South Korea's Women's Week, which is held in the first week of July, has been an annual celebration to celebrate the importance of women's progress, and to enhance the culture of gender equality through a variety of events.
The basis for this progress was the Framework Act on Women's Development, first enacted in 1995. The complete revision of the act passed the National Assembly on May 2, 2014, with the name changed to the Framework Act on Gender Equality. The revised act took effect on July 1 this year.
For the past 20 years, the women's development law contributed to many areas related to female participation and gender equality.
However, there were concerns that the act had its limitations as a basic law encompassing all individual laws and policies that have advanced to apply gender equality. Therefore, this change ushers in a new paradigm shift, from emphasizing women's development to the practical realisation of gender equality.
Moreover, this shift not only clearly ensures the philosophy of gender equality outlined by the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, but also guarantees gender equality rights and reaffirms the government's responsibility on the matter.
The Framework Act on Gender Equality has a great significance in bringing gender equality through instituting a system of consideration of policy impacts on women, female-friendly cities, and a family policy strategy in preparation for the reunified Korea in which both men and men could equally participate, and much more.
Starting this year, Women's Week has become Gender Equality Week, where gender equality policies can be advanced and the culture of gender equality can be spread throughout Korean society.
Furthermore, creating measures to prevent gender discrimination in national and local governments, guaranteeing equal access to health care, setting up legal basis for the provision of women-friendly cities and reflecting gender equal perspectives in international co-operation have helped the paradigm of women's development to evolve into the practical realisation of gender equality.
Since the mid-1980s in Korea, many areas of society, including politics, economics, family, various institutions, laws and policies have set up the basis to eliminate discrimination against women and achieve gender equality.
Moreover, the Act on Equal Employment for Both Sexes was enacted in 1987 to achieve gender equality in employment; the Infant Care Act (1991) was enacted to support child rearing; the Revision on the Three Laws on Maternity Protection (2001) was carried out to distribute the cost burden of pregnancy, childbirth and parenting; the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment, etc. of Sexual Crimes (1994) and the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment, etc. of Crimes of Domestic Violence (1997), and the Act on the Prevention of Sexual Traffic and Protection, etc. of Victims (2004) were enacted to improve women's social status.
Also, in the mid-2000s, efforts to create an environment where both men and women can enjoy a work-life balance have flourished thanks to the enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity and Work-Family Balance Assistance Act (2007), the Act on the Promotion of the Creation of a Family-Friendly Social Environment (2007), and the Act on the Promotion of Economic Activities of Career-Interrupted Women.
Furthermore, there have been continuous efforts to reflect gender perspectives in general policymaking by the Ministry of Gender Equality and many other central government ministries, such as by introducing the Gender Impact Assessment Act (2004), Gender Budget Statements and Gender Budget Balance Sheets (2009), which shine a light on international society as an exemplary case.
However, since the Korean society has put so much effort and emphasis on preparing laws and systems to protect and support women, there has been a backlash, with critics calling those efforts reverse discrimination against men.
And as there is an increase in the number of women excelling in legal and administrative institutions, corporations and media, there is also a social atmosphere in which many say, "Now women are placed above men."
Women's status in society has definitely improved, but only a few occupy influential positions in society, and many women still struggle with discrimination, suffer from nonregular employment and poverty, and are victims of domestic violence.
Moreover, South Korea's female labour market participation is still characterized by the "M curve." According to the 2014 Economically Active Population Survey, women's labour market participation is not much different than that of men's in their 20s, but in their 30s, it decreases due to marriage, childbirth and child care, to fall 30 per cent lower than that of men's.
By their late 30s, this disparity reaches about 40 per cent. Among the OECD countries, only South Korea and Japan show this kind of female employment structure. In addition, women who have experienced a career break due to pregnancy, childbirth and child care earn 21.9 per cent less when they are reemployed. That is the reason Korea's gender wage gap is so high compared to the rest of the OECD.
Korea's achievements in gender equality would give equal benefits to men and women because traditional duties will now be understood and shared by both genders.
Women are wives, girlfriends, sisters and colleagues where they live together among men in a variety of ways. Looking at it plainly, for example, when a woman is still in the workforce contributing to the household economy, the husband's burden on providing for the family will lessen greatly.
Since we have advanced beyond women's development to the realisation of a gender-equal society, women's policy is now facing a new threshold for change. At this stage, forming a social agreement on women's policy is very significant, and implementation of the Framework Act on Gender Equality will work as a starting point.
There is a need for a social consensus on how women's policy is not just for women, but is crucial for creating a society where both men and women can enjoy happiness together.
By Lee Myung-sun
Lee Myung-sun is the current president of the Korean Women’s Development Institute. Before joining the state-run think-tank specializing in gender-related issues, Lee served as a professor of health management and policy at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.