Creating a women-friendly Seoul

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The World

SEOUL — Women in Seoul may soon have the luxury of pulling into parking spots marked with bright pink lines and pink figures wearing skirts, while men are left to station themselves in dark and less convenient corners.

These pink fixtures — which are starting to pop up around the city and which most people are not aware of yet — are part of an effort to create a safer environment for women after a crime wave hit the country, as well as part of a broader movement called "Women-Friendly Seoul."

The Seoul city government has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to the four-year project to transform the city into one in which women feel "happy."

The ambitious plan encompasses a mix of cosmetic and far-reaching changes, some requiring large expenditures, others more visually startling than fiscally demanding.

It proposes to create 28,000 jobs for women who abandoned their careers because of childcare or marriage. The jobs vary from office workers to hairdressers and women can receive training at city-provided education centers.

Other aspects of the plan are geared toward making women feel comfortable in the city by renovating public restrooms, redoing sidewalks to make them "high heel suitable" and creating more nursery schools.

"By renovating public facilities to make them more women-friendly, we hope that other private companies will follow and make people think differently about women," said Han Mi-ae, a city official on the Seoul project.

But some men are not happy. And men and women alike question whether it is the best use of funds.

In a pink-lined public parking lot in the Gwangjin district of Seoul, a man stood at the back of his sport utility vehicle parked between pink lines. He said he didn’t know about the female-priority parking.

"I know what the disabled mark is. I mean that’s obvious, but I haven’t heard about this," he said when asked about the pink lines and pink figure in a skirt painted on the ground.

"If I’m forced to park on the second underground level because women have taken up the rest, I don’t really think it’s fair,” he said. “At the least, I’ll be using up more gas."

The man did not want to give his name out of fear that he might have broken the law. In fact, even though women have priority for pink slots, men are allowed to park if there are enough free spaces. Nonetheless, the manager of the parking lot said he has received a lot of complaints from male drivers.

The Gwangjin district is one of the first to implement Seoul’s new model for female parking zones. It has completed painting all public parking areas and is encouraging private establishments such as department stores to do the same.

"It’s convenient," said 46-year-old Lee Kae-sung as she squeezed out of her car parked between pink lines. "Men actually give up these spots if I don’t have a place to park."

Lee said she believes women remain at a disadvantage in Korean society and need such support.

South Korea has come a long way in recognizing equal rights for women. The country’s Confucian beliefs had previously kept women mostly at home, restricting their roles at work. Female employees were obliged to serve coffee to their superiors and to visitors in addition to their regular work.

After the democratization wave in the 1980s, women started taking an active role in society, and laws banning discrimination against women, especially at work, came into place. Ironically, things may have been easier for women back then when there was more emphasis on being independent and work schedules were less intense.

“Competition has become fiercer at work, requiring a military-like loyalty to the company, and working hours are much longer,” said anthropology professor Cho Hae Joang of Yonsei University.

She said women today appear to be less aggressive about demanding their rights, calling the current situation a "slump" for women.

“The atmosphere in society these days is to leave the existing gender roles intact and simply say women need to be protected,” Cho said.

The existence of the Ministry of Gender Equality, called the Ministry for Women in Korean, reflects the continued need to support women in the job market and elsewhere.

Roughly 54 percent of South Korean women take part in the workforce, compared to 69 percent of American women, according to 2007 statistics from the ministry.

Still, some believe the money could still be better spent.

“I know high heels can get stuck between cracks, but I still think that kind of money should go to people who really need it,” said Lee Oun-hee, a homemaker. Lee had walked out of a public restroom in a subway station with a "Seou’’s Best Toilet" plaque hanging at the entrance.

Facilities are nice to have, but backward-thinking men need to be educated, Lee said.

Another user of the restroom, 26-year-old Choun Soo-young, thought differently.

"Of course women are still discriminated against. You would think women don’t run coffee errands and things like that at work anymore. In reality, it’s not true," the office employee said.

Choun said regardless of the price tag, the project is worth it. Her logic was simple. People’s perceptions about women are not going to change overnight, so the government should at least do what it can.

"I think it’s so much better to invest in something that helps us in a practical way," she said.

Read more about the status of women around the world:

No sporting chance for Saudi women

A setback for Afghan women

Turkish women take to the soccer pitch

More GlobalPost dispatches on South Korea:

Tearful Roh forever tainted

A gift of "hope" for Obama

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