Seoul, an ultra-modern city. A conurbation of more than 24,000,000 inhabitants – including its suburbs, – it is one of the most populous cities in the world.
The capital of South Korea, one of the four Asian dragon economies, boasting tremendous growth and development in perpetual evolution.
Technology is everywhere, the rate of internet access is among the highest in the world, the press is free. In short, a country which in all respects is comparable with European standards.
While much of the population is Christian – there are many followers of Buddhism and the whole society remains steeped in Confucian values and beliefs that influence, even today, the country’s social model: respect for ancestors, filial piety, and patriarchy. A model in which women sometimes have trouble finding their place.
Hyan-Jeong, Kil-Ja and Yeong-Hee, three women, three generations and a reflection of what appears to be the evolving role of women in Korea.
The eldest of the three, Kil-ja said: “The role of Korean women is to support the husband to look after children’s education and ensure the good health of the family, the husband should be a good worker.”
Hyan-Jeong said: “Previously the role of women was to bear her husband children, and educate them but it is starting to change, too late for me anyway, since my marriage, I stopped working and my children are grown up.”
The youngest, Yeoung Hee said: “Unlike my mother’s generation – who stayed at home, I continued working after marriage – to find my place and position in society. We’ll see if it is possible.”
At the prestigious Seoul National University, there are as many young women as there are men. Legally, there is no gender discrimination in the education system, on the contrary. For if once the social position of a woman depended on the status of her husband, now they must prove themselves and forge their own careers, albeit short ones.”
The Institute for Research on Gender specialises in issues relating to women’s place in society, in the labour market and in the family. Professor Eun-Kyung Bae is a sociologist and head of the Program in Gender Studies, Seoul National University
“Korea is a society where children’s education is equal for boys and girls, but after marriage and the arrival of children in the family, a woman’s career often ends right there, she said.
“Before, we ask for equality, but after: the woman has great difficulty in returning to the workplace and must bear the entire burden of caring for the family.”
Lim Hee-eun, aged 36. Before her marriage she was an artist. Married to a musician, who is often working away – they have an 11-year-old son. And for 11 years, Lim has devoted her life to his education.
She said: “Before I was painting and I was teaching two nights a week at university, but I stopped. I do not feel free. Someone had to take care of my son and it could not be the father because he works, so now I devote myself entirely to my son. He is my life.”
For Hee-eun, there’s no question of having a second child. “It’s too hard,” she says, without calling into question her husband’s role.
Professor Eun-Kyung Bae said: “Marriage is influenced by parents – always, by social pressure and parental choice. Statistically, the number of women who do not want to marry is low, it is still ‘most desired’, but there are so many things that come with maternity. It is difficult for a woman to find her place in society. It is necessary to lighten the burden on them.”
Young people also marry in Korea to enable them to leave their parents because without being married, living alone is very unpopular, especially for a woman. The result of these hasty marriages: a high divorce rate and a falling birth rate.