This talk examines the gendered logic and contradictions in faith-based aid work in South Korea by contrasting programs for widows and orphaned children. The Korean War precipitated a humanitarian crisis in South Korea, and Protestant organizations stood on the forefront in providing emergency relief and rehabilitation aid. Of particular concern was the plight of orphans and widows. These two groups were potential threats to the long-term stability of families. Would orphaned boys and girls become ideal husband-fathers and wives-mothers? What if orphans fell into a life of crime—in particular (for girls) prostitution? These types of concerns also applied to widows, who because of social conventions were unlikely to remarry. How could widows be both “wise mothers” and financially support their children? To save families for Christ in South Korea, faith-based aid organizations needed to reform and rehabilitate orphaned children and widows. But, the policies these agencies developed reveal a belief that though boys might one day become ideal heads of households, orphaned girls and widows would forever be potential threats.
Paul Cha is an Assistant Professor of Korean Studies in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Hong Kong.