Women’s Empowerment: Jeju-style, Part 2

(For Part 1, see previous post.)

There are several dominant influences in Jeju society which must be considered in order to achieve true empowerment for Jeju women: Goddess mythology, Shamanism, Neo-Confucianism, collective labor practices, invasions and assaults, poverty and recent affluence.

The first consideration is the conflict between the relatively recent emphasis on a Neo-Confucian, patriarchal social structure and a much older heritage of Goddess mythology and shamanic practices. The latter, coupled with the labor tradition of the diving women, had once resulted in an egalitarian and even matrifocal traditional culture.

Jeju Island’s creation myth is that of a giant goddess, the grandmother of all, Seolmundae Halmang. Numerous other goddesses can be found in the mythology of Jeju’s traditional culture, indicating the psychological underpinnings of the Jeju woman’s strength.

In the Neo-Confucianism that took particular stronghold in Korea approximately 5 centuries ago, and on Jeju more recently, the woman is relegated to a secondary role in the society. The hierarchy of this social structure also carries over into the workplace, which keeps working women at an artificially lower status.

On the positive side, Confucian ideals support lifelong education, something valued quite highly throughout Korean society.

Communal labor methods in the villages, a requirement for survival in this once harsh landscape and climate, represent a second consideration. A variety of practices such as anchovy harvesting, fishing and diving, farming, millstone grinding, and more resulted in strong community bonds and required women to work side-by-side with men. With modern technology and the decrease in these practices, there is far less need for communal labor and economic cooperatives, though the legacy remains.

Korea’s emphasis on militarism since the war of the mid-20th century, coupled with Jeju’s multiple historic assaults including mass executions in 1948~53 by Korean military forces, have exaggerated the insularity of this island community. It is valid to say that Jeju’s society is inwardly focused, somewhat resistant to outside influence, and self-reliant as a result. A powerful commitment to peace and human rights initiatives has also emerged.

In Korea, including Jeju, corporations and government are typically modeled after the military system to which all young men are conscripted and of which women for the most part have no knowledge or experience – a distinct disadvantage for women in the workplace.

Finally, Jeju has historically been an impoverished island, largely as a result of its isolation and harsh climate. In modern times, due to both industrial and technological advances as well as a shifting economic focus, this is no longer the case. The conflict between poverty consciousness and frugality versus relative affluence and comfort is another factor for consideration.


Several initiatives are underway to improve the status of Jeju women.

A women’s special committee has existed in Jeju government for several years. Since 2006, when Jeju became a more self-governing region, women have been appointed to five council seats out of the 44 in total. Recently, a women’s special committee has also been formed within the council. The Seolmundae Women’s Center, named for the island’s creator goddess, is a government-sponsored facility.

Jeju has a longstanding NGO women’s association which focuses on policy, and another which provides shelter and counseling to women in need. There is a center for single mothers with multiple supportive features. A branch of the YWCA provides many programs for women; a variety of private women’s organizations also exists, including a branch of BPW which places emphasis on the Women’s Empowerment Principles as designed by the UN.

One exciting new government initiative, the Jeju Women’s Governance Forum, includes members from a variety of sectors and is focused on education, research, networking, and policy determination.


(Part 3 to follow.)

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