Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Sea Women" Are Dwindling

Off the coast of Jeju, South Korea, women have been diving for hundreds of years. Known as haenyeo- "sea women"- these ladies dive regularly in the ocean to harvest abalone. It is a tradition of independence; while the rest of the world was predominantly patriarchal, these women were the primary source of income for their families. Even today, diving is recognized as an enormous cultural icon for Jeju, the divers "a symbol of female independence and strength in Korea."

However romanticized this profession has become, it remains a dangerous one. According to the article, forty divers have died in the last five years alone. The introduction of wetsuits made the dive relatively safer; however, it has also led to over-harvesting. Complications abound, and with Jeju's status as a prime tourist location, many young women are opting for safer, less physically intensive professions in the tourism industry. The evidence is in the numbers: in the 1906's there were 26,000 haenyeo; today, there are only 4,500. With the vast majority of the divers over sixty years old, many are wondering whether this aspect of their cultural heritage is coming to a close.

Whether this is a positive advancement or a national tragedy is largely subjective, but it brings up an important dilemma that every country, sooner or later, will have to face. Technology is changing- the world is changing- and traditions are inevitably changing with it. And though preserving the past is important, it is also necessary to keep in mind the wishes of the people whose traditions they are. South Korea clearly wants to maintain the diving practice, and has requested that haenyeo be added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. In the end, however, it must ultimately be up to the women of Jeju to decide where their future lies.

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