|Seoul City Council Rep. Kwon Su-jeong, center, holds a press conference on July 31 on her proposed bill to provide free menstrual products to all teenage girls in Seoul. / Courtesy of Seoul Municipal Council|
By Lee Suh-yoon
The day starts early for Kwon Su-jeong, a freshman legislator at Seoul City Council.
On Aug. 8, Kwon was up at 4 a.m. to race to the site of a tragic drowning incident in Seoul Botanical Park. Twelve hours later, back in her small office by Deoksu Palace, she was busy taking calls from other council members, filling them in on the morning's events and making sure she still had their support for her bills.
Irregular hours are nothing new for Kwon, a 46-year-old former Asiana Airlines flight attendant and union leader. A Justice Party member, she was elected to the city council last year through the proportional representation quota.
Being the only progressive party representative in the 110-member council, Kwon has to walk a fine line between principles and compromise.
"I'm alone here. So it's important to keep good relations with the members of the bigger parties," she said with a laugh as she sat down for an interview at her office last week. "There are ideological clashes sometimes but many have been supportive of the changes I'm trying to push through the city council."
On July 30, with the official backing of 20 other council members, Kwon introduced her most ambitious bill yet ― providing free menstrual products to all teenage girls in Seoul.
If the bill passes the council next month, all female residents between the ages of 11 and 18 will be given special cards or mobile vouchers that can be used to buy sanitary pads, tampons or menstrual cups. Kwon believes the current system of providing menstrual products to teenagers from low-income households is "patronizing and discouraging" to applicants of an age group that is sensitive to being singled out for their economic disadvantage in society. Instead, the provision of menstrual goods should be framed as a basic right of its own.
"Half of society's members bleed every month for two-thirds of their lifetime without any choice," Kwon said. "And until now, this basic condition has been alienated from public discussion as something embarrassing that the individual must take care of on her own, even hide."
The proposed bill sets aside 40 billion won ($33 million) a year for the purchases, a manageable sum considering the city's budget, Kwon says.
The idea for universal provision ― at least for the teenage group ― is catching on in other parts of the country. In April, Yeoju in Gyeonggi Province passed the first municipal ordinance on providing free menstrual products to all teenage girls in the city. Other parts of Gyeonggi Province and Gwangju are in the process of discussing ways to enact similar measures.
A member of the city council's Planning & Economy Standing Committee, Kwon has worked to improve the effectiveness of the city's gender equality spending. When she first arrived a year ago, the budget was "badly managed." The policies carried out at different city hall divisions often lacked a clear goal or target beneficiary group, and were recycling the same ineffective plans every year, Kwon says.
In the latter half of the year, Kwon wants to focus on making the city's welfare system ― especially housing support ― accessible to non-traditional families. Kwon, who lives with her husband with no kids, says she and her partner's decision not to get a formal marriage certificate at first blocked them from many family-designed government and employee benefits.
"Once I suddenly had to attend the funeral of my husband's mother, but the company told me I had to submit a marriage certificate to take the special leave," she said, recounting her days at Asiana Airlines. "It's very discriminatory when you think about it. And a lot of single women ― regardless of sexual orientation ― live together groups of two or three now. They too should be recognized as a family in the social sense and provided the same benefits."