Raising consciousness -- and cainFour out of 19 ministers on President Roh Moo-hyun’s first cabinet are women. By itself, that figure may not seem like much but these ministers have surprised many by demonstrating unusual coordination on women’s issues, less than three months after inauguration.
Minister of Health and Welfare Kim Hwa-joong’s recent initiative to transfer childcare projects from her agency to the Ministry of Gender Equality serves as a good example. Justice Minister Kang Kum-sil is also openly supporting the women’s movement’s efforts to abolish the hojuje, a family registration system favorable to males. And Environment Minister Han Myung-sook has taken strides to make her department more women-friendly, such as giving female employees more responsibility.
Seemingly orchestrating these three leaders is the Minister of Gender Equality Ji Eun-hee, a lifetime women’s activist who led the Korean Women’s Association United, an umbrella group, for three years before accepting her ministerial post.
Nicknamed “Little Big Woman” for her petite size and political clout, Ms. Ji is moving at full throttle to support policies she believes will improve Korean women’s lives. One of the minister’s goals is upgrading Korean women’s level of political and economic empowerment: Korea ranked 61 out of 66 countries in the UN Development Program’s 2002 index of women’s economic and political participation. Minister Ji wants to raise that less-than-admirable ranking to around 30 during her tenure.
The minister has also resolved to push Korea’s parliament to pass legislation making sexual transactions illegal. Such laws, she says, should be written to toughen punishments for those who act as intermediaries in sex-related money transactions.
Ms. Ji also emphasized that the government will pursue a plan to transfer supervision and management of childcare from the Ministry of Health and Welfare to the Ministry of Gender Equality. The government will submit a bill concerning reorganization of ministries to the National Assembly during its regular session in September; her ministry will join in when the health agency begins reviewing next year’s childcare budget this month.
“Childcare will be the ministry’s most important work,” she said, stressing a more comprehensive approach toward childcare. Childcare is not only about children’s rights, but “a matter of women’s right to pursue a career,” she added. “It is also a social problem in that without women’s economic participation, the Korean economy cannot function properly. We need a different paradigm for approaching the issue of childcare.”
Korea’s fertility rate has been falling rapidly over the last 10 years. In 2002, the rate was 1.17 children per woman, lower than that of most advanced countries ― including France and Japan, whose low fertility rates are well publicized. Some observers attribute this trend to inadequate childcare support from the government and society. This may have prompted then-presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun to remark during last year’s campaign: “Please deliver babies without any worries. I will take care of them.”
Ms. Ji said the presidential transition team concluded that government childcare programs should belong to the gender equality ministry rather than the health agency ― which already oversees many other programs ― due to childcare’s burgeoning importance in Korean life.
Minister of Health and Welfare Kim Hwa-joong formally raised this issue first; while reporting on her ministry’s major policies last March, she proposed the transfer to Mr. Roh and obtained a positive reaction from him.
Those in the women’s movement regard the Ministry of Gender Equality’s hoped-for status as a full-fledged government agency to be a watershed moment. Established in January 2001 as an outgrowth of the now-defunct Presidential Commission for Women’s Affairs, the ministry has thus far been limited to coordinating various ministries and agencies concerning women’s issues, and its executive held little more than a titular role.
The proposed transfer has met resistance from both the childcare field and the health and welfare ministry. Some in the educational establishment also oppose it; they trumpet unification of government activities concerning childcare and kindergarten education instead. Finally, the media are criticizing the government for hastily pursuing the transfer plan before seeking consensus.
Another issue to which Ms. Ji has placed her priority stamp is abolition of hojuje, an entrenched family registry system that prioritizes males as official family heads (meaning that a female divorcees’ children may have different surnames from her, since they remain on their biological father’s registry). There is a rank order for who may be household head. If there is no living father, the son, no matter how young, succeeds him, followed by a grandson. Hojuje critics say the system results in a preference for boys among Korean couples, which has caused a serious distortion of the sex ratio in the Korean population.
Hojuje has been a thorny issue between conservatives and Korean women’s rights activists for more than 20 years. Women’s rights leaders call the system antiquated not only because families might only have daughters, but that it causes unnecessary hardship in women’s lives.
“Hoju-je was introduced by the Japanese during their colonial rule over Korea, but the Japanese discarded the system right after World War II,” said the 46-year old minister, a native of Mokpo, South Jeolla province. “It is absurd that some people in this country are trying to protect it as if it were part of our tradition.”
Ms. Ji said that the government will vote on a related bill this month for legislation by the end of 2003. While another round of debate in the National Assembly is expected before a final decision emerges, she remains optimistic about its eventual passage.
A graduate of Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Ms. Ji entered business at first, but soon turned to women’s studies and the affiliated women’s movement after noticing the hardships female workers experienced. Over her career, she has also advocated on behalf of former “comfort women,” and led civic movements such as the blacklisting campaign of corrupt politicians during the 2000 elections.
Another of Ms. Ji’s priorities is introducing gender-sensitive budgeting to government, an issue she raised at a March cabinet meeting that inspired heated debate.
Although Koreans are not too familiar with the term, over 40 countries have already adopted gender-sensitive budgeting or are planning to. The UN Development Program divides government budgets into three categories, explained Ms. Ji: spending targeted for either men or women; budgets for equal-opportunity employment programs, and other mainstream budgetary needs.
The prime target of scrutiny by her ministry would be the mainstream expenditures that appear gender neutral at first glance but prove to be gender-distorted in many cases after perusal.
She said her ministry will soon begin examining several ministry budgets to assess their gender impact. “I hope government officials will increasingly consider gender factors in setting up budgets because of our initiative,” she said.
Under Korean law, high-ranking government officials must report the assets of immediate family members, as well as themselves. Ms. Ji, however, became a target of public criticism by refusing to report some property owned by her mother-in-law. She said she left it out because her family has had no economic relations with this woman for more than two decades.
Moreover, she considers unfair the government’s requirement that female officials report their parents’-in-law’s assets, while men must only report their parents’ assets. She said several female officials want her to raise the issue formally.
by Kim Hyeh-won