International Women’s Day and Korea

International Women's Day

Today is 100th International Women’s Day. In different regions the focus of the celebrations ranges from general celebration of respect, appreciation and love towards women (its roots in primarily Eastern Europe, Russia, and the former Soviet bloc) to a celebration for women’s economic, political and social achievements (the United Nations sets a theme each year to raise awareness about certain issues). I asked my students who they thought was an important women in South Korean history, and these are who they chose:

Famous Women in South Korea

Shin Saimdang 신사임당 (1504-1551) was a Korean artist, writer, calligraphist, noted poet, and the mother of the Korean Confucian scholar Yulgok. She is seen as a model of Confucian ideals, her respectful nickname was Eojin Eomeoni (어진 어머니; “Wise Mother”). As she was raised in a son-less household, she spent much time at her parents’ house even after her marriage to Commander Yi Won-su at the age of 19. Having had no brothers, she received an education that would have only been bequeathed to a son, and this background greatly influenced the way she educated her children. Saimdang was able to cultivate her talents thanks to an unconventional household and understanding husband, in a rigid Confucian society. [Wikipedia]

In 2009, South Korea’s central bank chose the face of Korean motherhood, Saimdang, as the first woman to be featured on its banknotes, but women’s rights groups said the selection only reinforces sexist stereotypes. A paper on a government Web site describes Shin as “the best example of motherhood in Korean history,” while the central bank said she was selected “to promote gender equality and women’s participation in society.” [source]

Yu Gwan-Sun 유관순 (March 15, 1904 – October 12, 1920) was a Christian student and organizer in what would come to be known as the March 1st Movement against the Japanese colonial rule of Korea in South Chungcheong.  The Japanese closed her school soon after, forcing her to return home where she began to arouse public feeling against the Japanese occupation.

With the help of her family and friends, Yu planned a peaceful demonstration in her province for April 1st. Over 2000 people came together in a marketplace for the demonstration.The Japanese police shot at the people, and about 19 people died, including Yu’s parents. Yu Gwan-sun was taken to prison. She died in prison on October 12, 1920, reportedly as the result of torture. Her final words were, “Even if my fingernails are torn out, my nose and ears are ripped apart, and my legs and arms are crushed, this physical pain does not compare to the pain of losing my nation. My only remorse is not being able to do more than dedicating my life to my country.”

The Japanese prison initially refused to release her body, but eventually and reluctantly the prison released her body to Lulu Frey and Jeannette Walter, principals of Ewha Womans School, and only after Frey and Walter threatened to expose this atrocity to the world. Her body was reported to have been cut into pieces. The body was contained inside an oil crate which was supposed to be returned to Saucony Vacuum Company. The Japanese Authorities did this as a retaliation against the threat from Ehwa School. [Wikipedia]

Yi So-yeon 이소연 was Korea’s first astronaut. Only two other countries (Iran and the UK) have had a female as their first space explorer. She is also the second female in Asia to fly in space. While at KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology ) she learned of the Korean government’s competition to send the first Korean into space. After an exhaustive nationwide selection process and 12 months of training in Russia, Yi was selected to represent Korea aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-12 along with two Russian cosmonauts for a 10-day space mission. Her mission launched on April 8th, 2008.

During her mission, Yi So-yeon carried out 18 science experiments and conducted interviews and discussions with media. She took with her 1,000 fruit flies  and monitored the way the changes in gravity and other environmental conditions alter the behavior of the flies, or their genome. Other experiments involved the growth of plants in space, the study of the behavior of her heart, and the effects of gravity change on the pressure in her eye and shape of her face.  She also observed the Earth, and in particular the movement of dust storms from China to Korea. [Wikipedia]

As for being a woman, Yi So-yeon has said,

“There was one great role model of mine in Russia, a female astronaut, Peggy Whitson. Thanks to her, I learned when I should be a woman, when I should be a scientist, when I should be an astronaut, when I should be a teacher, and when I should be a good daughter […] Women should not confuse the right time. In your office, you don’t have to be a woman. You should be a good worker. But after your work, you should be a pretty and sexy woman. You have enough time, even more than enough. So, I learned that timing is important.” [source]

First Female President – 2013

South Korea should be celebrating International Women’s Day this year by celebrating its first female president, who was sworn in to her five-year presidency late February. The next 5 years will be Park Geun Hye’s. I hope Korean women, old and young, can take the time to have their voices heard, even with the simple knowledge that it IS possible to hold a position of power, regardless of gender.

But there is still more to change:

Members of the women’s committee of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions hold a demonstration in Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on March 4, ahead of International Women’s Day (March 8). Each of the boxes represents an important issue for women that needs attention from the new government, such as low-wage irregular employment, gender wage gap, selective welfare, reproductive rights and sexual harassment. (by Ryu Woo-jong, staff photographer) [source]

“The situation for South Korean women today isn’t much different from what is was for American women 105 years ago,” said Seong Hwa, deputy general manager of the Korea Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU) women’s committee, on the eve of International Women’s Day on Mar. 6. [source]  The groups also criticisez the new president, calling her promises  false. She has much to prove if she is serious about helping the women in Korea. A February report by the OECD found a gender gap of 39% in pay as of 2010, meaning that women earned US$61 for every US$100 earned by men. It was the highest rate among the organization’s 33 countries. The hiring gap was also the highest in the group, at 29 percentage points. Another survey on types of employment that was done by Statistics Korea as part of a working population census in August 2011 found that women accounted for 3.2 million, or 53.4%, of the country’s 5,995,000 temporary workers. [source].

A Decrease in Gendercide

One positive shift in recent years has been Korea’s viewpoint of gender preference in newborns. South Korea, which had the highest ratio of boys to girls only two decades ago as a result of rapid rise in gendercide, has been able to bring its sex-ratio level closer to the world norm (about 105 boys for 100 girls). Polls of Korean women showed a sharp drop in the percentages who strongly prefer sons [source]. This imbalance in gender is now affecting those born in the 80’s, making it harder to find a spouse.

An Increase in Low Birthrate & the Workplace

Though gender preference is not a severe issue in Korea, the country is now facing its lowest birthrate. Various reasons abound, but two possible factors could be

– Women choosing not to get married or have children because they want to support their careers instead.
– Korea’s work culture is not really inclusive of mothers especially in white-collar workplaces. [source]
– Having children here in Korea is expensive, as in other countries. Education costs are a big contributor to South Korea’s soaring household debt, one of the heaviest burdens in the world at more than 160 per cent of income and a major drag on domestic consumption [source]. Ranking high, Korea’s education system is the best – its 15-year-olds came first in the developed world in literacy and maths, and third in science, in a 2010 study by the OECD. But it all comes with a price.



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