Tag Archives: gender issues

Day 19: The Plastic Surgery Debate Shall Continue Forever

2 Mar

By accident, I ran into this article today written by Siobhan Courtney. This discusses the PIP breast implant scandal and the whole issue of plastic surgery and women’s choice. I don’t know if you remember, but this was the horrendous case where silicone that was not up to standard for medical use was used for breast implants everywhere in the world. She mainly argues that women who choose to obtain the surgery are exercising their agencies over their bodies, and they are not some cheap bimbos.

Her argument is something that seems to be opposite to the argument that I presented yesterday. But the general sentiment against the patriarchal voices regarding plastic surgery seems to be the same. Her argument is more on the fact that many patriarchal discourses ignore the fact that women have agency to make their own choices regarding their bodies (and satisfy their needs to feel good about themselves, not necessarily pleasing men), while calling the women bimbos and many terrible names. Although I agree that women should be able to freely exercise their agencies, I would argue against her argument, because I think that the driving force of overall plastic surgery industry and culture is the patriarchal culture. What seems to matter the most in this whole plastic surgery debate ultimately is that patriarchal discourse will always be present whether to cause plastic surgeries or to criticize them. Also it should be debated what has contributed to the formation of “women’s agency” which is highly subjective anyways. Well, I guess I saw the extreme negatives while she observed the “grey areas,” like the example of the woman in her writing who had to get plastic surgery after breastfeeding 2 children.

Just too much to think about… and the debate will go on, I suppose.

Day 18: The Plastic World to My Eyes

1 Mar

One day in April 2011, it was my first time going to Apgujeong area in Seoul. It takes about an hour and half to get there from where I live, which is just outside of the city, and I couldn’t bother to visit there while my breaks were often quite short and didn’t involve visiting the particular area at all. Well, it is supposed to be one of the richest area in the capital city. There are lots of highly-priced restaurants, fancy clothing shops, and cool places to hang out where one can be very happy if she has enough money to splurge. This area is perhaps the most famous for a very unique feature: The Apgujeong Beauty belt where literally thousands of plastic surgery clinics are filling in the entire stretch of the road. As soon as you get out of the subway, you are overwhelmed by large advertisements by a number of those clinics, and quite often they are very “creative” in selling their skills. Some clinics can take care of anywhere, from the head to toe, and they say they will change your life. And others have specializations, often eyes, facial shape, nose and breasts, and say the same thing: You’ll be happier with bigger breasts. The ads tell you something is wrong with you, if you are content (or even OK) with how you look and if you haven’t consulted those doctors at least once in your life. It is widely known that Korea has one of the biggest plastic surgery industry that is largely fed by the demands in the domestic market as well as international market. By the way, the government promotes medical tourism. Interesting facts are found here.

**

“Let Me In.” It is a name of a cable channel’s show in Korea. “Me in” in Korean (the sound of it) means a beautiful woman, so the show’s title cleverly uses the English phrase to mean two things. One, let me become a beautiful woman, and two, let me be in the show so that I can become beautiful. It is a show that chooses a woman every week with a dramatic story, and she gets to get a fully-paid plastic surgery makeover. Each woman comes with her own story, and each is quite heartbreaking because the women tend to have been hurt by others deeply throughout their lives by the way they look and have no confidence in themselves. And talking about the scars that they have lived with for very long in public is perhaps one of the most humiliating thing that one can do, especially as a scarred, unconfident individual. Some of them do have some clinical problems physically, but the show is, as you can guess, mostly concerned with making someone look more beautiful through cosmetic surgeries. After the storytelling is done, there is a panel of doctors behind the wall who discuss about the issue, and they are the one who decide if the woman on the other side of the wall will get the chance to change her look (and her life, so they say). There are plastic surgeons, dentists and psychiatrists who quite fiercely discuss the case. They sometimes laugh at how the woman looks like, maybe commenting, “Really, there’s not much that can be done in this case (meaning that she’s ‘too ugly’ that even with their magical hands, that can’t be fixed).” For all the episodes that I’ve watched, all women got chosen, but I couldn’t watch the show anymore.

