Yoon Suk-yeol, the South Korean president, is moving ahead with a plan to scrap the country’s gender equality ministry, which he has accused of treating men like “sex criminals”.
Mr Yoon – the leader of the conservative People Power Party, who took office in May – vowed to introduce tougher penalties for false sexual assault claims during his election campaign and insisted the plan will bring about an improvement in women’s rights.
“Abolishing the gender ministry is about strengthening the protection of women, families, children and the socially weak,” he told reporters on Friday, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Mr Yoon was swept to power in May by a wave of “anti-feminist” men under the age of 30 who purport to be discriminated against. Of particular concern is the 22 months of military service that is compulsory for men, while women are exempt.
Growing education and career opportunities for women has also led to soaring levels of celibacy among young South Koreans. As a result, many young men have chosen feminism as the object of their ire.
In response to the president’s decision, more than 100 women’s rights groups signed a joint statement condemning the government for opposing gender equality and accusing it of “erasing women”.
Meanwhile, opposition Democratic Party MPs issued a statement arguing the ministry’s abolition would undermine South Korea’s commitment to gender equality. “It is time to strengthen the gender ministry’s role and function, not weaken them,” they said.
Lee Sang-min, the South Korean interior and safety minister, said in a televised briefing on Thursday that government policies on gender should aim to secure equal rights for both men and women. He criticised the current focus on inequalities facing women.
Mr Lee explained that under the government’s proposal, the gender ministry’s duties will be shifted to the health and employment ministries. He said new agency in charge of population, family and gender equality issues will be established.
The move will have to be approved by the national assembly, where the Democratic Party has a majority.
The decision is the latest escalation in an increasingly heated debate over women’s rights in the country. Last month, the government faced public outcry for not taking gender-based crimes seriously enough after a 28-year-old woman was murdered at work by a male ex-colleague.
It later emerged that her alleged attacker had been dismissed from his job after she filed multiple police complaints, accusing him of stalking her for three years, illegal filming and death threats.
While there have been modest improvements in women’s rights in recent times – including the decriminalisation of abortion in early 2021 – a government study on violence against women found last year that one in three adult females had experienced violence, with roughly half of the perpetrators being former partners or spouses of their victims.
South Korea also has the highest gender wage gap among OECD countries, with women paid on average a third less than their male counterparts.
Scrapping the ministry was one of the promises Mr Yoon made during his election campaign, in which he blamed the country’s low birth rate on feminism and claimed “structural discrimination based on gender” doesn’t exist in South Korea.
Mr Yoon’s stance has gained widespread support among young “anti-feminist” men. An exit poll, conducted by three South Korean broadcasters following election victory, found that 59 per cent of men in their twenties voted for him, compared to just 34 per cent of women.
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