South Korea: Women blamed for rising male suicides

A politician in South Korea is facing criticism for making dangerous and unsubstantiated remarks after attributing a rise in male suicides to the increasingly “dominant” role of women in society. In a report, Seoul City councillor Kim Ki-duck suggested that women’s increased participation in the workforce over the years had made it harder for men to secure jobs and find marriage partners.

He claimed that the country had recently “begun to change into a female-dominant society” and this might “partly be responsible for an increase in male suicide attempts.” South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates among wealthy nations but also one of the worst records on gender equality.

Councillor Kim’s comments have been criticized as the latest in a series of out-of-touch remarks made by male politicians. Kim, from the Democratic Party, based his conclusions on data analyzing the number of suicide attempts at bridges along Seoul’s Han River. The report, published on the city council’s official website, indicated that suicide attempts along the river had risen from 430 in 2018 to 1,035 in 2023, with the proportion of men among those attempting suicide increasing from 67% to 77%.

Suicide prevention experts have voiced concerns over Kim’s report. “It is dangerous and unwise to make claims like this without sufficient evidence,” Song In Han, a mental health professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told the media. He noted that globally, more men take their lives than women. In many countries, including the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death among men under 50.

Nevertheless, Prof Song emphasized that the reasons behind the sharp rise in male suicide attempts in Seoul needed to be scientifically studied, calling it “very regrettable” that the councillor had framed it as a gender conflict issue. In South Korea, a substantial gap exists between the number of men and women in full-time employment, with women disproportionately working temporary or part-time jobs. The gender pay gap is narrowing slowly, but women still earn on average 29% less than men.

In recent years, an anti-feminist movement has surged, led by disillusioned young men who argue they have been disadvantaged by efforts to improve women’s lives. Echoing such views, Councillor Kim’s report concluded that overcoming “the female-domination phenomenon” required raising awareness of gender equality so that “men and women can enjoy equal opportunities.”

Koreans took to social media platform X to denounce the councillor’s remarks as “unsubstantiated” and “misogynistic,” with one user questioning if they were living in a parallel universe. The Justice Party accused the councillor of “easily shifting the blame to women in Korean society who are struggling to escape gender discrimination.” They called on him to retract his remarks and instead “properly analyze” the causes of the problem.

When approached for comment by the media, Councillor Kim said he had “not intended to be critical of the female-dominated society” and was merely expressing his personal view on some of its consequences. However, his comments follow a series of unscientific and sometimes bizarre political proposals aimed at addressing some of South Korea’s most pressing social issues, including mental illness, gender violence, and the world’s lowest birth rate.

Last month, another Seoul councillor in his 60s published a series of articles on the authority’s website encouraging young women to take up gymnastics and practice pelvic floor exercises to raise the birth rate. Simultaneously, a government think tank recommended that girls start school earlier than boys so that classmates would be more attracted to each other by the time they were ready to marry.

“Such comments encapsulate just how pervasive misogyny is in South Korea,” said Yuri Kim, director of the Korean Women’s Trade Union. She accused politicians and policymakers of not even attempting to understand the challenges women face, preferring to scapegoat them instead. “Blaming women for entering the workforce will only prolong the imbalances in our society,” she told the media.

Currently, women make up 20% of South Korea’s members of parliament and 29% of all local councillors. Seoul City Council told the media there was no process in place to vet what politicians published on its official website unless the content was illegal, stating that individuals were solely responsible for their content and would face any consequences at the next election.

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