Every time after watching the show, I looked at myself in the mirror and think, “Something is wrong with my facial shape,” or “My nose could look better.” I mean everyone looked more beautiful and happier on the show, and deep down unconsciously, I was thinking, maybe I can be happier if I can fix the parts that I don’t like.

***

After reading the two episodes above, I hope you are upset or at least uncomfortable. Such trend that I have observed is not just limited to Korea, but everywhere (I do happen to see more about this stuff in Korea, though). Maybe you will say, “Well, isn’t it ultimately the women’s choices that lead them to those clinics and the show? Shouldn’t they have reasonable causes that lead them to such actions?” I argue that women’s “choices” are not entirely theirs when it comes down to plastic surgery decisions. The media and the entire society are telling you that there is something so wrong about your body that you need to hate those parts and yourself. And ultimately, it is not about your ability to have your own intelligent reasoning, but it’s about how you feel (ugly and awful) and how the society enforces its terrible reasons on women. Even as a highly educated woman (for God’s sake, I have a master’s degree), I felt terribly wrong, awkward and ugly whenever I had to stand on the street of the Beauty Belt and whenever I watched that show. There is nothing more discouraging and demoralizing than the feeling of self-hatred, feeling that you are not beautiful hence no one, including yourself, will love you. And these feelings are more serious and important than any other matters to one’s self-confidence.

All women have the right to believe that each and one of them is beautiful inside out. However, unfortunately, many women learn how to find what is “wrong” about their bodies and hate themselves as they grow up, instead of learn to love who they are. The human pursuit of beauty and vanity will never stop, but they should not have to be built upon the self-deprecating, self-hating ground where the media and industries are constantly telling you to not to appreciate yourself so that you may eventually buy into that scheme. If plastic surgeries are done completely free of such negative social baggage which damages women’s personhood, and if one can be completely happy after such surgeries are done, I wouldn’t be so against the idea of plastic surgeries. However, why is it that there are more and more women who are knocking on the plastic surgeons’ offices in the Beauty Belt every year from everywhere in the world? Why is it that I hear women who have had at least one plastic surgery would go for more of them over time?

There is certainly something missing to the (temporary) satisfaction that the perfect plastic surgery gives to a person.

Day 17: They [Rape Victims] Had It Coming? Stop Justifying Violence.

29 Feb

Despite the fact that facebook makes you waste a lot of time, it doesn’t matter so much to me now because I have almost too much time in my hand J. And facebook happens to be my news source where I encounter some quality articles and exchange different views with my friends. The article that I just read was posted by my friend Aarushi and published in the NYT.  It gave an excellent overview on the injustice regarding victims of sexual violence.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/world/asia/29iht-letter29.html?_r=2

It is talking about the “blame the victim” mentality in India in cases of sexual assaults while there are many holes in terms of policies and laws, policy makers’ views, and prejudices against women who are victims of such violence. Well, this proves that whether it is in a developed country like the US (remember my posting on Day 15 and Liz Trotta?) or a rapidly developing country like India, the victims of sexual assaults are tremendously stigmatized multiple times because of the society’s general support of violence.

Yes, I said it. Many societies support and justify violent men, because many think that that is just a part of their nature, and women just have to be careful about it (and if not, it’s considered all women’s fault, not men’s). We have to change this mentality. We need to nurture our society so that the violent “nature” does not prevail and get justified. And no, I don’t think violence is a given nature of men, and it’s rather a product of patriarchal nurturing.

Here are several words that I want to be ABSOLUTELY clear about sexual violence. Although I don’t claim to be an expert, I do believe that these are some absolute facts that all men and women should be aware.

A man does not have permission to sexually assault women at any time of the day. Whether it is during the broad daylight or 2:30am, no one has any right to impose such violence against women. At 2:30am, she might be coming back from work which supports her family, and don’t you ever blame her for being outside when it is so late. The fact that a woman is out late doesn’t give anyone the right to rape her.

It is a rape if you try to have sex with your girlfriend/wife/partner when she has clearly said no. The fact that you feel entitled to have sexual intercourse with your significant other doesn’t mean that you always have free pass to do so. That makes it an unequal relationship, and that is not healthy. Without mutual agreement, it is called spousal/date rape, and yes, you become a rapist without her consent.

