Seoul’s Advice to Pregnant Women: Cook, Clean and Stay Attractive

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According to a 2017 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the gender pay gap in South Korea is the highest among its 37 member countries. Working women earn nearly 40 percent less than men, and many stop working when they have children, often pressured by their families and workplaces.

Other countries in the region, including Japan — which also has an aging population and a low birthrate — have broad gender disparities, especially in relation to pregnancy. In Japan, the term “matahara” (short for maternity harassment) caught on when a woman’s claims of workplace bullying after she gave birth were heard in the country’s Supreme Court in 2014.

These declining populations pose a threat to the countries’ economies, making it all the more important that governments tread carefully in incentivizing women to have children.

Last year, South Korea’s population declined for the first time on record, dropping by nearly 21,000. Births fell by more than 10.5 percent, and deaths rose by 3 percent. The Ministry of Interior and Safety acknowledged the alarming implications, saying that “amid the rapidly declining birthrate, the government needs to undertake fundamental changes to its relevant policies.”

Though the Seoul government may have fumbled in its advice, the backlash, some said, proved that attitudes were changing.

“This is just outdated advice,” said Adele Vitale, a birth doula and Italian expatriate who has lived in Busan, a port city on the country’s southeast coast, for a decade.

Ms. Vitale, who works primarily with foreign women married to Korean men, said that though Korean society had traditionally perceived pregnant women as “incapacitated,” she had increasingly seen their husbands adopting more egalitarian views toward childbirth and child rearing.

“Family dynamics have been evolving,” she said. “Women are no longer willing to be treated this way.”

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