The National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute has recently held the International Conference on Growing Up in One-Parent Families in Asia. The conference brought together over 30 academics and experts to present their papers and ideas about the challenges and complexities of life in a one-parent household in the Asian context. “What we hope to achieve,” said Assoc Prof Hyunjoon Park,”is to acknowledge heterogeneity and complexity in regard to the causes, composition and consequences [of one parent families].” By studying specific contexts of family and society in Asia, some light could be shed on the topic, and contribute an Asian perspective to the family structure research literature.
The harsh modern reality is that economic and global forces structure our personal lives, often at great cost to the family unit. In Asia, the demographic trends of ageing populations, the rise in divorce rates since the 1990s, and large scale labour migration across the continent all impact the family directly. More women are departing from their traditional caregiving roles in order to better provide for their children financially, often leaving a lacuna that is insufficiently filled by grandparents or other members of the extended family. Changing social norms also make incidences of divorce and extra-marital birth more visible. But on account of “traditional Asian values” and the continuing conservative patriarchy that is palpable even in the more developed East Asian countries, families who are put in this position are denied support from their communities, their government, and even their own kin.
One-parent families in Asia must contend with weak public support, the social stigma of “deviant” families, and the inherent disadvantages women still suffer in the labour force (in spite of high educational attainment), and typically have fewer financial and emotional resources to begin with. Presenting her paper on understanding children in divorced families in Singapore, Dr Sharon Quah criticized the state’s unapproving and unhelpful social policy that alienates over 8000 children a year and does little to help these struggling families financially (subsidies, such as for housing, are limited and exclude more sectors of society than they provide for). Often, the high costs of living and high property prices force the family to move in with their grandparents or extended family, which either happily establishes stability and care to make up for one parent’s absence, or generates friction that can degenerate into abuse.
In South Korea, as explored by Dr Eje Kim, the treatment of one-parent families is an issue of cultural injustice, especially where foreign marriages are concerned. The system is rigged, first in its devoutly patriarchal social order (the World Economic Forum ranked it 107 out of 134 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index in 2011, and currently, women earn 38% less than men) and then in the Southeast Asian bride trade, where men who are from rural areas or divorced marry foreign brides (90% of whom agree to get married so as to help their family financially). The patriarchal structure is exacerbated by language and cultural barriers (where often, Southeast Asian mothers are forbidden from communicating with the children in their own language, and are too busy with household duties to learn Korean) and stressful dealings with in-laws. Once the unions disintegrate, these women lose their right to live stay in the country, as it hinges on requirements that include time with their children that their in-laws do not permit. Whether they return to their home country or manage to negotiate a return to their multicultural family, they are scorned, treated like a domestic worker, or are the subject of domestic violence.
Women aren’t the only ones hurt by social injustice surrounding one-parent families. In Taiwan, single fathers are more common, as men traditionally get custody of the children, and deserve support and social acceptance just like single mothers. Dr Chen Wan-Chi observed that between the children of single mothers and single fathers, the former fared better academically. Further, the involvement of the extended family played a crucial role in determining a child’s educational aspirations. While grandparental support is not unique to Asia, government policies, property prices and cost of living issues, and the cultural history of piety (be it the custom of giving money to your parents or living with your in-laws after marriage) make “three generations under one roof” an East Asian norm. Whether being raised by a grandparent is negative or positive is entirely arbitrary, according to the relationships and circumstances that are unique to every family. What is universal is that every family, however it may be composed, should receive the same respect, approval and acknowledgement from their community and society, and the same aid and support in times of need.
The idea of family in the modern context is shifting. It is for us to define the collective and individual lives that will shape our children and the world they live in. Now is as important a time as ever, as we negotiate these ideas as a national, transnational and global community. We need to focus on what affects us, and how, while maintaining a sense of identity that is both our cultural and family heritage, but is also one of our choosing.
Article prepared by Janice Liu