A man does not have permission to have unwanted physical contact with women no matter what she is wearing. The standard for “revealing outfits” varies from country to country, and what one wears does not automatically invite you for any unpleasant contact or sexual assault. It is easy to blame women who wear “revealing” clothes, but a decent, normal man would not even think of such gross acts whatever he sees while rapists probably won’t even care what women wear (sadly true).

It is sexual assault if you try to have sex with a woman who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs (which might have been taken against her will), because her ability to make reasonable decisions for herself is impaired (and same to you). FYI, big NO to date rape drugs that some men slip into women’s drinks and spike them up. You have to walk away.

It is a rape if you have sex with children who are in brothels. In many countries, girls are often trafficked, because there are families who are too poor and do not value girls and because there are many men who want to have sex with them very cheaply.

Of course, there are many grey areas when it comes to sexual assault, and that is precisely the reason why many women are at disadvantage in current legal systems. And I do not mean to victimize all women, especially the survivors of sexual assaults, but at the same time, the systematic injustice is precisely the reason why many of VAW cases are not reported and still considered “something that should be taken care of between the two people.” Well, the physical strength tends to take care of the business all the time. And in India’s case in the article above, the people who are making policies and laws are oblivious about what is considered violence against women. Maybe we should just invent a program that can educate these old top dogs and implant chips in all of their heads. Such ignorance on sexual violence/VAW is a social disease that should be cared as soon as possible.

Day 15: What Part of Violence against Women Is Acceptable to You? (Hope None)

27 Feb

Yes, I skipped a day of writing, part of it because of the lack of inspiration and unexpected work that overwhelmed me until today. But I’m back, so I hope that such slip would not happen again. And I’m back to a heavy topic: Violence against Women (VAW). This is inspired by the recent debate on Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in the United States, and a VERY disturbing video clip of Liz Trotta’s rant on how feminists are increasing the military budget tremendously because they push for military women’s protection from sexual violence from other soldiers.

Initially, I ran into this Forbes article on facebook which talked about the Republican’s opposition on reauthorization of VAWA which has been in place since Clinton administration along with Trotta’s absurd junk on the Republican channel (Fox News). Then I was led to Liz Trotta’s video clip, which honestly upset me very much.

I have to admit that in American politics, everything has to be bipartisan (democracy? hmph…) even on the matter of women’s human rights. I hate this whole politicization of women’s bodies, while it is mostly patriarchal men (and women) talking about how they should be controlled.

But it is what it is at this point. And I must express that I’m strongly against the stance that some extreme conservatives are taking. They are saying that violence against certain women count more than violence against others. And these other women (and men) that cannot be protected are parts of undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ and Native American communities. Those who are not REAL Americans cannot be protected, in sum. Here, we see the political agenda deeply enrooted in the opposition as Republicans are generally for stricter border controls and against LGBTQ rights issues. But claiming that women in these minority communities deserve to get their rights freely violated (by not providing proper protection measures) is simply outrageous.

And according to Liz Trotta, military women should not be protected either, because they all cost too much of the precious military budget. Those who are risking their lives by taking professions which are often dominated by men (“masculine” professions) cannot be protected? And they should expect such violence, not coming from the enemies at the frontline but from their own comrades who are supposed to trust each other firmly? Well, I’m sure she was expecting such violence when she took on her career as a journalist.

Hence her anti-feminist ranting is mostly laughable. She herself, as you can see in the video, is quite an elite journalist, who has been to Vietnam War as a reporter and attended prestigious Columbia University. Well, excuse me, weren’t her professional field and high education all-men’s fields merely a few decades ago? Without feminist movement pushing boundaries for women to get into men’s territories in reporting and education, she would not even be talking on Fox News.

Come on people, let’s be real. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, how can anyone be OK with the fact that 3 women are murdered everyday by their intimate partners, the fact that more than 600 women suffer sexual violence everyday, and the fact that young women and minority women are more easily exposed to sexual violence? (Information from National Organization for Women, USA) And this is the United States we are talking about, the land of freedom and democracy (so they say…). I can’t even imagine how many women are battered and raped around the world, and practically every woman lives in fear, because of the potential violence they may suffer any time during their life time.

