of the People's Alliance for Participatory Democracy (PAPD) held a discussion in the National Assembly building on the theme 'What is the rational choice for the development of childcare?" The discussion provided the opportunity to check the viewpoints of relevant organizations regarding childcare and the transfer of administrative duties to the Gender Equality Ministry. In her presentation on the administrative handover, Professor Kim Jong-Hae called for analysis of the current status of childcare policies and discussion of future policy directions to precede the handover, citing the following problems: ▲ problems in the process of policy decision-making ▲ the lack of vision or philosophy for government organization or administrative reform underpinning the handover debate ▲ lack of clarification regarding how the handover will contribute to solving the problems of current childcare services.
Professor Kim also made the following recommendations for the direction of future childcare policies: ▲ establishment of comprehensive measures that guarantee both the quantitative and qualitative development of childcare services ▲ implementation of childcare policies as a part of comprehensive policies that encompass childbirth and childcare ▲ child-centered point of view ▲ break from the market rationale that focuses on private organizations to pursue the public good and universality of childcare.
Concluding her presentation, Professor Kim said, "Women are almost being forced to participate in economic and social activities, but the double standard of regarding childcare and household chores as women's roles still remains." Kim claims that childcare policies should be dealt with as part of pro-family polices that can facilitate positive changes in children, families, and women's social participation.
A member of a women group pointed out that despite the progressive nature of Kim's presentation, there were limitations in the discussion, saying, "Most of the participants are stakeholders and officials from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and we're still restricting the debate to which Ministry should be in charge of childcare administration."
Assemblywoman Kim Seong-sun, member of the New Millennium Democratic Party and the Health and Welfare Committee under the National Assembly, was also a discussant. She said, "The administrative transfer is a matter of government organization, not a matter of the quality of childcare. What the Ministry of Gender Equality should do is induce greater social participation by women." She invited criticism by stressing her standpoint that women's social participation and childcare are two separate issues.
Lee Kye-yoon, president of the National Association of Childcare Facilities for Disabled Children, opposed the administrative handover, saying, "The demand for childcare stems from the children, not the mothers. The problem lies in supervision and management rather than in the childcare system itself, so we need to increase the number of public officers in charge of childcare administration."
In response, Women Policies director Kim Ae-ryang from the Ministry of Gender Equality said, "If our society becomes a genuine gender equal society, the issue of childcare could be easily resolved. The Gender Equality Ministry has already established the foundation to handle childcare administration. If the children in childcare facility are to be happy, the caregivers must be happy, which is ultimately about keeping women happy."
Participants to this discussion held by the Social Welfare Committee of the PAPD pointed out that the theme 'What is the rational choice for the development of childcare?' limited the issue to the administrative handover, preventing a productive debate among participants.
A member of the audience threw the following question after the discussion, representing the voice from the field.
"The Ministry of Health and Welfare keep talking about welfare for this, welfare for that, but I wonder if it even regards childcare as part of welfare. Four children have died in private childcare facilities, but the Ministry doesn't even seem to be aware of this. So why does the Welfare Ministry insist on hanging on to childcare administration? It doesn't have to be the Ministry of Gender Equality; it could be the Ministry of Defense for all I care as long as they implement childcare policies properly."