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Despite Gains, South Korean Women Still Struggle for Equality

Suvendrini Kakuchi* - TerraViva/IPS

TOKYO, Jun 29 2010 (IPS) - Forty-six year-old language professor Kwon Hye Yang views her life as a typical example of the growing confidence of modern women in her home country, South Korea.

South Korean language professor Kwon Hye Yang is proud of what she has achieved as a woman. Credit: Kwon Hye Yang/IPS

South Korean language professor Kwon Hye Yang is proud of what she has achieved as a woman. Credit: Kwon Hye Yang/IPS

“Compared to my mother and two older sisters, who are basically homemakers, I have led a life that put career ahead of family, and I am very happy about it,” says Kwon, who currently lives in Japan, where she arrived as a foreign student more than two decades ago to study.

Back in 2003 South Korea noted the rapid transformation of gender relations in South Korea. In its report published that year, the non-governmental Korean Institute for Women and Politics acknowledged the vast strides taken by Korean women in education and employment over the past 20 years as a result of the country’s economic growth.

Women’s rights activist Yoshiko Namikoshi, a Japanese national, says she envies South Korea’s achievements on the gender landscape. “South Korea, despite sharing similar conservative, male-dominated social traditions with Japan, has made bigger strides in tackling the equality issue in comparison to us. I am rather envious,” she says.

For example, South Korea outdid Japan when it passed a law in 2000 setting a quota of 30 percent for female candidates running in electoral districts and 50 percent for those vying for seats in the National Assembly. A year earlier, it enacted the Anti-Sexual Harassment Law, which carries a stiff fine amounting to 2,500 U.S. dollars and imprisonment for convicted offenders.

South Korea also has a law that requires the government to support women entrepreneurs and extend financial subsidies to career-interrupted women who want to engage in economic activities.

Complementing these legislative efforts was the setting up in 2001 of the Ministry of Gender Equality that later became the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which was mandated to promote women empowerment.

Experts say the South Korean women’s movement is deeply rooted in the country’s democratic process and national development in which the government, beginning in the 1980s, had supported policies promoting a highly literate population, including women.

“The women’s movement in South Korea is intertwined with long years of grassroots activism for democracy as well as the strong public sentiment, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the national goal focused on developing South Korea into a rich and powerful nation,” says Professor Yang Chin Jya, an expert on Korean language at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

She adds that South Korean women played active roles alongside men in various powerful citizens’ movements against military rule in the early 1960s, thus making women’s inroads into Korea’s public domain less difficult compared to Japan, where women, until the past decade, had been traditionally viewed as homemakers.

Jya, a third generation South Korean living in Japan, also explains that the South Koreans, individually and as a nation, were extremely eager to learn from the West. “This is probably one reason why the older generation sometimes overlooked traditional gender divides when it came to economic development,” she says.

Notwithstanding women’s gains in their pursuit of equal rights, experts say women are still up against deeply entrenched stereotypical attitudes that tend to weaken gender equality and women protection laws.

In 2008 South Korea’s global ranking in women’s rights fell four points to 68th from its 2007 ranking of 64th, based on the 2008 Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) released in 2009.

GEM is produced by the United Nations Development Programme to measure the extent of women’s participation in political and economic decision making in over 100 countries.

Such fall in ranking may have had to do with the decline in female labour force participation in the East Asian country in the aftermath of the global economic crisis. The JobKorea web portal reveals that 90 percent of workers who lost their jobs due to downsizing resulting from the crisis were women. Of the workers that have been declared redundant since November 2008, 98 percent are also women, says the Korea Labour Institute.

Kwon herself has had to contend with deeply rooted discrimination against women. She recalls how her father became reluctant to let her go to Japan. “I was up against the social norms that expected women to get married before they turn 30 and start a family, a notion that was pretty strong even in big urban cities,” she says.

But her mother, who had never held a job, supported her. “She told my father, ‘If our daughter wants to make it out there, then let her. Imagine the respect we will gain as a family when she returns from Japan with a superior education’,” says Kwon.

Even labour statistics show there is still much to do to advance the cause of women’s rights in South Korea. Just over 45 percent of working-age South Korean women are employed compared with 70 percent of men. Moreover, women get only 66 percent of what men earn, according to the Korean Employment Information Service.

Many women are hired as part-timers or on a contractual basis, which makes them more vulnerable to losing their jobs unlike men. A report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in March says South Korea’s gender pay gap, which stands at 38 percent, is the largest among its 30 member states.

While women in South Korea may have made steady progress on various fronts, their struggle is far from over.

*This story was originally published by IPS TerraViva with the support of UNIFEM and the Dutch MDG3 Fund

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