South Korea tried to end 2016 with a bang. In late December, the South Korean government rolled out an interactive birth map. The map ranked which towns and cities had the most childbearing women.
The country has one of the world’s lowest birthrates. Local officials have spent years trying to encourage women to have babies. They have offered expanded maternity leave policies, cash allowances and other necessities.
The South Korean government sought to create competition among cities, via the map, to increase the birthrate. The map used shades of pink to rank cities by the number of women of childbearing age. Dark pink denoted regions with a higher number of women of childbearing age. The color was lightened for regions of the country with a smaller number of the women. The map featured data primarily about women ages 15-49.
The government shut down the website the same day because the reaction to the map was so negative. Angry bloggers and social media commentators poked fun at the intent, asking if the website was intending to compare women to livestock. Critics pointed out that the map seemed to have been intended to shame women into having more children. Last week, a notice on the website said it was undergoing maintenance to reflect corrections.
In 1960, South Korea’s birthrate was as high as six babies per woman. Recently, the birthrate has hovered around 1.2 per woman. More and more women have moved into the job market, due to the increased standard of living in the country. Once they establish careers, they have to grapple with the age-old question: how do I balance my career with raising a family?
Like in the United States and worldwide, finding affordable, decent childcare can be difficult. The South Korean government is trying to build more day care centers to cope with the demand.
Societal pressures feed into the problem as well, and not just in South Korea. The balance of work and family life has been an issue for decades, but women around the world are bearing the brunt of the pressure.
What does this map, and the subsequent uproar, mean for girls in South Korea and girls around the world? In recent years, we have made real progress in terms of education, political involvement and activism among women and girls around the world. However, there is still much work to be done to achieve gender equality.
While the South Korean government may have meant well in regards to the map, it will not solve any of the complex issues that South Korean women face. The country needs to enact legislation and create policies that directly benefit women and girls.
Comprehensive family leave policies and affordable childcare are just two of the many options that would help make women’s lives less stressful. These policies in turn would hopefully lead to a societal shift in the future where the childbearing status of women and girls is not up for discussion. Every woman should be able to make the choice to have a child for herself. Girls should not grow up thinking that things like these birth maps are okay. Governments have no right to determine women’s reproductive rights.
My hope is that the South Korean government, and all governments, will learn from the map mistake and focus their energy on policies that will make a positive difference in the lives of women and girls.
Girl Museum Inc.