“PEOPLE SEE me and just ignore me,” said a woman who took the subway when she was seven months pregnant. “They looked away like it wasn’t their problem.”
This is just one example out of countless cases when pregnant women take the subway, only to be ignored by commuters seated in front of them. In order to tackle such situations, South Korea introduced “pink seats”—separate priority seats in subways designated for pregnant women. Yet, as someone who takes the subway on a daily basis myself, I have seen more men and the elderly sit on these pink seats than I have seen pregnant women. This brings the purpose of these pink seats into question—should we really be allowed to sit on pink seats if they are vacant?
Pink seats in South Korea
Priority seats were first introduced in South Korea in 1985, but it was not until 2013 when pink seats were established. According to The Korea Times, these priority seats came after women in their early stages of pregnancy complained of the difficulties they faced when getting a seat on the subway. Ever since then, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has continuously made efforts to reduce such struggles. One solution included the Pink Light Campaign in 2016, a Bluetooth system that lights up whenever a pregnant woman carrying a sensor enters the car, alerting passengers to yield their seats. Despite such efforts, however, most pregnant women still seem to have difficulty getting seats on subways.
Pink for a reason
Many passengers complain as to why these seats must be kept unoccupied when they can just be yielded after a pregnant woman gets on the subway—but there are reasons pink seats should be kept vacant at all times.
For women in the first few weeks of their pregnancy, standing in the subway is extremely dangerous, as the placenta* usually takes around 18 weeks to fully develop**. Before then, even the slightest irritation can lead to the risk of miscarriage, or placental abruption*** in more extreme cases. The situation is much worse during commuting hours with subway cars packed to the point where you cannot move, and people pushing one another to get on or off. However, because the baby bump is not visible in these early stages, pregnant women could feel reluctant to ask passengers to yield seats. According to Money Today which interviewed three pregnant women about the use of pink seats, the interviewees complained that coming across passengers who are considerate of their condition is rare—especially when the pregnancy is not obvious—and it is a hassle to explain to strangers that they are pregnant. To prevent such discomfort, pink seats should be left unoccupied so that women even in the early stages of pregnancy can use them without hesitation.
Women in later stages of pregnancy are not an exception to the difficulties experienced when riding subways. In Korea, expectant mothers are given maternity badges by the government that read “Pregnant Women First” to assist them in obtaining priority seats in the subway. Yet, numerous pregnant women spoke out that passengers would often act busy, ignoring the badges****. Passengers can also be too distracted by their phones to notice such badges and yield their seats. We should therefore keep in mind that pink seats should be left vacant at all times for pregnant women to use when taking the subway.
A social hierarchy
The introduction of pink seats brings about the need to question why they were made in the first place. General priority seats are accessible to anyone in need—including the elderly, injured, and pregnant women—but they are often entirely occupied by the elderly and rarely by pregnant women. This is because a hierarchy among those in need seems to exist in Korea; according to The Korea Herald, Ahn Ji-young, a woman who took the subway when she was pregnant, was often verbally attacked by senior citizens who demanded that she give up her general priority seat for them. Ahn’s story is not rare in Korean society, where traditional values prioritize the well-being of the elderly. The tumultuous life experiences that many elders lived through during poverty and the war means that most are unaware of how to be considerate of those who are not a part of their family*****. Such generation gap can result in cases where pregnant women’s needs are ignored, particularly by the elders. We should thus refrain from sitting in the pink seats—seats that were exclusively created for pregnant women—even when they are vacant.
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The purpose of pink seats is to allow pregnant women to use the seats without hesitation and having to worry about public gaze. There is a need to understand that pink seats were made for a reason—just by leaving those seats empty when taking the subway could make a world of difference for pregnant women.
*Placenta: an organ connected to the fetus by the umbilical cord
***Placental abruption: the early detachment of the placenta from the wall of the womb before childbirth
****The Huffington Post
*****The Korea Herald