How can anyone be OK with the fact that their own sisters, mothers, wives, partners, girlfriends and female friends suffering such tremendous violence, even more because they are discriminated against by a policy?

It’s not a problem that exists just in America. In many parts of the world, women are considered properties of their fathers and husbands, and they are often subjects of domestic violence, marital rape, human trafficking (often to brothels and as wives to older men) and other violence, and no statistics can explain the seriousness of the problem all around the world. And in some countries, there is no law protecting women who are endangered by sexual violence, and even if such laws existed, they are not enforced in serious manners.

Women don’t need special protections, just because they are these delicate entities that deserve protection and respect, as men have traditionally considered. Women need protections because women are still subjected to way more sexual (and other) violence, and they are certainly not equally protected by laws and policies that are often made with patriarchal biases. And women deserve protection and respect because we are human beings, just as much as men deserve them, too. If you think that feminists are claiming for contradictory stance (“we need more freedom” and “we need more protection”), you’d better realize that we want freedom from restrictions that does not allow the equal opportunities (such as joining the military) and protection from violence (from the fellow soldiers).

FYI, here are some links on opinion pieces on VAWA.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/14/violence-against-women-act_n_1273097.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/opinion/sunday/dowd-ghastly-outdated-party.html?_r=1&ref=maureendowd

Day 13: Will Leadership Ever Feminize?

24 Feb

About a week ago, I ran into an opinion piece by Joseph Nye on Al Jazeera English titled “When Women Lead the World.” I assisted a research on women’s leadership in Asia briefly while I was in graduate school, so I was intrigued by what this international security guru has to say. This article was prompted by the recent book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and I would one day love to read the book on how a psychologist would put the current gender gap in women’s leadership.

Although I thought the article was OK (and I wasn’t disappointed), I still felt like something was missing. I mean, he isn’t the first person who has talked about the importance of more “feminine” style leadership and more women’s participation in leadership roles. Numerous people have already said that “we need more women in leadership positions” and “we need more people who have soft skills and feminine leadership styles,” and why does it ring a louder bell amongst people when a male leader speaks of the issue? (Answer? It’s a MAN speaking of a “women’s issue,” gasp! Well, you all know that it’s not just concerning women when it comes down to talking about a CEO of a global corporation or a prime minister of a country.)

I also thought that he was combining and mixing up two different –although often overlapping and difficult to separate– concepts: “feminine” style of leadership and women leaders. It seems like he’s talking about two different problems as if they are the same one: 1. There are not enough women leaders (hence we need more), and 2. Leaders need more “feminine” skills. Here, his assumption is that having more women would help feminizing leadership.

What Nye referred as “feminine style of leadership” is the antithesis of the old (and masculine) concept of leadership, a style (or multiple styles) that is more collaborative, conversational, participatory and soft skill-oriented, hence feminine. Yes, it is more likely that a woman leader tends to have more feminine style of doing work and going about her businesses, mostly because of the way that she has been educated in terms of how to perform her gender on everyday basis. But I believe that the current female leaders’ leadership styles are more likely to be masculine than feminine, because of the greater societal structure that still favors the masculine style more, and if she wants to be a top dog, she still has to play “fair” with the boys, with the rules that men have set within their club for ages.

I cannot help but thinking that the concept of leadership itself is already masculine but now it just wants to have some sprinkles of “feminine” elements, while it will fundamentally never change its masculine nature. In my radical mind, I believe that without the effort to completely challenge and uproot what it means by leadership, the gender binary will continue to exist with the constant challenge of how to feminize leadership. And let’s not forget that in the world of binaries, the elements that have been identified with masculinity have mostly held positive connotations (think of words like “strong,” “power,” “charisma,” etc.) while elements identified with femininity have been associated with negative connotations (words like “soft,” “indirect,” “peace,” mostly considered weak hence not proper for leaders) especially in leadership sphere.

So back to my point earlier. Here’s what I think.

