Wed, May 29, 2019 - Page 16 News List

South Korean mother blazes trail at World Cup


South Korea’s Hwang Bo-ram holds her daughter at a launching ceremony for the national women’s soccer team on Monday last week in Seoul before the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Photo: AFP

When defender Hwang Bo-ram takes to the field in France next month, she will become the first mother to play for South Korea at the Women’s World Cup, challenging traditional notions of motherhood in her homeland.

In a country where the gender pay gap remains high, and marriage and child-rearing can cripple a woman’s career, Hwang is the only wedded woman in the squad and its oldest member at 31.

It will not be the first time that her personal life has made World Cup headlines: Her husband Lee Du-hee popped the question on the pitch after South Korea drew with Costa Rica in Montreal at the last edition in 2015.

Their daughter Bom was born 14 months ago. Few expected Hwang to return to the WK League, South Korea’s top-tier women’s soccer competition, where only one mother — now retired — had played before.

However, after her club Hwacheon KSPO restored her to the side in December last year, she made her national team comeback in April and this month she was named to the World Cup squad.

“Training has been very hard” since having a child, Hwang said before leaving for pre-tournament camp in Sweden, “because I have to set a good example.”

“I didn’t want to hear people say: ‘She’s had a baby,” or ‘She’s too old to play now,’” she told reporters. “So I made no excuses, hid my emotions and trained harder.”

South Korea is Asia’s fourth-biggest economy and a regional sporting power, one of only two Asian countries — alongside Japan — to have hosted both summer and winter Olympic Games.

However, it remains hierarchical and patriarchal in many respects, including its job market, in which 82 percent of married men are employed compared with only 53 percent of married women.

Mothers and married women often face discrimination, with many companies reluctant to employ them, doubting their commitment and fearing that they will not put in the long hours that are standard for South Korean workers.

The country’s gender pay gap is the highest among developed economies, with women only making 63 percent of what men earn.

Kim Shin-wook, the best-paid player in the men’s K League 1, earned 1.6 billion won (US$1.35 million) last year.

However the upper salary limit for women players in the WK League was just 3 percent of that, at 50 million won.

In 2015, the Korea Football Association faced public criticism for providing members of the men’s national team with business-class air tickets, while women players got economy.

The association reportedly said that “male players bring much more money to the association.”

On her doctor’s advice, Hwang did not play soccer during her pregnancy. Five months after giving birth she started with weights and pilates, and began training with a high-school soccer team three months later.

It has been a “very tough journey” for Hwang, her husband said.

“As a professional athlete, not having played the sport for almost two years is a huge challenge even for those who did not go through pregnancy and childbirth,” he added.

“She was under a lot of pressure because obviously your body isn’t the same when you have a baby. She wasn’t sure — while doing her very best — if she would be able to play soccer the way she did before having her baby,” he said.

Hwang’s husband takes care of their daughter while she trains away from home, and is to do so for the World Cup.

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