[Viewpoiont] A rising tide of women politicians

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[Viewpoiont] A rising tide of women politicians

The results of a JoongAng Ilbo survey on approval ratings of presidential hopefuls conducted in the middle of February showed former Grand National Party chairwoman Park Geun-hye decisively in the lead.

It is difficult to predict the actual results because there are many uncertain variables leading up to the 2012 presidential election. But women are emerging as real contenders in several races.

For the Seoul mayoral election, female candidates are being named not only by the ruling party but also the main opposition party.

March 8 was International Women’s Day. In the United States, March is Women’s History Month, when the country pays tribute to women who contributed to society.

President Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, is running his nation with the help of many outstanding women. The first lady, Michelle Obama, helps her husband at the White House with her poise, intelligence and modest attitude; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi shepherds legislation for domestic reform through Congress; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the country’s top diplomat.

Pelosi shared a historical vision with the president and maintained solid teamwork to persuade her colleagues in the Democratic Party to pass the health care reform bill. A 70-year-old woman, she raised five children, entered politics the year her youngest graduated from high school and became the first female House speaker three years ago.

Secretary of State Clinton became a senator after serving as first lady, and traveled the unexplored road of a woman running for president. Now a partner of Obama, whom she competed intensely against in the last presidential election, Clinton is representing the United States on the international stage.

After teaching at Seoul National University for more than 20 years, I realize every March at the start of a new school year that great resources are increasing for females in Korean society.

The proportion of female students in the undergraduate political and diplomatic studies program has largely increased since the mid-1990s. In the mid-2000s, it rose to more than half. Female students have not only great GPAs but also play a leading role in student activities. They also express strong ambitions to become lawyers, civil servants, diplomats, journalists, scholars or politicians.

Politics is not the exclusive domain of men. The purpose of politics goes beyond maintenance of defense and security; it encompasses the happiness of the people by stabilizing their livelihoods and increasing health and education opportunities. There is no rule that men are better at this than women. Korean politics needs to mature from its rough and violent state to a softer, rational one. I expect women politicians to make a great contribution to this transition.

The reality of our society is that we are not moving fast enough to create policies to ease gender discrimination for this current influx of talented females.

In February, a surprising statistic was announced: 40 percent of unemployed women, numbering 200,000, are college graduates. The 2008 Gender Empowerment Measure of the United Nations Development Program showed that Korea ranks 68th among 108 countries. This means Korea is not an advanced country at all in terms of women’s participation in decision-making in politics, administration and technical fields.

In order to increase the proportion of female members in the National Assembly, we should increase seats for proportional representation and introduce a quota for women in political parties’ nomination process.

So far, despite insufficient expansion of proportional representation seats, there has been some progress in the women’s quota system for party nominations. Now the proportion of women in the National Assembly stands at the international average thanks to an improvement in the women’s quota in the 2004 National Assembly election and 2006 regional assembly elections.

The revised Public Position Election Law that became effective on March 12 made nomination of at least one woman mandatory for the local elections. So it is crucial to increase the proportion of female winners in regional assembly elections.

The proportion of female members of the British House of Commons was less than 10 percent before the 1997 general election. But Prime Minister Tony Blair nominated female candidates in districts with strong approval ratings for the Labour Party and raised the proportion of women members of Parliament to close to 20 percent.

However, the proportion of women in local British councils was already close to 30 percent before then, and thus women with a lot of experience were able to easily move to center stage.

Women themselves should also show an active will to advance in politics, and political parties need to be open to a women’s quota system in the local elections. Building a strong base of female politicians at the regional level will be the first step toward increasing the number of women in national politics.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Park Chan-wook
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