The reason why we need more women in leadership positions is because women, for ages, have been systematically prevented from making effective political, financial, social and other major decisions that concern the wellbeing of greater population, including both women and men. Often the decisions concerned the wellbeing of free men (excluding women, men of lower classes, people of certain ethnicity/race, people of disability, etc.) and overlooked the concerns for “the others” whose lives were still very valuable.

The reason why we need more “feminine leadership” is because the old concept of masculine leadership is not properly functioning within the more diverse, rapidly changing society and population (with more women participating in various functions of the society) where ideas are constantly challenged and are in need of changes. The “old” concept of leadership has been generated mostly by men, and the leadership skill sets they held have not necessarily corresponded to the needs of the greater human race.

Yes, there are overlapping elements in between, but the two are distinguishable as well.

Also as a side note… I believe that there are plenty of women leaders around the world, especially at the grassroots level. Unfortunately, they are often underappreciated, which is another proof that the definition of leader and leadership is often limited by male discourse. For example, what about Somaly Mam of Cambidia who was sexually enslaved while she was a child, yet overcame her past and established an organization advocating for many children who suffer the same brutal sexual violence because of poverty? What she has done certainly requires tremendous courage and leadership. While new leaders have emerged from these “soft power” sectors (the arts, academia, NGOs, education, etc), the way that society still defines leadership is very much confined to politics, corporate sector and military where the real power lies (talking about the very real presence of patriarchy everywhere).

Hmmm… there’s simply too much to think about, especially when it’s on gender and power relations. I think the world would be a better place if women have ruled the world from the beginning , haha –or at least easier on my brain. Let me leave you with a humorous writing written by Gloria Steinem, “If Men Could Menstruate.” I think this is my favorite piece written by her.

Day 5: Why South Koreans Won’t Have Kids- And Why Policy Cannot Solve the Low Fertility Issue (part 2)

16 Feb

In the last post, I said that the overarching policy frameworks are mainly patriarchal, and that is what is preventing the formation of long-term policies. And the specific problems that I can think of (or heard of) are below.

First of all, in my opinion, Korean culture (along with others) has demanded women’s tremendous sacrifices for their families, although its women got to take various social roles outside of their homes over the past several decades. In traditional Korean household, she is the one who takes care of domestic duties while the husband is the “breadwinner” who works outside, bringing income to the house. However, Korea’s economy has modernized in a very short time span, without giving people enough time to change the traditional family/social norms. Hence, even if both the husband and the wife are working, woman “naturally” has to take care of the work outside and inside household. For example, both of my parents work as teachers, and they bring similar amount of incomes to the family. However, my mother’s work doesn’t end at 5pm when she gets out of her workplace, but continues as she has to cook dinner, clean the messy house and fold laundry. When I was much younger, she breastfed me, read to me and helped my homework when I was enrolled in school, along with doing all the house chores. I don’t remember when the last time my dad actually did any of the work (no offense to him), and if he did anything, it was him offering help, not doing his duty. My mother was often at a place where she had to feel guilty as she had to leave me with my grandmother (who raised me since I was born until 9) and had to ponder whether she had to choose either her work or her wife/mother duty. And this was the 80s and the 90s.

Is it any different now in Korea overall? I don’t think so, unfortunately, although the modern fathers are more involved in childrearing than my parents’ generation. Even today, many young mothers have to ponder whether they are going to keep working, take some months off (maternity leave) or just quit her job so that they can devote their time for their babies, thanks to family friendly labor policies and practices. It is commonly believed that the child has stronger bond to the mother than the father, but I think it’s a matter of how we humans make it to be (i.e. it’s not a matter of nature, but nurture). I don’t think women are any more caring than men, especially in terms of parenting. What I mean is that many fathers have not been actively involved in raising children ever since they were born, and seriously, other than the fact that man can’t produce breast milk, there is no difference with the mother in terms of parenting. The child is the product of the two people, and let’s face it, the parental responsibilities have never been fair. Culture dictates people’s behaviors, while “policy making culture” within the country is the space for policy makers to influence the social norms (how things “should” be for the general social wellbeing). Policies which does not seek to influence shifting of cultures and behaviors are short-sighted and doomed to be ineffective. Korea needs a very deep gender role overhaul.

