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Politicians blame women for increasing male suicides

A politician in South Korea is under fire for making dangerous and unsubstantiated comments after linking a rise in male suicides to the increasingly “dominant” role of women in society.

Seoul municipal councilor Kim Ki-duck argued in a report that women’s increased labor force participation over the years had made it harder for men to get jobs and to find women willing to marry them. He said the country had recently “started to change into a female-dominated society” and suggested that this “may be partly responsible for an increase in male suicide attempts”.

South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates among rich countries but also one of the worst records for gender equality. Councilor Kim’s comments have been criticized as the latest in a series of out-of-touch comments by male politicians.

Councilor Kim, of the Democratic Party, arrived at his assessment by analyzing data on the number of suicide attempts made at bridges along Seoul’s Han River. The report, published on the city council’s official website, showed that the number of suicide attempts along the river had increased from 430 in 2018 to 1,035 in 2023, and the proportion of men attempting suicide had risen from 67% to 77%.

Suicide experts have expressed concern about Kim’s report. “It is dangerous and unwise to make claims like this without sufficient evidence,” Song In Han, a professor of mental health at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the BBC. He pointed out that globally more men kill themselves than women, and in many countries, including the UK, suicide is the number one killer of men under 50. Prof Song said the reasons behind the sharp increase in male suicide attempts in Seoul needed to be scientifically studied, calling it “very regrettable” that the councilor had made it about gender conflict.

In South Korea, there is a significant gap between the number of men and women in full-time employment, with women disproportionately working casual or part-time jobs. Although the gender pay gap is slowly closing, women are still paid an average of 29% less than men.

In recent years, an anti-feminist movement has emerged, led by disillusioned young men who claim they have been disadvantaged by efforts to improve women’s lives. Councilor Kim’s report concluded that to overcome the “phenomenon of female dominance,” people’s awareness of gender equality must be improved so that “men and women can enjoy equal opportunities.”

Koreans took to social media platform X to condemn the councilor’s comments as “unsubstantiated” and “misogynistic”, with one user questioning whether they were living in a parallel universe. The Justice Party accused the councilor of “simply shifting the blame to women in Korean society who struggle to escape gender discrimination”. It has urged him to retract his statements and instead “properly analyse” the causes of the problem.

When contacted by the BBC for comment, councilor Kim said he “did not intend to be critical of the female-dominated society” and was only giving his personal view of some of its consequences. But his comments follow a number of unscientific and sometimes bizarre policy proposals aimed at tackling some of South Korea’s most pressing social issues, including mental illness, gender-based violence and the lowest birth rate in the world.

Last month, another Seoul municipal councilor in his 60s published a series of articles on the agency’s website encouraging young women to take up gymnastics and do pelvic floor exercises to raise birth rates. A government think tank also recommended that girls start school earlier than boys, so classmates would be more attracted to each other when they were ready to marry.

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

Currently, women account for 20% of South Korea’s members of parliament and 29% of all municipal councilors. Seoul’s city council told the BBC there was no process in place to check what politicians posted on their official website unless the content was illegal. It said individuals were solely responsible for their content and would face consequences at the next election.

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