Catalyzing Female Leadership and Participation in Rural Development: The Saemaul Women Associations in the Republic of Korea

This case study examines the emergence of the Saemaul Undong Women's Association in the Republic of Korea from 1972 to 1979. This initiative was carried out as part of the Saemaul Undong (New Village Movement), a nationwide community development project. The Saemaul Undong combined top-down aspects, in that it was mandated and directed by the central govenerment, and bottom-up aspects, in that villages had broad leeway in terms of the projects that they took on at the local level. The same was true for the Saemaul Women's Associations.

One important aspect of the Saemaul Undong was its encouragement of women’s leadership in village projects. In 1973, the Saemaul Women’s Association was established as a branch organization of the Saemaul Undong. After the establishment of the SWA, each village had one male and one female Saeumaul leader, who were tasked with organizing village members to undertake a variety of local development projects – ranging from reforestation and building small bridges to the creation of village savings and improved agriculture programs, like planting orchards and building greenhouses.  The program-within-a-program of the SWA, and the building up of women’s leadership that this entailed, has been credited with significantly changing women’s roles in rural society; with inspiring them to participate in village life; and with possibly having a long-term effect on such markers of women’s empowerment as increased school enrollment for girls.

In turn, studies of the Saemaul Undong, as well as observers at the time, have in many cases highlighted the idea that women’s participation was a critical driver for the success of Saemaul Undong. The notion that women worked harder than men to carry out the Saemaul Undong is widespread, and contemporary publications praise their “iron-willed” determination. Indeed, the governor of Jeonlabugdo commented that in his view the Saemaul Undong was led by women.

Yet this effort was not without challenges. This case study examines how women’s leadership was promoted and integrated into Saemaul Undong, and some of the delivery challenges that it faced during the course of that process. The parameters of the program were determined by national-level policy makers, but given the locally-led nature of village development projects in the Saemaul Undong, experiences varied widely, as each village – and each local Saemaul Women’s Association – attempted to implement experiments at the local level. Thus, while the program-within-a-program of women’s empowerment was promoted by national authorities, it was ultimately the women themselves, working with persistence within the specific contexts of their villages, who ensured the success of the Saemaul women’s programs at the village level.