Another reason for not having children seems to be the economics of having children which is not economical at all. It’s just too darn expensive to raise even one child in a family. Even if both wife and husband work, it is impossible to have big savings from the beginning, as the housing cost is getting quite expensive in the urban area. Many couples start their lives with some debt, and then when they finally decide to have a child or two, the expenses are tremendous, starting with all the basics like diapers, formulas, and clothes (that they will grow out of so quickly). I remember watching news on how expensive these items are, way more than other countries with the similar purchasing power. When the child grows, they have to go to nurseries, kindergartens, schools and extracurricular activities, but they all cost tremendous amount of money that the parents may not have. The government came up with “free pre-school education policy” for the bottom 75% of the economic strata, but to be exact, the education is not free as the government provides about 150USD a month per family with a preschooler, while the monthly fee of a private kindergarten is often easily 300-500USD (or even more). So the name of the policy itself is pretty populist in itself as you see. I can’t imagine having 2 kindergarteners in my family and supporting them with my pay. I mean over 1000 dollars a month just for schooling? Even if both of the parents work, it is a huge chunk of spending. Now, the elections (both for the national assembly and presidential) are coming, the politicians decided that they will expand this to all households with pre-school age children as of this year. And what would happen to the budget of this country? I have no idea, and it’s only scary to think of the terrible cycle of near-sighted populist welfare policies and budget limits. I mean I’m all for welfare, and South Korea’s welfare system has a long way to go, but I hate these populist politicians and their policies playing with the tax money without much planning, while all they need is just a few more votes.

I’m sure there are many other reasons for low fertility rate. Some couples agree to not to have children, and it’s their life style choice that I have nothing against. Others choose not to marry, which reduces the chance of having children tremendously (In Korea, alternative family forms, such as single parents raising children without partners and gay couples adopting children, are not very common and perceived with much cultural stigma).

But in sum, Korea has many different elements that prevent young women and men from having more children (or having kids at all). Human, cultural elements are missing in family policies very often, causing other issues which require more new policies. Some Korean policy makers now seem to realize gradually that it’s not just “women’s problem” but there are a lot of obstacles to overcome in terms of social and gender norms, and policies should have long term goals which can drive the change of traditional mentality. After all, it is most important to create an environment where people can willingly have children, not because of the national economic issues, but because they want to have the joy of having more family members.

Day 4: Why South Koreans Won’t Have Kids- And Why Policy Cannot Solve the Low Fertility Issue (part 1)

15 Feb

I have a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and master’s in Public Policy. While I have these swanky titles after 20 years of formal education, I honestly cannot tell you what these disciplines are about and what I actually learned. But I can tell you for sure that I learned how to think about various social issues from the perspectives of the both disciplines. And today, although my cold meds are bothering me extremely, I really want to get this off of my chest. It’s about birthrate in South Korea.

Many demographists and others have pointed out that South Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, fighting for the top (?!?) along with Japan and Singapore, two other developed economies in Asia. Just to get some perspective, I have found the CIA data on global birthrates, which ranked the countries with the highest birthrate on top and the lowest at the bottom.

Not so surprisingly, out of 221 countries, South Korea ranked 215 (in other words, 7th in low birthrate) while Japan ranked 220, Hong Kong 219 and Singapore 216. Yes, the data might be a bit skewed because Monaco, Hong Kong (which is not a country, but oh well) and Singapore’s population sizes (and samples) are perhaps not so compatible with those of South Korea and Japan. Regardless, low birthrate is one of the greatest threats in more developed countries as the aging population is rapidly increasing, posing financial threats to the country’s welfare budget, further economic development and many other elements. So maybe to many people’s minds, it is a policy problem, and I totally agree. But I would argue that it is also a greater social and cultural issue that should be attacked from a much wider angle, while globally, we are still facing the issue of population explosion rather than lack of people.

Korea’s Two-Child Policy

Perhaps you are familiar with One-Child Policy in China which is strictly enforced by the government. But Two-Child Policy of South Korea was rather a series of campaigns from South Korean government in the 1970s and the 80s to encourage couples to have only 2 children. I don’t believe that there was any penalty for having too many or incentives for having fewer than 2, but it was a campaign under dictatorship, so many people were often more or less collaborative to government’s policies and campaigns.

