Sunday, October 26, 2008

Women with Disabilities Arts and Culture Network, Seoul

Earlier this month, while I was in Seoul, I met with staff from the Women with Disabilities Arts and Culture Network (WDACN), which is directed by Mijoo Kim. Mijoo has served as an international advocate for women's disability rights for many years, including through the development of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. In fact, several people have told me that it was in fact South Korean women who pushed for an article to be included in the Convention that would specifically address women, and Mijoo was part of that effort. Here is what I collected in my notes...

WDACN is located in Seoul Women's Plaza, which is a government owned building dedicated to women's activities. When my interpreters and I were first headed over there, we noticed something very odd. Pregnant women kept walking past us. At first I thought, "They sure are having a lot of babies in Korea!" But then, there would be groups of three and four of them walking together....the source of all the pregnant women was the Women's Plaza, which was just ending a resource fair for pregnant women. So of course, we were surrounded by expectant moms! I think it was Sunghee or Kyunghee who mentioned that there aren't a lot of resources like that for mothers in Seoul (Kyunghee herself is expecting a baby soon).

Anyway, organizations that are three years or younger are able to rent offices in the Plaza for a very low rate, as explained by WDACN staffer Ga Eun, who is deaf. Also, there are rooms for conferences, as well as dorm rooms for conference presenters, who can stay on site for free. I think Bridget and I were the first Americans Ga Eun had ever worked with and so she was initially nervous, but eventually we did very well and I thank her for her efforts to communicate!

When we got to WDACN, we sat down and met with Mijoo and some of her staff, who explained that WDACN is an NGO that offers both cultural programs and career development assistance for young women with and without disabilities. Mijoo noted that inclusion of both disabled and nondisabled women was something that made her organization a bit different but she felt it was critical. Mijoo was also adamant that developing employment opportunities for women with disabilities, especially young women, was of utmost importance. She feels this is an issue that needs to be taken more seriously at the international level, and sees the Convention as a tool to advocate for employment development.

In addition, as I recall, Mijoo also said that women also must seek equality in the disability rights movement. At that point, she said, we can better talk about women's equality and issues involving mainstreaming.

As an international advocate, Mijoo was aware that both Canada and Australia played key roles in Convention development (she and I had met in Quebec City and she knew I was going to Australia). She has been serving as part of the planning committee for the AWID conference next month, and reported that AWID was seeing women with disabilities issues as, ultimately, issues for all women. That, in effect, is Mijoo's main message to women's organizations...that women will not be free until we have freed women with disabilities. How do we make people care at the international level? Well, if you recognize that war and malnutrition creates more people with disabilities, and that women serve as caregivers, and when caregivers become disabled, others must provide care...is that not an issue that is global?

From November 25 to 27, moreover, South Korea will host the International Women's Human Rights Conference, and many members of the Committee to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) will attend. At this conference, there will be reports accepted from different nations. She reminded me that the US has not yet ratified CEDAW...I know, I know, but our administration is TERRIBLE (and by the way I voted early two days ago...the administration I want has nothing to do with John McCain).

In WDACN's employment work, it is interesting to note the community development the staff have been undertaking, working with different firms to convince them to hire young women with disabilities. Mijoo says business consultants have improved their disability awareness thus far and that WDACN is now working with college freshmen, thinking that the earlier start will give them an edge.

We covered several other topics, including the inclusion of disability issues at the International Criminal Court, which I certainly hope will come up at the AWID conference since Brigid Inder will be there (she is with the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice). At this point, Mijoo had to split for a meeting, and Ga Eun gave us a tour of the Women's Plaza.

Later, Mijoo, Ga Eun, Bridget and I, and later Mijoo's children, met for dinner at a Japanese restaurant located in the Lotte Department Store (accessible for Mijoo's power chair, I noticed, unlike a LOT of restaurants in Seoul). Mmm, sushi. Then, we walked through one of the city parks to the subway. It was about 9 pm at night and I kid you not when I say this park was FULL. There were people power walking, skating, jogging, stretching, doing all kinds of stuff that normally takes place in daylight. Then there was a light show in one of the ponds/lakes! Normally after dark in the US, parks are not safe places to be, but everyone in Seoul had zoomed to this park. Someone mentioned that this was because it was more comfortable to exercise at night when it is cool. I also think it's a matter of a lack of urban space. It was quite a community experience though and I really liked that since there were people of all ages out and about.

In conclusion, I think Mijoo is correct in feeling that employment is a burning issue for women with disabilities, and using an arts platform to support that work is an interesting take. I think, given that I was told that most people with severe disabilities in South Korea only have an elementary level education, that the employment dream is a difficult one. One does have to start somewhere however, and while employment may not be as hot/shocking an issue as sexual violence, it is a critical one that deserves more attention from disability rights movements and social changemakers.

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