▲ Confronting the tragedy of violence, together Photo courtesy of Gisela Merkuur
It was an event that shook up the entire country and made international headlines. In May of 2016, a man attacked and killed a 23-year-old woman in a bathroom near Gangnam Subway Station in Seoul. He confessed to police that he had always felt belittled and ignored by women.
It was an act of such seemingly random savagery that many blamed mental illness for the attack. However, beyond issues of personal psychosis, deeper trends were revealed. Motivations born not of insanity, but of deeper cultural pressures.
This incident, along with a slew of similarly violent acts this year - including some here on Jeju - have once again thrust sensitive topics like mental health awareness, culturally sanctioned misogyny, and domestic violence onto the national stage.
Although laws like the 1994 Act on the Punishment of Sexual Crimes and Protection of Victims, or the 1997 Special Act on Domestic Violence have been passed, the reality on the ground today is still disheartening.
The Korea National Survey of Domestic and Sexual Violence conducted in 2010 estimates that about one in six women have experienced physical abuse in their marriages, not to mention verbal, economic, and/or sexual abuse.
Ko Myung-hee, a women’s advocate of the Jeju Association of Women’s Rights, estimates that only 10 percent of assaults against women are being reported, and only a small minority of those are being prosecuted; a statistical dearth mirrored all over the world.
Untangling the Roots
While the causes of violence against women are manifold and therefore somewhat elusive, they are undoubtedly rooted in societal attitudes.
The hierarchy that contributes to maintaining the appearance of social order in Korea is also the hierarchy that is protecting a long history of violence against women. Ko points specifically to the ingrained patriarchy of Korean culture as an underlying culprit.
▲ Cultural taboos are finally being forced into the light Photo courtesy of Foundry Co.
A second contributing factor is Korea’s rapid industrialization. It was transformed from one of the poorest countries in the world into a global marketplace contender in only a half-century, suffering considerable growing pains while making those leaps and bounds.
So much has changed so quickly that Korean society is experiencing the inevitable identity crisis that comes from rapid development, in which people are forced to weigh the value of preserving traditions against adopting more progressive attitudes.
Certainly, gender dynamics stand right at the center of that conflict. In the haze of complex codes of conduct, it is a constant challenge to untangle innocuous attitudes from the truly damaging ones.
Ko believes that another major obstacle to eradicating violence against women is society’s tendency to blame the victims. Moreover, victims are encouraged to blame themselves for their abuse. Many are implicitly urged to have a fatalistic perspective about their situation, believing they somehow deserve their treatment.
Compounding the problem are holes in the education and legal systems. Kim Cha-yeon, a lawyer and advocate for women and children, believes that the government hasn’t done enough to educate people about sexuality and the nature of sexual assault.
Giving one example, she referred to the standard, government-issued text for sex education and how it advises women to avoid wearing skirts in order to prevent rape. Even assuming its good intentions, this advice puts the responsibility of rape on the woman, rather than addressing larger issues of aggression and cultural complicity.
Consider, for instance, the inherent contradiction of government branding initiatives. K-Pop has been marketed around the world. Despite government textbooks advising girls not to wear short skirts, bands like Girls’ Generation or EXID - young women wearing short skirts or less - are being advertised as highly sexualized cultural objects.
Knowing the flaws of a system is the first step towards reform, and progress has been made in different areas, such as law enforcement.
According to both Ko and Kim, a decade ago it was a completely different story. In the past, victims were often pressured to recant while perpetrators were given a wide latitude.
Domestic disturbances as a whole were often written off as a family matter and not the purview of law enforcement.
Today, police departments are required to take mandatory awareness and sensitivity courses regarding these crimes. Ko says that while a portion of older police officers resent this requirement, the younger generation has expressed interest, recognizing the urgency of the issue.
In addition, new protocols have been put in place, ensuring, for instance, that a female police officer is made available to a female victim of sexual or domestic abuse, allowing them to talk in private rather than in an open office.
The most reassuring advance came in 2005 when a streamlined One-Stop System was implemented. This system is modeled after a response protocol used in the United States which protects victims with an umbrella of investigative, medical, legal, and psychological resources.
Victims are connected to officers, physicians, lawyers, and counselors in a single, fluid motion now, in order to establish safety, gather evidence, inform them on their legal options, and help them recover from their trauma.
It’s not difficult to conclude that the first steps to resolve any widespread issue are through education, examination, and open discussion.
The real challenge comes in actually talking about this topic. Gender dynamics are so diffuse, so wrought with painful emotions and misunderstandings, that they can easy tear people apart. We must look at the facts, share difficult emotions and complex reactions, and talk to one another without giving in to defensiveness or accusation.
Korea is changing, and like many cultures around the world, people are addressing powerful, deeply ingrained ideas that have outlived their usefulness.
It is a difficult process which demands evolution from every level of society. Moreover, it is a process made even more challenging by our reluctance to face it.
For those dealing with violence in their lives, the struggle can seem insurmountable, however please - do not remain silent. If you or someone you know is living with abuse, you are not alone. Speak out, take advantage of current resources, join the conversation, and take action.
Look forward to future Jeju Weekly articles that delve deeper into issues of violence towards women and children and what we as a community can do about it.
National Hotline for Women (24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 1366)
Sunflower Center: 064-749-5117
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