Sat, Oct 25, 2003 - Page 9 News List

South Korean women campaign against legal discrimination

By Cho Mee-young  /  REUTERS , SEOUL

Kim Min-hee, a 31-year-old working mother, never thought about South Korean family law until she decided to end her seven-year marriage.

Having fled with her two sons from a violent husband, Kim -- not her real name -- wants to change a decades-old law to give her children equal rights.

"After the divorce, my sons and I will not be in the same family legally. Even though I am allowed to raise them, we are considered to be just living together in a house," Kim said at a rally in Seoul against the ho-ju system.

Ho-ju literally means "head of the family" or "household."

In practice, it defines family structure through male lines, giving men privileges as well as disadvantaging women, notably in divorce. The country has one of the highest divorce rates.

The law emerged under Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century. Hitherto, Koreans had defined family structure through male and female lines.

For more than 40 years, opponents of ho-ju have said South Korea is one of the few countries to discriminate against women in this way.

President Roh Moo-hyun, a former human rights lawyer, promised in last year's election campaign to abolish ho-ju, but traditionalists oppose this.

When a couple marries, the government registers them as one family. The groom becomes the bride's new ho-ju, or household head, instead of her father.

The bride keeps her father's family name, but the lack of a smile on a bride's face symbolizes the switch in loyalty.

If the husband dies, the next ho-ju is their son and then any grandson. Inheritance is divided equally, regardless of gender.

But in divorce, the woman is removed from her husband's family records. Children from the marriage remain firmly in those records -- even if they live with the mother.

That makes it hard for the mother to prove her relationship to her offspring, complicating health insurance and foreign visa applications. The child keeps the father's name.

"What if I remarry? My sons will carry a different last name from my new spouse," Kim said, wearing sunglasses and with "No ho-ju!" painted on her face.


The justice and gender equality ministries seek to realize Roh's promise by proposing a revised family law, although it could be delayed because vote-conscious parliamentarians face a general election in April.

"The existing family law does not reflect various types of families with single parents, divorced parents and those living alone," Justice Minister Kang Kum-sil told a public hearing.

South Korea has the second- highest divorce rate among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, behind the US. There were three divorces for every 1,000 South Koreans last year against 4.2 in the US.

Women's associations have their own proposal, which parliament will soon review, along with the government's.

"Once the committee approves either of the proposals, it will be approved without much difficulty in the plenary session," said Lee Mi-kyung, an assemblywoman of the ruling party.

A key difference between the proposals is on the family name, which comes first; Roh is the president's family name.

The government suggests families should use the father's family name for a child except for those who agree to use the mother's. Women's associations say the name should be decided after parental discussion. If that fails, a court would rule.

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