Women’s Empowerment: Jeju-style, Part 1

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I’d like to talk to you about Women’s Empowerment Principles, within the context of culture.

Women’s Empowerment Principles, known as WEP, were co-created by two United Nations organizations: UN Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM; and, UN Global Compact.

UN Global Compact is a strategic policy initiative for businesses around the world which base their economic principles on universally accepted standards of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption.

UNIFEM is now a part of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, known as UN Women. The six focus areas of UN Women include prevention of violence against women, peace and security issues, leadership and participation, national planning and budgeting, economic empowerment, and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

The WEP were launched in March of 2010 on International Women’s Day, for the purpose of achieving economic equality for women across the globe. They are based on an earlier version known as the Calvert Women’s Principles, developed in 2004.

Many women’s organizations around the world have adopted these principles. One such example is Business and Professional Women International, known as BPW, an NGO which began in 1930 and now has member groups in 80 countries on 5 continents.

The 7 Women’s Empowerment Principles are:

  1. Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality;
  2. Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination;
  3. Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women and men workers;
  4. Promote education, training, and professional development for women;
  5. Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women;
  6. Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy;
  7. Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.

These 7 empowerment principles, however, while designed to be globally applicable, cannot simply be applied as is to each cultural setting. It’s imperative that they be made as culturally relevant as possible in order to achieve maximum success in outcome.

The principles can serve as goals. The objectives – the steps taken to achieve each of these goals – can and must differ from one location to the next.

Thus, as a so-called “western woman” living in Asia, as a professional with a keen interest in culture and how it affects the individual and societal psyche, I would ask each of you: when contemplating how best to achieve these very worthy goals in your country: how can you work within your own cultural matrix in order to effect change?


Jeju women have a longstanding reputation of strength. “The Strong Jeju Woman” is legendary. Feminists in Korea’s mainland point to Jeju women as an example of indigenous feminism. Words like “matriarchy” and “amazonian” have been frequently – if erroneously – employed.

On Jeju, scholars, feminists, and professional women question this identification somewhat.

It’s surely true that the women of this island – and, without a doubt, those of many societies that have endured hardship – share qualities of diligence, fortitude, and courage.

It’s also true that, within the societies of Jeju’s famed diving women, highly structured economic cooperatives and collaborative labor practices have long existed, and women have historically been the backbone of Jeju’s economy.

Thus, Jeju women value independence, individualism, strong will and a certain freedom of thought in ways that differ from their mainland counterparts.

As an example, Jeju women grow up expecting to work – and state that they feel they would be a disappointment to their parents, grandparents, and in-laws, if they did not. They also typically continue working well into their elder years. This is a marked cultural distinction from peninsular Korea.

Women within Korean society, and certainly in Jeju, also wield a great deal of power in matters of the household.

And so, to an outsider, this can look like economic equality. The diving women once represented a primary occupation of Jeju, their history stretching back approximately 2000 years. While it is very difficult and dangerous work, these women of Jeju nevertheless have historically enjoyed a good deal of economic equality and even superiority to men.

This, however, does not represent true equality.

Aside from the labor collectives, Jeju women have not yet attained substantial positions of leadership within the society. Indeed, even within those collectives known as “eochongye” which govern the work of fishermen and diving women and typically have more female than male members, fewer than 20% of the top leaders are female.

In Jeju society, there are also comparatively few female CEOs or top-level managers in corporations. In the several hundred villages throughout Jeju Island, women are also not made chiefs of the village councils.

In government, there are very few females in management positions. And no woman has ever actually been elected to public office, though Jeju legislation now provides for the appointment of five women to the Provincial Council.

Further, although Jeju women have historically contributed strongly to the economy of Jeju, today women throughout Korea are ranked in last position of OECD member nations for the status of women in business, in categories of gender-based wage gap, employment of women, and senior management positions held by women.

According to recent surveys, Jeju is ranked first for the greatest wage gap between men and women among Korea’s 16 provinces, and 10th for the percentage of women in council or public administration.

Therefore, even for such strong women, there is still a great deal of progress to be made before it can be said that any true measure of equality and economic sustainability has been achieved. In actuality, as Jeju’s economy has shifted away from agriculture and fishery to one of tourism and industry, the economic power of Jeju women has diminished.

In the past two years, according to regional statistics, the percentage of Jeju women in the workforce has actually decreased.

And the daughters, the next generation of Jeju women? As the element of hardship and adversity decreases in this increasingly affluent and modernized, technologically driven society, mothers express concern that their daughters want easy lives and lack the strength of their forebears.

(Part 2 to follow.)

Filed under: Culture(s), East Asian Philosophy, Environment / Ecology, Health and Well-being, Jeju Island, Presentations given by Dr Hilty, Women’s Issues

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