“Baby box.” This little phrase says a lot about why some countries are ranked highly as places for a woman to be pregnant and have a child, and why some are not.
Save the Children‘s 2013 report on the State of the World’s Mothers ranks Finland as the world’s #1 place to be a mother; in contrast, the U.S. was ranked as the 30th best place. The baby box that every mother in Finland receives reveals one reason for the country’s high ranking.
For 75 years, mothers of newborns in Finland receive a cardboard box stocked with:
Yes, the boxes contain everything many a new mother might need (though mothers in warmer climates could probably do without a snowsuit, not to mention the mittens and booties).
The Finnish government started the practice of providing the baby or maternity box in 1938. Finland was a poor country then and 65 out of every 1,000 babies died. Even during the 1940s, at a time of wartime shortages, the government continued to hand out the boxes as many Finns had lost their homes when the country was bombed.
Initially, the boxes were only provided for low-income mothers; the boxes could be used as a cradle for a baby. Then in 1949, Finland started giving the boxes to all new mothers, provided they went to prenatal health check-ups.
Today, women can instead receive 140 euros (about $183), but most take the baby box as its contents are more valuable. The clothes are gender-neutral. While disposable diapers were added to the pack in 1969, cloth ones were reintroduced in 2006. Bottles were also taken out then, to encourage women to breast feed.
Another Kind of Baby Box
In Finland, the baby boxes handed out by the government are a sign of its efforts to give all children a solid start in life. But elsewhere around the globe, specifically in South Korea, the term “baby box” has of late acquired a very different meaning, as a box where parents, and mothers in particular, can leave babies that they are unable to care for.
In response to “hundreds” of newborns being abandoned on Seoul’s streets every year, Pastor Lee Jong-rak created a “baby box” in 2009. A sign outside Joosarang church says “place to leave babies”; a box lined with a towel and with lights and heating can be found by it. A bell rings when someone leaves a baby and someone from the church immediately takes the baby inside.
As Pastor Lee tells Reuters, the number of babies that he has been finding in the box has risen sharply since South Korea passed a new law to protect the rights of children. South Korea passed the law in an effort to change its reputation as a source of babies to be adopted by foreigners. To encourage more domestic adoptions and to better regulate the process by which a child is transferred from a birth mother to adoptive parents, the law requires that a parent wishing to give up a child first register her or him.
Before the law was passed, about five babies were left in the box a month. In August, after the law went into effect, about 10 infants were left in the baby box and then another 14 in September.
The abandonment of the babies in Pastor Lee’s baby box is a troubling sign of the state of services and supports for unmarried mothers in South Korea. Their babies make up as many as 90 percent of South Korean children up for adoption. A number of the abandoned babies have intellectual and/or physical disabilities and their ending up in the baby box points to the challenges faced by South Korean society . The country’s rapid industrialization that began in the 1960s has meant that millions moved from poor rural areas to industrial zones; from the 1960s-1980s, the number of women who worked rose from 12,000 to 1,000,000.
While the number of South Korean women who work has only increased, women are often unemployed or underemployed and their wages are lower than those of men doing comparable work. Many women are employed in low-paying part-time jobs and too many have been forced to join a booming commercial sex industry. A “chronic lack of childcare facilities” remains a huge obstacle.
For these reasons, it is not hard to see why South Korea is ranked just below the 30th-place U.S. in the Save the Children‘s 2013 report on the State of the World’s Mothers and why both countries are ranked far behind Finland.
I’m not saying all expecting mothers should move to Finland. But 16 years ago, when my now-teenage son was born, I really would have appreciated a baby box of the Finnish sort. You only know how much you need diaper rash ointment when it’s 2:00 in the morning.
As a British man, Mark Bosworth, whose partner, Milla, is Finnish, says of the baby box to the BBC, the box “felt to me like evidence that someone cared, someone wanted our baby to have a good start in life” — rather than, as in South Korea, a baby starting his or her life clandestinely deposited into a box, often without a note from his or her mother, who is too fearful to identify herself under her government’s new law.
Photo via roxeteer/Flickr
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