Creative Writing – 158
Study the BBC article and answer the comprehension questions underneath
As South Korea abolishes its gender ministry, women fight back
When Yuna turned up for her first day at work, as a clerk at a major bank, she was not expecting the tasks she would be assigned. First was to make lunch for her team. Later, she was ordered to take the hand towels from the men’s toilet home and wash them. These jobs fell to her, she was told, as the newest female member of staff.
At first she politely refused. Could the men not take their own towels home to wash, she asked her boss, but he replied incredulously: “How can you expect men to wash towels?”
“He got very angry, and I realised that if I continued to fight this, the harassment would get worse, so I started washing the towels,” Yuna says. But because she had complained, she was marked.
As she wanders through the dark alleys of her local food market, dressed in a black baseball cap, oversized jeans, and a T-shirt, she tries to disguise herself as she recounts her experience. This is a small town, and she has done something she could have been fired for. She filmed everything and reported the bank to the government, to be investigated.
What tipped her over the edge was not just the abuse, which grew steadily worse, but the lack of support from her female colleagues – those in their 20s, like her.
“It’s like this everywhere, don’t make a fuss,” they had pleaded.
Yuna filmed herself making lunch for her colleagues and reported her workplace to the government.
South Korea may have blossomed into a cultural and technological powerhouse, but in its rapid transformation into one of the richest countries in the world, women have been left trailing. They are paid on average a third less than men, giving South Korea the worst gender pay gap of any rich country in the world. Men dominate politics and boardrooms. Currently, women hold just 5.8% of the executive positions in South Korea’s publicly listed companies. They are still expected to take on most of the housework and childcare.
To this can be added a pervasive culture of sexual harassment. The booming tech industry has contributed to an explosion of digital sex crimes, where women are filmed by tiny hidden cameras as they use the toilet or undress in changing rooms.
But instead of promising to fix these problems, South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol has said structural sexism is “a thing of the past”. He was propelled to power by young men who claim that attempts to reduce inequality mean they have become victims of reverse discrimination.
Upon entering office, President Yoon scrapped government gender quotas, declaring people would be hired on merit, not sex. He appointed just three women to his 19-member cabinet. He is now trying to abolish the government’s Gender Equality Ministry, which supports women and victims of sexual assault, claiming it is obsolete. More than 800 organisations have come together to protest against the closure, arguing it could have a damaging impact on women’s lives.
Some young men in South Korea say they are victims of reverse discrimination
Hoping to fight this was 28-year-old Park Ji-hyun, a women’s rights campaigner, who, following the divisive election, was asked to lead the liberal opposition party. The party told her they needed her help to reform politics and represent young women. And so, despite having never been a politician, she agreed.
But just six months later, when we meet at a café on the outskirts of Seoul, she is no longer in post. She has had to leave her home because her address was leaked, and she was receiving so many death threats. The ones that stick with her, she says, are from the people who threaten to feed her acid or pour it in her face. It has been the hardest six months of her life, she admits, after experiencing first-hand the sexism and misogyny that pervades politics.
Park talks of her despair that she would be the only woman in meetings, and that when she spoke, nobody would respond. “They just ignored me, and I ended up shouting into a void,” she says. “When I wanted to discuss the economy or the environment, they would say: ‘You just focus on what you know – women’s issues and sex-crimes’. I realised I was a puppet in this position, being used to gather women’s votes.”
Park Ji-hyun says she experienced sexism when she was the co-chair of the liberal opposition party.
Park made her name as a student journalist, when she uncovered an online sex ring, where young teenagers were being blackmailed into filming themselves performing sexual and degrading acts. The ringleaders were sent to prison as a result of her investigation.
Online sexual assault and harassment is increasingly widespread. Last year, 11,568 cases of digital sex crimes were reported, up 82% from the year before. Many involved the use of hidden spy-cameras. Women in South Korea speak of being too scared to go to the toilet, in case they are secretly filmed and then blackmailed – or worse, the footage is released, and their lives destroyed. One compared the fear to what women in other countries must feel when walking home late at night.
But when Park pushed to investigate allegations of sexual assault within her party, she was labelled a troublemaker, and after poor local election results she was pushed aside.
As we are talking, a waitress brings over a large plate of cakes, on the house. “Thank you for fighting for us,” she says. Embarrassed, Park laughs: “This has never happened before.” During her short time in politics, she became an icon for young women who felt they’d had no-one to represent them.
In 2018, South Korea spawned Asia’s first and most successful #MeToo movement. But in its wake, a wave of anti-feminism coursed through the country, fuelled by young men who were concerned that, in their hyper-competitive society, women were gaining the upper hand. They take issue with having to complete compulsory military service, which stops them from working for up to two years. They have succeeded in turning feminism into a dirty word, with some women now embarrassed, or even afraid, to use it. But more significantly they got the president to respond to their rallying cries.
