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Ninety days for mothers

· Lee Mi-Kyung is the parliamentarian who has fought the hardest for the rights of Korean women in the past 30 years ·

“I was only baptized in 1995 but I come from a Protestant family”, says Lee Mi-Kyung who – like many Koreans – became a Catholic after a critical phase in her life.

Lee Mi-Kyung is the woman parliamentarian who has fought the hardest for the rights of Korean women in the past 30 years. It was she who, in January 1992, instigated a series of demonstrations for the rights of Korean women, reduced to sexual slaves during the Second World War.

For decades Lee Mi-Kyung fought for women’s rights. “The Korean Women’s Association United, the movement I founded, is concerned with the emancipation of women and with equal rights between men and women. It also attempts to uproot prostitution in Korea and to prevent the traffic in sexually exploited women. The movement came into being when, after the rapid spread of industrialization, many women moved from the countryside to cities in order to work in factories. This decision improved their living standard but, since they were solely women who came from rural backgrounds, the urban context, totally unknown to them, made them easy victims of abuse and harassment, also on the part of those who provided them with work. There was no law and no trade union to protect them. Together with other women I organized the first trade unions and taught them their rights”.

For example, “we made sure that the pregnant workers were not fired. We sought volunteers who would care for their children in working hours. We studied laws to punish the abuse of women more severely, to create the conditions for teaching women workers how to defend themselves from violence and how to prevent assaults. We created groups of volunteers to support the victims of sexual violence perpetrated at work. If today all State employees in Korea must attend classes on the prevention of violence in the work place, it is thanks to the battles we waged”.

And when, in 1996, “I entered politics, I brought to parliament all my experience on women’s rights. I worked to reinforce legislation that concerned the protection of motherhood, for example, by means of the law that extended maternity leave by 30 days, so that today it consists of a total of 90 days”.

There’s a famous photo that portrays her in the parliament hall, it was taken in 1999. She was the only one in her party who voted for support of the United Nations resolution to send a peacekeeping force to East Timor. “Violence burst out there after the referendum which sanctioned its independence from Indonesia. It is estimated that about 1,500 civilians died because of the violence that followed the popular consultation. A United Nations force, known as INTERFET, was deployed to re-established public order and to keep the peace. My party at the time opposed the sending of peacekeeping forces because in Indonesia then there were many Korean communities that had various economic interests in the country and we didn’t want to damage them. However – partly thanks to my previous battles for the rights of minorities – I had various contacts with the refugees from East Timor and I listened to their accounts of bullying”.

Korean women, Lee Mi-Kyung, explains, “still today receive a salary that corresponds to 70 per cent of the salary that men earn, and only half the number of women graduates have a job. Competition at work is very tough and when a woman leaves after becoming pregnant she often never works again. This is because there are so many others of the new generations ready to replace her and, of course, this certainly helps to foster the large number of abortions we have in our country. It is only the “lucky” women, that is, those who find a husband with a decent salary, who can allow themselves to stay at home and be housewives”.

And, Lee Mi-Kyung continues, “the very policy of Child Care has not been developed much; very expensive private institutions exist, whereas the public institutions are far from adequate; these are now the political goals to be pursued if we are to hope for an improvement in the plight of women in Korea”. 

Cristian Martini Grimaldi

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