A gender-equal society
Published July 7th 2003 in Korea Herald

President Roh Moo-hyun's freewheeling words often raise eyebrows but at times he is humorously on target. During a live broadcast campaign last November, his audience burst into laughter when he explained his proposed state-subsidized childcare program. Roh asserted: "Now, please have as many babies as you want. Roh Moo-hyun will raise your babies."

The liberal candidate seemingly understood the day-to-day battle working mothers with little kids wage. He promised that, if elected, he would ensure that the government will shoulder half of all day-care expenses for working women's children. He also accommodated most other feminists' proposals, including abolishing the patriarchal family registration system and expanding women's political participation.

Observing the eighth annual Women's Week that ends today, the nation's feminists should be deeply disappointed that the Roh administration has failed to formulate strategies that actualize the president's grandiose pledges. The new administration has been remiss in honoring its promises to women. Probably, the administration couldn't afford to worry about gender-related problems when it faces a spate of urgent issues such as the nuclear crisis, labor unrest and the recession, to itemize just a few.

Unfortunately, the cause of women cannot be postponed as it is the cause of social progress itself. Roh must find ways, before next year's general elections, to raise the ratio of female candidates to 30 percent for regional constituencies and 50 percent in the national proportional representation system. He also promised to abolish the controversial family registration system by 2007, and he pledged to increase female officers to 20 percent of all fifth grade or higher public servants by 2006.

This is not an arbitrary numbers game left over from the past election. All the issues are enormously significant for mid- and long-term national development. This is because, in spite of their conspicuously improved status in recent years, most women here must still fight prejudice. Women are the neglected half of Korea's human resources, not only politically, but economically and in other professional areas too. Although she can marry freely and divorce if she chooses, the average Korean woman has to constantly struggle against discrimination in her family as well as her workplace.

These updated figures should open the eyes of our officials, policymakers, civic leaders and women themselves: 72.1 percent of women get a university education, but only 49.7 percent of women engage in economic activities; women earn 64 percent of what a man is paid for the same work; women account for 12.3 percent of new recruits at 20 leading public corporations; and the National Assembly has less than 4 percent female representatives, compared to the world average of 13.8 percent.

South Korea ranks 61st in the Gender Empowerment Measure, while its overall Human Development Index ranks 27th, according to UNDP statistics last year.