Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Strong Women of Jeju Island

This traditional Korean statue of a Jeju Island woman collecting water
also has working water spigots in this sculpture garden.
This summer, I travelled to South Korea with my daughter. Our guide (and Taekwondo instructor!) had the clever foresight to make Jeju Island our first stop. Located 130 km from South Korea's southern coast, the island is the country's largest island, smallest province and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It's perfect for relaxing when you need to readjust your internal clock. We were a few of the 9,000,000 tourists per year who visit this beautiful volcanic island. Geology aside, I found another aspect of the island's reputation to be particularly fascinating. You see, Jeju Island is known for the strength of it's women...leading to the nickname: "The Women's Island."

Wow! Who knew a place like that would exist in a country that struggles in regard to the status of women (particularly in business and politics)? Yet here is a pocket within Korean culture where the strength of women has openly celebrated for generations. On Jeju, women have long been a majority population and held economic power. An article from explains:
"Historically, Jeju has been known as an “island of women” as females outnumbered males, worked alongside men in both agrarian and marine labor, and typically had economic control in their families. Under the rule of the Joseon Dynasty, which exalted Confucianism and firmly elevated men over women, the birth of a daughter was nevertheless a happy occasion in Jeju's coastal villages as she could become a “haenyeo” (diving woman) and thus earn money for her family."
A picture of mannequins in a museum since I was too far away
to get a good shot of the real women doing the real job.
Diving women? Yeah! For centuries, women on Jeju Island called "Haenyeo" have supported their families by harvesting conch, abalone, octopus, and other creatures by hand from the ocean floor. They are a symbol of female independence and strength.

Even today, you can see them diving using no breathing equipment even though they are down for around two minutes as deep as 10 meters underwater.  They dive with masks and lead weights (to make them sink faster) and a round flotation device to hold a net for the harvest. 

It's dangerous work. Between 2009-2014, 40 diving women died. According to the New York Times, the number of these "sea amazons" has dwindled to about 4500 from 26,000 in the 1960's with 84% of them 60 year old or older. Nowadays, younger women on Jeju Island prefer to work in hotels or rental car agencies for the tourism industry, but that wasn't available to their grandmothers. Diving offered the women respect and economic freedom to decide where family income was spent. Talk about a working mom!
A mannequin in a museum models the traditional dress of a
woman carrying water.
At first glance, the independence of the Jeju women sounded great to me, but further research revealed that things weren't quite so rosy. There is a local saying - "Better to be born a cow than a woman" - that speaks to the rough and physically grueling life they lived. Even if a woman was out of the water, she still couldn't escape the same job held by millions upon millions of girls and women since the beginning of time...hauling drinking water.

The real deal. These ladies in the photo aren't models!

Before running water was available, islanders obtained drinking water from rain or coastal springs. Women carried water on their backs using earthenware jars strapped in bamboo baskets. Until the 1960's, water in mid-mountain villages (where the water supply was scarce) was collected by girdling a large tree with a belt fashioned of grass, which led the water flowing down the trunk into a jar. 

This image is so important to the culture that stone statues around the island recall the strength of the women who carried the life-sustaining water on their backs for years. My daughter got to try carrying one of the traditional jars herself. She says the jug itself was pretty heavy even when it was completely empty...and she is a strong Taekwondo black belt herself!

My daughter tries out a water jug her size. 

I'm glad I got a chance to learn about the Jeju women alongside my girl. It helped give us a historical perspective of women in a small community within a country we hadn't visited before. 

Gender equality is #5 on the list of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. We simply cannot end poverty without it. Because the basis of so many economies lies on the backs of so impoverished women, we owe it to ourselves to learn about gender roles around the world and support organizations and policies that help women lift themselves and their families up on a path to independence and respect. 

Here are just a few ways to be part of the solution:
  1. Join or donate to BRAC: BRAC takes a holistic approach to ending poverty in several ways including: microfinance, education, healthcare, gender justice and empowerment. They give women the tools they need to take control of their own lives. 
  2. Join or donate to Girl Rising: Girl Rising uses storytelling to inspire action that gets girls into classrooms worldwide. Watch a film on their website and tell your community about why girls' education matters. Sign up to be informed about advocacy actions you can take to help.
  3. Donate to helps bring clean drinking water to communities so that valuable time and energy is not lost when women and girls haul water for their families' daily use. Donating to them provides water infrastructure and supports the advocacy they do as an organization (although I don't think they have an action alert system for citizens to advocate)