Monday, October 27, 2008

Visiting the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center

While I was in Seoul, one of my most interesting meetings occurred with a non-disability-specific group, the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center (KSRVC). As you may recall, my trip schedule arranger in Korea was Bogjoo from Women with Disabilities Empathy (WDE), who is WDE's director of sexual violence services for women with disabilities. Of course, this meant that Bogjoo knows the KSRVC well (not to mention that, as I have said before, everyone loves Bogjoo). So she was able to schedule a short-notice meeting for me with Lee Mi-gyeong, the director of the KSRVC, located in a former house with a walled garden, in a lane in the northwest area of Seoul.

Bogjoo picked Bridget and I up from our hotel and we then picked up Sunghee, and the four of us drove over to the KSRVC, which was surrounded by trees bearing an apple-like fruit. Ms. Lee, with a smile, was waiting for us on the steps leading down to the meeting room level. As she took us into the meeting room and we settled with tea, I had the impression that this woman, beneath her approachable exterior, was also someone who was very committed to her cause.

As it turns out, Ms. Lee is essentially the woman who started and modeled the sexual violence relief shelter center idea in South Korea. (I was very impressed and had a flashback to my mother telling me to be on my best behavior.) As Ms. Lee explained it, there was essentially no support for sexual violence victims in South Korea until the early 1990s. At that time, the issue became much more prominent among scholars and the public. Ms. Lee started the KSRVC in 1991 because she thought it was needed, and the phones began ringing off the hook with women seeking assistance.

At around the same time, major sexual violence cases were publicized in the news, which generated the public momentum to pass an anti-domestic violence law in 1997. A law against sexual violence and traficking had earlier been passed in 1994 (but with too much generalness on the sexual violence angle). In South Korea, a rapist will be punished with five years' imprisonment, but often they get just a reduced punishment. There are certain protections for victims, such as being able to bring a trusted friend with her to testify, and to only have to testify once. The victim can also testify before only a camera, with observers watching via closed circuit tv.

Legal provisions for offenders are not always followed, however, and in Korea there most certainly is, as in the US, a culture of blaming the victim for the assault. People will say the victim was wearing short skirts or drinking and therefore it was her fault. The problem is, in Korea women have a lot to lose if they talk about sexual violence. Women always have to defer to men, and a man can ruin a lot of things for a woman if she makes "trouble." Ms. Lee pointed out that according to reports, in the US 36 to 40% of sexual crimes are reported by victims, but in South Korea, only 6% are reported, and this is definitely not because there is a lesser level of violence. KSRVC's counselors report that of the women who seek assistance from the center, only about 15% will actually sue the perpetrator. In a survey conducted with about 12,000 Korean men and women, only 6 to 7% reported having experienced sexual violence in some form.

I asked about rape kit distribution and administration. In Korea, the Ministry of Gender Equality distributes rape kits to hospitals for free. This has not always been the case. At first, NGOs distributed rape kits, but in 2001, the government took over that role. Each kit costs about 3,000,000 won, which is just over $2,000 is US dollars. (I was especially thinking of the reports that Sarah Palin wanted women to pay for their own rape kits in Alaska.)

Since Bogjoo was sitting nextto me, I asked what the relationship between KSRVC and WDE was. KSRVC used to counsel women with disabilities because there was no other place for them to go, but then WDE took over the disability population. Today, there are over 200 sexual violence relief centers in Korea and they are in the process of working to coordinate together. KSRVC and WDE do things like stage Take Back the Night and larger events together. They worked together to fight for the Anti Disability Discrimination Act.

I was curious about how Ms. Lee got involved with this work, and she told me her story. She is a women's studies professor in addition to working with KSRVC. In 1990 she was teaching women's studies and many of her colleagues were talking about rape and the blame-the-victim culture. In response she decided to work to set up the center. It is as simple as that! Directorship is also limited to terms of service and she is about done with her current term of service (imagine a CIL's directorship being limited to terms of service!).

Ms. Lee also possesses a global perspective on women's rights, having traveled internationally. She has visited Australia, for example. She notes that the Koreans have been able to make change very fast for women's rights, and have learned and acted upon lessons from the US feminist movement. In addition, Ms. Lee has collaborated and learned a great deal from women activists in Southeast Asia.

I asked her for her take of the general picture of women's rights in South Korea, and she said that there are essentially many fields in the movement, may kinds of work. Scientific developments have led to more and more women's bodies being managed by the state. Feminists are resisting against this. There are no groups that focus specifically on being pro-choice, partly because the anti abortion coaltion is very strong and led by Christians. Ms. Lee stated that victims of sexual violence have a right to choose abortion. However, Christian Koreans have a great deal of power in Korean society.

At this point, Ms. Lee took us on a tour of the facility's office, where they have compiled numerous papers and studies on sexual violence to support their work. The staff are crammed into a fairly small area and were hard at work on the phones when we went through. I talked with one staffer who runs the Take Back the Night events, and who also invited me to the annual big lesbian party that is very famous in Seoul. I thought this was terrific, but would not be in town for it. This was one of the few times when I heard rumblings from the queer community in Korea, and I hope that someday the LGBTQ community in Korea can be more out in society than they currently are.

After a few pictures, we took leave of Ms. Lee and the KSRVC. This was one of those moments when I wished that I could stay for six months to learn about the women's rights movement in Korea and to bear further witness to the work they are doing. Much love and best of luck to the KSRVC and its allies!


A further note: something that several women (not only Ms. Lee) brought to my attention was that the Korean Supreme Court had declared picture taking of women's legs on public transportation illegal, which I thought was a rather satisfying strike against public harassment. In Chicago and other US cities, street harassment is a major problem affecting quality of life for millions of women. When I heard about this ban, I felt darn righteously happy for the women this would help.


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I think we need centers like the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center because they are so professionals. I've read their websites and they believing what your abuser has been telling you about yourself. You are worthy, you do have rights, you do have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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