The Korea Herald
June 6, 2007
Since monarchical rule centuries ago, Koreans have lived under the patriarchal "hoju" or family head system. Family registers have been compiled on the basis of the father-to-first son lineage and daughters and younger sons are separated from the family line upon marriage.
These documents, called "hojeok," which record marriages, births, deaths, adoptions and divorces taking place in the family have defined every citizen’s origin and status in this homogenous, male-dominated society. Beginning on Jan.1, 2008, hojeok will no longer be in public use, replaced by "individual family records."
By the end of the year, government computers will rearrange hojeok data under individual entries so each item will contain the names of the nuclear family plus those of the couple’s parents only. A more important change will be that a new couple can decide to give their future offspring the mother’s family name and specify so upon their marriage registration. A woman can change the name of her children from her previous marriage to that of her present husband. Adopted children are to be given exactly the same rights as children from the marriage.
All these changes mean a departure from the tradition of the rigid family head system and also reflect a significant rise in the legal status of women under a new family law enacted in accordance with a Constitutional Court decision in 2005. The top court nullified the Civil Code provision that children should take their father’s family name in response to a petition from a coalition of some 130 feminist organizations.
For decades, women’s rights advocates had fought for the abolition of the "hoju" system which they determined as the fundamental device being used to keep women under male dominance. First, they attaned the goal of equal rights between male and female children in property inheritance, and then they campaigned against the male family head system. Protests from traditionalists, including Confucian scholars, were strong, but they could not resist the changes in social concepts for too long.
A full 50 years have passed since the Legal Aid Center for Women started the campaign for family law revision, and the women’s movement in Korea has arrived at a milestone with the establishment of the new family registration system, including flexibility in naming children. Feminist endeavors to remove discriminatory legal provisions and public systems can be encouraged in the days ahead with the voices of women rising in various walks of life, particularly in the legal professions and political arena.
Yet, now is also time for the leaders of women’s groups to take a fresh look at the goals of their movements. The peculiar situation in Korea requires women to exert their social improvement efforts in two directions: they need to continue to fight against disadvantages in the workplace, in pay, promotions, and assignments on one hand, while, on the other, they should play a more active role in protecting family values in our homes, which are being threatened by steep changes in social trends as seen in a low birthrate, a high divorce rate and even the rising incidence of suicide, all registering record numbers by global standards.
Women still are definitely the weaker side in society, but mothers are also the strongest members of families. As changes in laws and systems reduce impediments to their activities, they are entrusted with better care for their families through the right education of children and good management of homes.