“Women have been deprived of their rights in the past, but a lot has been resolved,” says 37-year-old Lee Jun-seok, whose idea it was to close the gender equality ministry. He led the winning party into the election, helping it attract young, male votes. “Gender equality has entered a new phase. We need a new system that looks beyond feminism and focuses on the rights of all minorities.”
The ministry currently accounts for just 0.2% of the government’s budget but women say it has made a concrete difference to their lives. Since it was established more than 20 years ago it has supported the victims of hidden spy-cams and women who have been fired after getting pregnant, and secured more generous child support payments for single mothers.
Ana hasn’t been able to sleep properly since she heard about the ministry’s abolition. She credits it with saving her life. From a safe house, she recounts – in a voice so quiet it is almost inaudible – how she was failed by everyone in her life she trusted to protect her. Six years ago, she was raped by her college professor. When she called her father to tell him, he hung up the phone. She had brought the family shame, he told her.
Only after the #MeToo movement did Ana find the strength to seek help. She went to a support centre for victims of crime, but they wanted evidence before agreeing to help her. She made her case to the doctor, who told her she was delusional and denied the support.
“It was heartbreaking. I couldn’t understand how a doctor running a support centre wouldn’t help me,” she says. “I felt like I was trapped in a dark room with no exit.” A few months later she tried to kill herself.
Ana was raped six years ago and says the gender equality ministry saved her life
Then the gender equality ministry stepped in. They found her a place in the safe house, provided counselling and helped Ana to pursue a successful prosecution. Her professor was sent to jail. This hasn’t stopped the flashbacks and nightmares, but – as she describes it – she has been resuscitated.
“I have received more help from this ministry than my own family, which shares my blood,” she says, holding out her hand to touch her counsellor Nam sitting beside her. “Closing it is a dangerous idea.”
The government says the ministry’s current services will continue, but be absorbed by other departments. In October the president said this would “protect women more”, though his reasoning is unclear. The plans could still be thwarted by the liberal opposition party, which holds a majority in parliament. It has voiced concern about the impact the closure will have on the progress yet to be made for women – in the workplace and at home.
South Korea’s society and job market are structured in a way that perpetuates its gender pay gap. Women struggle to re-enter the competitive workforce after leaving to have children. They often end up taking on unstable, poorly paid contract work, which can be juggled around childcare.
This was the case for 50-year-old Shin Hyung-jung, who used to work as an administrator at a school. The school expected her to work on Saturdays, but didn’t open their kindergarten then, meaning she had nowhere to leave her daughter. Her husband wouldn’t look after the baby, so she had to quit.
“He’s a typical patriarchal man, he does nothing to help,” she laughs. I ask why she is laughing. “Because it’s ridiculous, I’m dumbfounded.” For the past 20 years she has instead worked maintaining electrical items, such as water purifiers and clothes steamers, in people’s homes.
Since having her daughter, Shin Hyung-jung has taken contract work fixing electrical items in people’s homes.
“It’s difficult lugging this around,” she says loading her equipment into a fancy elevator to service her third apartment of the morning. “I can be fired tomorrow morning and I’ll get nothing, and I have no pension. But at least I have been able to pick my daughter up from school.”
According to the latest government data, 46% of female workers are in non-permanent contract work, compared to just 30% of men. All but two of the employees on Shin’s team are women, who all started working for the company after having children. Two in their 30s joined this year, citing almost identical circumstances to the ones Shin experienced two decades ago.
Women who do not want to sacrifice their careers are now simply choosing not to have children. South Korea’s fertility rate (the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime) has fallen to 0.81, the lowest in the world. Its population is predicted to halve by the end of the century, meaning it may not have enough people to sustain its economy and conscript into its army.
“Without solving its gender equality problem, South Korea cannot solve its birth-rate problem,” says Jeong Hyun-baek, the gender equality minister between 2017 and 2018. “The #MeToo movement did improve the culture of sexual harassment and discrimination in workplaces, but now we need structural reform to address the pay gap and the lack of opportunities for women.” She questions how the government can fix a problem it won’t acknowledge exists.
For months I asked to interview the current Gender Equality Minister, Kim Hyun-suk, but the government declined. I later approached her at an event and asked whether she agreed with the president that structural sexism in Korea no longer existed.
“There needs to be more women in politics, particularly in leadership and we must work to close the pay gap, particularly between fulltime and contract workers,” she replied, without directly answering the question.
There are some signs equality in South Korea is improving. Earlier this year, long-time contract worker Shin successfully negotiated a wage increase through her union, after a 10-year pay freeze. It was the first time a group of part-time contract workers in her industry had won such a battle.
“I do feel like society is slowly changing, and my daughter will have a better future,” she says. “I’ve given up on my husband, but I haven’t given up on my country.”
