"Women's participation in economic activities has increased, but most of the female workforce still serve as irregular, contract workers or work in businesses employing less than 10 workers. It is difficult to organize women workers within the national federation of trade unions, which focuses on unions of large corporations. The union organization rate of women workers has fallen to 5% since the financial crisis of 1997. Threatened by such trends, female labor activists have launched their own women's trade union."
This is the background to the launching of the Korean Women's Trade Union (KWTU) that declared its independence from the two national umbrella labor organizations in 1999.
KWTU President Choi Sang Rim claims, "In order to organize women workers, we need a trade union model that takes into account the needs of women workers, such as maternity protection, juggling of work and family, relationship-oriented interaction at work, and so on." The KWTU deals with issues such as irregular (casual) employment, maternity protection and sexual discrimination and violence at work, while constantly building on its vision of an alternative trade union model.
The Women's Environment Alliance (WEA) that was launched in 1999 is another organization led by women activists who have been involved in the environment movement. Women environment activists have taken issue with inconsistencies within the movement, such as men making decisions within an organization when the majority of its members are women, and organizations failing to take into account women activists' added burden of child-care and household chores.
Women environment activists have been making earnest efforts to link women and the environment, and have arrived at the conclusion that "there is a need to change the very way people view society." The WEA claims that "the crisis faced by Mother Earth and life on earth is the result of the human- and male-oriented culture of materialism." Thus WEA is a proponent of eco-feminism, through which it calls for "co-existence and mutual benefit, which are inherently feminine values." The WEA works to spread environment-friendly culture and develop feminist environment policies, while at the same time concentrating on nurturing women environmentalists and encouraging exchanges between them.
In 2001, women activists who had long been active in promoting the human rights of migrant workers founded the Human Rights Solidarity for Women and Migration in Korea. Lee Geum Yeon, a founding member who is currently working in the Jeon Jin Sang Welfare Center in Anyang, explains, "When it comes to the issue of migrant workers, people mostly talk about abolishing the industrial trainee system and about working rights in general, but seen from a women's point of view, there are a myriad of human rights issues such as sexual violence, gender discrimination, prostitution, international marriages and childcare." Adds Lee, "We felt the need for an organization that works to protect the rights of female migrant workers." The organization concentrates on resolving recently-emerged social issues such as prostitution and trafficking of women from the Philippines and Russia and family problems arising from international marriages.
Meanwhile, feminism has also born fruit in the peace movement by creating an international solidarity of women against war. The Korean Council of Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, which was launched in November 1990, started out as a nationalist movement opposing Japanese imperialism. But the movement has developed to encompass the issue of 'war and women's rights.'
Secretary-General Yoon Mi Hyang of the Council says, "Through the UN Human Rights Commission in 1992, we began to participate in the international solidarity of women peace groups opposing the violation of women's human rights by the state, such as the case of gang rape in Bosnian camps. In the process, we began to re-evaluate the issue of comfort women as 'sexual slavery.'" The Wednesday demonstration that the Council began on January 16, 1991 in front of the Japanese Embassy during the then Japanese Prime Minister Miyajawa's state visit reached its 521st week on August 14, 2002. This struggle by the former comfort women grandmas has become known as "a courageous struggle that reveals the buried history of women."
Another civic group that has taken on a new identity is the National Campaign for Eradication of Crimes by US Troops in Korea. Sparked off by the murder of the late Yoon Geum Ee by an American soldier in 1992, the organization was formed in 1993 to promote the human rights of victims of US soldiers' crimes and to call for the revision of the ROK-US Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
Jeong Yu Jin, former Secretary-General of the Campaign, says that she "awakened to feminism" while working in the organization. She recalls, "I was told that women should not get involved in national issues. There are so many women dedicated to the issue, so why must only the men lead the movement? This is the inconsistency embedded in the nationalist and ideology-oriented anti-American movement." Jeong further reveals, "I broke free of the male-oriented discourse that excludes women, children and the social weak, and began to really think about what peace means to each and every individual, including myself."
A model case of the women's local movement is the campaign by Goyang citizens against the building of one 'love hotel' after another in the city. This campaign was a grassroots movement led by the local women. The number of love hotels in Ilsan New City (in Goyang) has increased rapidly since the late 1990s, and these love hotels have become a hotbed for illicit prostitution.
It was the local women in the region who kept the flame alive in persistently opposing love hotels. Housewives diligently kept the campaign going, conducting surveys on love hotels and demonstrating in front of the Goyang City Hall almost everyday. In the end, Goyang City had to come up with measures to prevent the building of love hotels, but instead of settling for that, the residents went on to demand the withdrawal of permits for on-going construction of new love hotels and the purchase and closure of love hotels in business. The residents even launched an ingenious campaign to get each resident to buy a span of the hotel grounds. The fervor of the residents affected the local elections, and the example set by the women of Goyang City has spread the anti-love hotel campaign across the nation.
Even in the religious sector, considered a conservative sector in Korea, women believers are increasingly calling for gender equality. In 2000, eleven Catholic women groups founded the Catholic Women's Alliance (CAW) and called for a 20~30% women's quota in the ministry. In March 2001, an independent organization for women believers was established under the diocese. Women protestants formed the 'Committee to Eradicate Sexual Violence within the Church' in April 2001. Besides working to root out sexual violence in the Church, the women have taken issue with regulations prohibiting women reverends and questioned gender stereotypes in practicing the Christian faith.
In the Buddhist realm, Buddhist feminism has become a frequent debate topic since 2000. Following the founding of the Buddhist Women Development Institute, the National Center for Buddhist Nuns was completed in May this year. The Center is the fruit of 22 years of labor in the form of a campaign launched in 1980 to purchase one pyeong of land per nun. (translator's note: pyeong is a Korean unit of area, about 3.3m2) The Center is expected to lead the way in criticizing the male-dominated operation of Buddhist organizations and in "raising the status of Buddhist nuns." In November 2001, the female cleric staff of Won-Buddhism collectively refused to sign the chastity oath required of students admitted to the
Won-Buddhism School, claiming that the oath "perpetrates the ideology of chastity."
In June this year, the religions came together to launch the 'Religious Women's Alliance against the Hoju System.' The women claimed that the hoju system has nothing to do with religious doctrine, and launched a signature-collecting campaign to gain support for their opinion. In this way, the women have overcome their religious differences to stand united in the movement for gender equality.