2004 Press: CBC News

June 23, 2004

“A Tough Road to Equality for Korean Women”

By Yoav Cerralbo

With Women’s Week in South Korea kicking off July 1-7, the Seoul and Korean governments have been actively pursing the goal of a city and nation reborn where gender equality between men and women is realized. But is that the case?

Irene Natividad, president of the Global Summit on Women said during her recent speech at the annual summit held in Seoul, “South Korea has made impressive efforts to improve women’s rights and to give more business opportunities to women, but the country still has a lot to do in utilizing the capabilities of women.”

The South Korean government started Women’s Week in 1996 in order to heighten public awareness about the promotion of gender equality. In the April general elections for the National Assembly women candidates won 39 of the 299 seats up for grabs. The new National Assembly will have the highest ever number of female representatives with 13 per cent of the seats won by women compared to six per cent in the outgoing parliament.

Not only that, last year four women – the largest number at one time – joined the inaugural government cabinet of President Roh Moo-hyun’s participatory government.

Seoul is doing its part of walking the walk in promoting gender equality by eliminating inequities within its own offices. It will recruit and promote female employees to increase the number of women in senior-level positions to at least 13 per cent by 2006.

The rate of participation by women on municipal committees more than doubled from 15.4 per cent in 1998 to 33.5 per cent as of July 2003 after the enactment of a law mandating that each panel include at least 30 per cent women.

In Canada it’s a different story. Former Liberal MP Sheila Copps said “in one of the elections in the `70s there was a television debate that all of the leaders had to participate in on women’s issues. Nobody even mentions them now.”

In the last Canadian election there were 375 women who ran, making up 21 per cent of the candidates compared to 24 per cent in the 1997 election. Out of the 301 candidates elected in 2000, 62 women were elected to the House of Commons, which is the same number of women who won seats in the 1997 election.

One of the biggest issues for women in Korea is the steadfast paternal system called “Hojudejo” where only a man qualifies as the head of the family, regardless of age or financial situation. The wife doesn’t have to adopt the husband’s family name but she does have to give up her history, place of birth and family heritage, and take up her new husband’s lineage. The government is in the process of reviewing this system for possible abolishment in the National Assembly.

Dr. Lee Mi-jung, sociologist for the Korean Women’s Development Institute, a group that works directly under the Office of the President said “the paternal system is demeaning for women, it puts the wife below her husband. It’s also an invasion of privacy because these documents go to the government.”

Education is another area where the situation for women has greatly improved. For instance in South Korea, the ratio of women advancing to university jumped to 67 per cent in 2000 from 35 per cent in 1970.

But the reality is that women are still being discriminated against in Korean society simply because of their gender said Lee Jae-kyung, professor of sociology at Ehwa Women’s University in Seoul.

In defiance of their remarkable advances in the workplace a woman’s average wage accounts for 70 per cent of her male counterpart while 69 per cent of working women are temporary workers.

Furthermore, Korea has been at the bottom of world rankings for the past five years in terms of the ratio of women becoming lawmakers, high-ranking government officials or CEOs.

According to the gender-empowerment measure announced by the United Nations Development Program in 2003, Korean women’s status in the core fields of economic and political participation and decision-making ranks 63rd while Canada and the United States are 9 and 10 respectively.

Lee Mi-jung said, “that number might change, we just have to wait and see.”

Even the legal wrangling of divorce has improved for Korean women. At one time in South Korea getting a divorce might have meant that the ex-wife-to-be could have lost everything: the house, the children, the car, and the investments. In the end she would be sent back to her parents in shame; in Canada most provinces have a 50/50 split of all assets and debts.

“The man had all the power then, he wanted his wife to be more like his mother. To be subservient and do everything the husband wanted,” said Lee Mi-jung. “After the 1991 legislation women were given more power. Now the property accumulated after marriage is separated somewhat equally. If the woman was a housewife she gets 30 per cent division of property and assets. If she worked she gets 50 per cent. This is much better than before but still if you’re a housewife you are still being short-changed.”

During the last 50 years South Korean women have come a long way in their fight for gender equality but there is still a lot to do in realizing their goals and the goals set by the government. “Change doesn’t happen naturally, without pressure,” said Natividad.