Then last month, Yuna, the bank clerk, got a call from the government. Their investigation concluded the bank had broken the law, by committing sexual harassment and discrimination. It has been ordered to pay a fine and she is being transferred to a different branch.
The thought of returning to work is making her ill, she said when we caught up over the phone, but she is happy she reported the bank. Since doing so, other female employees have reached out with similar stories.
“I do think over the past ten years equality has improved, but this is a small city, and things are not changing here, the president is not looking deep enough”, she said, worried the recent gains could be undone.
“If this ministry disappears, what we have built could collapse”.
1. Did Yuna feel that the work she was asked to do at the bank on her first day demeaning? Why?
2. How did she react to the apparent insult heaped on her? What consequences followed her protest?
3. Did she reconcile herself to do the petty chores in the bank for her colleagues, or did she decide to protest? What did she do to seek redress from the government authorities?
4. Despite being a front-line industrial country with vast wealth, South Korea has left its women behind. What specific things you find in the above paragraph to make you think so?
5. What other types of degrading behavior from mentally sick men folk the women at job encounter?
6. Does South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol admit the gravity of the issue of women harassment? How has he reacted to the problem?
7. Who is Park Ji-hyun? How did she enter politics?
8. Why had Ms. Park to leave her political role?
9. How does Ms. Park feel while in official meetings with men in majority? Why she feels so frustrated?
1. Yuan was appointed to a whit-collared role at the bank. When she found that she was being required to do chores like cooking and taking home mens’ hand towels h for washing, she was in for a nasty surprise. She resented such instructions from her boss, because for a bank clerk doing such work in the office was obviously quite degrading.
2. She remonstrated against the roles being given to her that clearly fell outside her official duties. However, the boss showed no concern for her hurt feelings. Instead he pressed her quite sternly to comply with the instructions as it was not expected of her male colleagues to wash their hand towels themselves. Her boss’s insensitive attitude made her feel distressed.
3. She was both angry and disgruntled with the treatment meted out to her in the office. She couldn’t reconcile herself to doing the petty chores for her colleagues. She decided to seek help from the government’s gender equality department by lodging a complaint. To buttress her charges, she got herself secretly photographed doing the chores in the office and sent a petition to the department seeking suitable action in the matter.
4. Despite its impressive strides as a leading industrial power and its vast wealth, South Korea has failed to give a befitting role to its women in society. They continue to struggle under the load of patriarchy. The following data underline the way South Korean women continue to languish despite their country amassing humongous wealth and prowess.
a. For identical roles, women get one third less salary compared to their male counterparts.
b. In major South Korean companies, women occupy a miniscule 5.8% of the senior management roles. This shows how men refuse to cede space to equally meritorious women.
c. Despite holding jobs with decent incomes, women are required to do all domestic chores and rear children. The husbands conveniently shy away from such responsibilities.
d. Sexual harassment of working women is commonplace in the country. This malaise continues to plague the work environment forcing women to remain in dread in work places.
5. South Korea seems to offer a nightmarish work environment for women venturing out to take up jobs. This is manifested by the following facts.
a. Encroaching upon the privacy of women colleagues by lecherous male colleagues seems to be a common practice in work places. Ladies toilets and changing rooms are the places where spy cameras are fitted by the perverted men. The unsuspecting women victims later get the shock of their lives to find their naked bodies on display all over the internet. No government action has succeeded to curb such crimes.
b. Working women getting pregnant are unceremoniously sacked from their jobs. Later, after the baby needs no more close attention, the women report for work, but, sadly, are turned away.
c. Most inconvenient part time jobs are offered selectively to women, but they are paid 30% less wages compared to their male counterparts.
6. South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-Yeol has turned a blind eye to the problem of unfair and degrading treatment of the country’s women. He seems to gloss over the issue saying that the problem is receding in the country, and most of his youthful voters are opposed to the government taking any proactive action to speed up pro-women reforms in the society. His lackadaisical attitude has left the women angry and frustrated.
7. Park ji-hyun is a well-known campaigner for women’s rights. She was asked by the liberal opposition party to help them to reform politics and canvass for giving equal rights to women in Korean society. She accepted the role as it was in line with her cause.
8. When Ms. Park started a vigorous campaign to ensure fair treatment for women in all walks of life, some notorious men, opposed to the idea, physically and mentally intimidated her through online and offline modes. A few of these daring lawless persons visited her house and threatened her life. They told they would force acid down her throat. Such bone-chilling warnings made Ms. Park very afraid. Later, after a poor showing in the election, her party showed her the door. Thus, she had to leave politics.
9. In the official meetings, male colleagues deliberately acted as if they were not listening to her. Their body language showed their lack of interest in her talks. If she began to speak on matters relating to politics or economy, the male attendees would cut her short by asking her to limit her talk only to the item in the agenda. Such deliberate show of disinterest frustrated her.