Challenging the structure of families

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Challenging the structure of families

The biggest issue women’s groups in Korea are confronting today is hojuje, a family registry system that many consider discriminatory toward women.
It is not an entirely new undertaking. In 2000, 11 women’s groups banded to form the “Citizens’ Solidarity to Abolish Hojuje.” Since then, they have consistently lobbied their cause among different facets of society.
Their movement appears to have gained momentum since President Roh Moo-hyun took office early this year.
In state affairs meetings, the issue of abolition has received positive nods. Recently, the Ministry of Gender Equality, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Culture and Tourism formed a task force to work on this matter.
In the National Assembly, the representative Lee Mi-kyung announced her intention to submit a proposal to amend existing policy.
On May 15, the Korea Women’s Associations United launched a full-scale cyber movement at www.no-hoju.or.kr.
But opposition is fierce from Yurim, an organization of Confucian scholars who uphold hojuje. They have formed a committee exclusively geared to combating measures to abolish the registry policy.
Here is a breakdown on hojuje:
1. What is hojuje?
Under civil law, the system organizes a family through the “Head of Household” concept. In Korea, a family head manages and leads other family members. The census registration lists changes to family status such as death, marriage and adoption, which define each family member’s status in relation to the hoju, or head of family.
2. Does hojuje discriminate against women?
According to hojuje, a married woman must list her name on her husband’s (or father-in-law’s) census registry. Women’s groups argue that this policy perpetuates the thinking that men are the master, and women the subordinate. They argue that having a child register to their father’s census registry and follow his surname is a type of discrimination. Opponents of hojujue assert that minimizing the mother’s status infringes on the parents’ equality.
A child born out of wedlock can be registered to the father’s census without the consent of the wife. But a woman’s illegitimate child can only be registered in the father’s census with the man’s consent.
3. Hojuje encourages preference for male children
Family leadership inheritance follows from father to son and grandson before daughter, wife, mother and daughter-in-law. A man always has seniority over a woman, no matter what his age. So, a 3-year-old boy could be the “family head,” senior to his own mother.
An illegitimate son can be entitled to a higher status than a legitimate daughter, according to hojuje. Women’s groups argue that this system maintains Koreans’ preference for a male child.
In 2000, for every 100 female births, 110.2 males were born, according to the Korea National Statistics Office. Early abortion of female fetuses remains common in Korean society.
4. Registration of children of divorcees, remarried or unmarried
Children from a divorced family are by law registered under the father’s census, even if the mother has custody. A divorced woman will always worry whether her ex-husband’s family will remove the child from her possession. Transactions involving a child’s passport, health insurance and bank account fall outside the divorced mother’s discretionary control, which causes great inconvenience.
If a divorced woman remarries, she must obtain her ex-husband’s consent to register her child to her new husband’s census registry. Even so, this child’s surname and location of family origin (a vital statistic known as bonjeok) follows the biological father’s. A child may be disgraced among peers when his or her surname differs from the stepfather’s.
In the case of unmarried women, children may follow their mother’s last name and place of origin. But that is only provided the identity of the father is unknown.
5. Would abolition of hojuje cause the destruction of the family unit?
Yurim scholars argues that hojuje is the foundation of Korea’s heritage, an established set of social morals and customs not found in Western society. Abolition of this family order will destroy the family order and lead to a shirking of responsibility. When individuals are emphasized, they say, Korea’s family-oriented heritage will collapse.
Defenders of hojuje assert that this will lead to a higher divorce rate. Fathers’ rights will be diminished, with men becoming increasingly isolated in society, they contend.
But women’s groups counter that abolishing hojuje will by no means lead to a spike in the divorce rate. For example, this did not happen in Japan and Switzerland, both of which once had family registry systems similar to hojuje, but eliminated them. The divorce rate in both nations remains lower than Korea’s. A patriarchial system such as hojuje, they argue, can only deepen conflict between couples and impinge on modern family life.
6. Alternatives to hojuje
There are three popular alternatives to the status quo. First is the Gajokbu or “family-parent system,” where a married couple forms a joint census registry in which unmarried children are registered under a family umbrella. The couple decides which person will serve as family representative. If the father is representative and dies, the mother can become head of the household.
In case of divorce, both parents can each create a new Gajokbu, and the children choose with which parent they wish to register. In the case of a women who remarries, the child can choose either the father’s or mother’s surname. However, this system notes whether a parent is divorce or remarried, which activists see as an invasion of privacy.
Another proposed system is the “one-person, one-family registration system.” Here, each person is regarded as a legal individual, and can list the names of his or her parents, spouse and children. Women’s groups largely support this approach, but the cost of carrying out a 48-million person census registry would carry a huge price tag.
Last, some advocate combining the hojuje census registration system with the citizen registration system, the latter of which is a personal ID similar to a social security number. This new proposal would require recording of a person’s change in status and other family details, such as parents’ remarriage or divorce. The downside here is that more information is listed here than with the census registration system.


by Moon Kyung-ran
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