Of course there were legitimate reasons. South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world after the Korean War (even worse than North Korea and Ethiopia at the time), and as the government pushed for economic development, controlling the number of population became a key factor in promoting this national goal. Since Korea traditionally had been an agricultural society, a family easily had over 6 kids. There were simply too many mouths to feed in the country and families while there were too few economic opportunities (i.e. jobs). But with the rigorous campaign during the 60s and the 70s along with truly miraculous economic development, the average number of kids per family dropped to 4 kids, then to 2 kids during the 80s. As part of the campaign, the posters below were distributed by the Ministry of Welfare and Korea Family Planning Association. The top one says, “Let’s have only two kids whether sons or daughters,” while the bottom one says, “Even two are too many.” Obviously they did not foresee the problems that the future would face while there are too few kids around to support the national economy.

Source and more information: http://www.prb.org/Articles/2010/koreafertility.aspx

I don’t feel that the campaigns were incorrect, and they were necessary moves at the time to lift the country out of poverty (and for the population of developing countries, I believe that encouraging fewer kids while promoting proper nutrition and education is a key development strategy). Korea then and Korea today have completely different economic situations and needs, and I believe that developing countries should actively participate in lowering birthrates.

However, South Korea’s policy did not consider the potential sex-ratio imbalance, as people still had strong preference for sons over daughters. Girl children were often aborted illegally (abortion has been illegal in Korea), and it caused sex-ratio at birth of 108, meaning 108 boys for every 100 girls (in 2005), according to a UNFPA report. Although the son preference has been reduced (and nowadays, there’s actually a general sentiment towards daughter preference) and the ratio is more or less normalized (around 105:100, which is considered almost “normal”), there is a whole policy challenge regarding marriage migration (i.e. “importing” wives from other countries —a new form of mail-order brides– mainly from China, Viet Nam, and the Philippines, but not limited to) and increasing number of multicultural families. The trend is a challenge for welfare and education policies among others, while Korea has been a relatively homogeneous country for many years. This policy showed the necessity of considering human behaviors and cultures into the policy, while cultural and social norms greatly influence people’s behavior reacting to policies.

Why are family policies not working today?

So back to the question of why South Koreans do not have enough children…

Firstly, I believe that the policy makers’ perspectives are starting out on a wrong foot. To me, many policy makers on families, children and women (which all fall under the vague category of welfare policy) have been asking the wrong questions. They have been asking, “Why are women not having kids?” But you all know very well that it takes two to have a child. Such a question inherently blames only women for not being married and pursuing other goals in lives, stigmatizing women for “going against the nature.” Well, it might not be so surprising that such policy question is asked, because the entire policy framework regarding this issue is constructed under patriarchal assumptions just like many other policies. I am aware that women are also parts of the policy formation, but one’s sex has nothing to do with the role that one chooses to play, even in policy world. As long as birthrate is considered primarily “women’s issue,” or women’s issues are considered the same thing as family issues, further policy discussions would not make much progress.

In addition, there’s a problem in considering population simply as numerical values, not humans. As seen in Korea’s two-child policy, the government did not necessarily consider the cultural preference of having son, and that those sons may not end up with partners because there are simply too many men compared to the number of women (potential marriage partners). It seems that the sustainability of family units was never a big question to the policy makers. The campaign did not penetrate well enough to change a certain culture and behaviors that are discriminatory and sexist against female children. Part of the reasons is that policies are quite politicized and the policy makers have to implement those policies that would bring the most bangs for the buck they spend within the fiscal year or until the next elections. When the discussion of having children and raising them is only focusing on the economic impact and numbers, such as potential “units” who will participate in economic activities and the number of tax payers, we dehumanize the meaning of family and bring further challenges throughout the implementation of policies. Women’s bodies are only valuable because of their reproductive organs and their “natural roles” as the caretakers. Children are only future workers and tax payers. Men are a small part of reproduction and breadwinners. The gender role assumptions are quite stark in policymaking while humans become simple units of a country, no?

Part 2 will continue tomorrow (when I can think and breathe better). I will write about what the actual problems are in birthing and raising children in South Korea.