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Forum questions future of Gender Equality Ministry

Forum attendees pose for photo at the conference room at the National Assembly building on Tuesday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Forum attendees pose for photo at the conference room at the National Assembly building on Tuesday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

A forum held Tuesday by the office of Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, a four-term lawmaker of the main conservative People Power Party, discussed the future of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which the incoming administration has vowed to do away with.

The party’s President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol plans to abolish the ministry, which was among his key election campaign pledges.

In an opening address, Yoon accused the ministry of “aligning with the administration in power, rather than standing up for women and protecting.”

Under the Moon Jae-in administration, the ministry had been silent in the face of sexual misconduct allegations of Moon officials, he said. In particular, he cited the case of ex-Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon who was found dead in July 2020 a day after his secretary filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.

“The ministry’s apparent inability to protect women in the scandals involving powerful figures led to the discussion we’re having,” he said.

He said abolishing the ministry did not mean that its responsibilities will not be served in the government. Its responsibilities will continue to be a focus in a committee or a new ministry dedicated to youth and family, he said.

Speaking at the forum, Hong Sung-gul, a professor of public administration at Kookmin University, called for better alternatives to replace the ministry.

This year’s annual budget for the Gender Equality Ministry is a mere 1.4 trillion won ($1.15 billion), which compares with the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s 62.7 trillion won. The budget allocated for the entire Gender Equality Ministry is comparable to that of another ministry’s long-term project, he explained.

“I may not be an expert in gender equality policies, but as a public administration scholar, the scale of the budget tells me there does not have to be an independent, Cabinet-level department for women’s affairs or gender equality.”

Hong said the Gender Equality Ministry deserves credit for bringing about systemic changes to improve the status of women in society over the past two decades.

“Ironically because of these successes, the ministry has little purpose today. Its work is done,” he said.

“The landscape has changed significantly over the years. Twenty or 30 years ago, women rarely had a place in higher education or high-paying jobs. It was not even a glass ceiling -- it was a hard rock ceiling. That is no longer true today.”

He said that instead “conflict between men and women, and radical feminism” were translating to sliding birth rates. “You could say our country is on the verge of extinction.”

Lee Soo-jung, a forensic psychologist who was formerly an adviser for the People Power Party’s presidential election campaign, agreed that the ministry had made numerous achievements, which is “precisely why its continued existence seems questionable.”

“We’ve come far as a society in terms of gender parity,” she said. “Improving women’s rights only or overcoming patriarchy should no longer be the direction our government takes. As a woman I question the validity of such policy directions when Korea is already one of the more gender-equal countries in Asia.”

She said the presidential election race was “marred by hateful rhetoric of both men-hating and women-hating.”

“Without overcoming this division our future is dark,” she said.

Over the pandemic, suicide rates among young women in their 20s and 30s “have shot up disproportionately,” she said.

“In order to prosper as a country, we need to recognize the value of femininity. Femininity has a quality of caring, which can be utilized as valuable resources to heal the country.”

The calls for removing the Gender Equality Ministry are nothing new, according to Lee Boksil, who served as vice gender equality minister in 2014. First set up in 2001 under the liberal Roh Moo-hyun presidency, the ministry has faced similar questions surrounding its legitimacy every time a new administration takes office, she said.

But a series of events that took place in recent years -- from sexual misconduct of top political figures to high-profile sexual assaults and murders of women -- led to an escalation of conflict between men and women, she said.

“And political blocs have used the tactic of division to advance their goals,” she said.

She said it was “hard to ignore the sheer incompetence of Moon administration’s Gender Equality Ministry, which silently stood by as ruling party politicians attacked women who raised sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men in office.”

The ministry responded with “at best what can only be an insufficient denouncement,” she said.

However, a lot of criticisms against the ministry were “rooted in misunderstanding, which is also a failure of effective policy communication on the ministry’s part,” she said.

She said, for instance, no Cabinet office, including the Gender Equality Ministry, has instituted quotas for women. Women quotas existed in politics, to increase representation of women in the National Assembly.

“We have affirmative action, not quotas, for giving both men and women equal opportunities. Men have been the greater beneficiaries in civil service employment,” she said.

“The ministry’s efforts for greater equality benefit all of us.”

Some of the ministry’s key achievements include the launch of the equal employment opportunity act; establishment of a legal basis to prosecute sexual violence offenses ex officio; coordination of response to sexual exploitation and abuse in cyberspace; and the abolition of the patriarchal family registry system called “hojeok.”

By Kim Arin (