They have offered generous maternity-leave policies, cash allowances and even boxes of beef and baby clothes to families with newborns.
Then the national government tried its hand.
On Thursday, it rolled out an online “birth map” that used shades of pink to rank towns and cities by the number of women of childbearing age. But the reaction was so overwhelmingly negative, especially among women, that the website was shut down within hours of its introduction.
“They counted fertile women like they counted the number of livestock,” an angry blogger wrote in an online commentary with the headline “Are Women Livestock?” “Did they think that men would flock to a town with more childbearing-age women?”
A low birthrate is one of South Korea’s most urgent socio-economic challenges. Amid rising costs of living and education, women are increasingly moving into the job market, but they often find it all but impossible to keep their careers and raise children.
Many women still feel pressure to quit their jobs once they become pregnant. For many women working in the private sector, especially those employed at smaller businesses, an extended parental leave with the option of returning to work remains a dream (by law, one can take up to a year off). Even if a woman returns to work, finding affordable day care centers can be difficult, although the government is racing to add more of them.
At home, looking after a child is still largely considered a woman’s job even when she works outside the home. So with such pressures at work and at home, many women choose to remain single or marry late and have only one child, or none.
South Korea’s fertility rate, as high as six babies per woman in 1960, plunged to around 1.2 per woman in recent years, well below the “replacement level” of 2.1 children, a rate that allows a society to maintain its population without migration.
Some local doomsayers predict that South Korea will become “extinct” in several centuries if it maintains its current birthrate.
The Ministry of the Interior’s birth map derived from efforts to reverse the downward trend.
The map showed regions with a higher number of women of childbearing age colored in dark pink. The color lightened for regions with a smaller number of such women. The map also ranked the regions by birthrate, and provided information on benefits local governments offered to families with babies.
According to the map, Haenam, a county in the southwest of South Korea, ranked No. 1 with 2.46 babies per woman. Jongro, a ward in central Seoul, ranked at the bottom with a rate of 0.81.
When the birth map was introduced, the ministry said it was intended to “promote competition” among towns to produce more babies.
The idea didn’t click with many.
“It’s truly deplorable because the map shows that the government considers women as nothing but baby-producing machines,” said Han Chang-min, a spokesman for the opposition Justice Party, on Friday. “It shows the government sees birthrates just as a woman’s problem.”
Many said the map only proved the government’s failure to understand what caused the low birthrate.
One Twitter user, who believed that the map reflected misogyny in a government in which most of the top posts are filled by men, went so far as to create a mock rival map that ranked towns by the number of “men with sexual dysfunction.”
The government’s website remained offline on Friday, showing a notice that it was under repair to reflect “corrections.”
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