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Strengthening the 'strong Jeju woman'Women's empowerment principles, definition and local implications
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승인 2011.05.11  11:49:39
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▲ Faces of Jeju's community of strong women. Photos by Han Rimhwa.

[The following is excerpted from Dr. Hilty's presentation last month at the annual forum of Business and Professional Women [BPW]: Jeju. It is Part one of a three-part series.]

Women's Empowerment Principles have been co-created by UN Development Fund for Women in collaboration with UN Global Impact for the purpose of gaining economic equality for women across the globe.

These seven principles, while designed to be globally applicable, must be made as culturally relevant as possible in order to achieve maximum success in outcome.

Jeju women have a longstanding reputation of strength. The “strong Jeju woman” is legendary. Feminists in Korea's mainland point to Jeju's women as an example of indigenous feminism. Words like “matriarchy” and “amazonian” get used frequently.

On Jeju, scholars, feminists, and professional women also question this identification while recognizing that Jeju women share the qualities of diligence, fortitude, and courage.

Within Jeju's most well-known female-dominated profession, that of the diving women, highly structured economic cooperatives have long existed.

In village life, collaborative labor practices in general have traditionally been the norm, as villagers needed to work together to overcome adverse conditions.

Women within Korean society, and certainly in Jeju, also wield a great deal of power in matters of the household.

However, outside of these economic organizations for occupations of manual labor, Jeju's women have not yet attained substantial positions of leadership.

There are no female heads of corporations and few high-level managers. Women are not at the helm of local village councils, and no woman has ever been elected to public office, though local legislation now includes the appointment of five women to the Provincial Council.

Jeju women's pay-scale in comparison to that of men is notoriously low, while rates for domestic and sexual violence, as well as prostitution, are high.

And so: even for such strong women, there is still a great deal of progress to be made before it can be said that any measure of true equality and economic sustainability has been achieved.

And the daughters, the next generation of Jeju women? Awareness of the need for gender equality continues to grow. However, as hardship and adversity decrease in this increasingly affluent and modernized, technologically-driven society, mothers express concern that their daughters want easy lives and lack the strength of their forebears.

Dominant themes in Jeju society must be considered in order to achieve true empowerment for Jeju women: the more recent overlay of Confucian social structure versus a much older inheritance of Goddess mythology, coupled with communal labor methods and an egalitarian, matrifocal traditional culture.

In the Neo-Confucianism that gained prominence in Korea several centuries ago and on Jeju more recently, the woman is relegated to a secondary role in society, her place “in the home.”

The hierarchy of Confucian social structure also carries over into the workplace, which keeps working women at an artificially lower status. Several women in mainland Korea have advanced to high corporate positions, to which much recent press coverage has been given – but in every case it is directly related to family ties.

In Korea, corporations and government are typically modeled after the military system to which all young men are conscripted and of which women for the most part have no knowledge – a distinct disadvantage for women in the workplace.

As the anniversary date has just passed for the 1948 wide-scale massacre from which Jeju people are still recovering, Jeju's powerful commitment to peace and human rights initiatives is also evident.

These conflicting notions, in conjunction with cooperative economic traditions, provide several considerations by which to approach the empowerment of Jeju women.

Thus, the seven Women's Empowerment Principles as outlined by the UN can be addressed within the context of Jeju's indigenous culture:

1. “Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality”: traditionally matrifocal and egalitarian cultural principles;
2. “Treat all women and men fairly at work; respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination”: traditional communal labor practices; current peace and human rights initiatives;
3. “Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women and men workers”: as above;
4. “Promote education, training and professional development for women”: in keeping with Confucian value placed on lifelong education;
5. “Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women”: the diving women's economic cooperatives and decision-making processes in a structure known as 'eochongye';
6. “Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy”: island-wide system of small villages with local councils; numerous NGOs; strong community bonds known as 'kwendang';
7. “Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality”: numerous research institutes [NGOs, private and public] and government initiatives.

Each principle can be supported by an existing or traditional feature of Jeju's culture, if highlighted and enhanced for this purpose. This also reframes features of Jeju's traditional culture in modern terms, which may serve the purpose of cultural preservation and encourage an increased valuing of traditional ways.

Next: Part two: WEP according to Jeju women leaders

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist.

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