Friday, February 8, 2013

Notes from South Korea: Where is Our Anger Going?

[Editors' Note: This article by Jiyoung LeeAn is the second article of the "Asian Series on Gender Justice" an initiative - by Delhi University team of New Socialist Initiative (NSI) - to bring together significant moments from the recent histories of struggle for gender equality and justice in various Asian countries.]

Jiyoung LeeAn 

We live in a globalized world where horrific news has become a part of our every day. In a deluge of routinely repeated terrible images, we easily become senseless and insensitive to many tragedies happening outside our own society. The heartbreaking death of a 23-year-old woman who was gang-raped and beaten to death in the capital city of India last December might be a part of the same deluge to many people outside of India. Some might treat this particular tragedy as if it was happening in a distant ‘less developed country’. Some might feel relieved that they are living in a 'safer developed' world. Mainstream media in South Korea contributes in perpetuating these attitudes. In the Korean media, India is depicted as a backward society stained with patriarchal traditions and Caste system, therefore, 'different' from Korean society. This tragedy is regarded as an inevitable corollary to the backwardness of a society; and women in India are described as victims of that backwardness. Colonial gaze bares its teeth with these overly sensationalized representations of India by creating an illusion that we Koreans, unlike people in India, are living in a much safer and developed society. 

However, are we really 'safe'? Perhaps no women in Korea would answer in a definitive yes. That is one of the reasons why this horrific tragedy in Delhi haunts me. Her pain, anguish and struggles remind me of my own pain, anguish, and struggles in South Korea. Her death is not far from my daily life. It is not say that the pain we are experiencing is of the same intensity. There may exist different scales of violence. But, through her and her journey of life I see myself, I see a trajectory of my life. And this feeling gives me courage to write this small piece not only for her, but also for myself as a woman who lives in this contemporary world. 

People outside of India have seen, on televisions, thousands of thousands of young people in India come out to the street and raise their voices for gender equality. More than a month has passed since she died, but she lives in people’s memories. And enthusiastic and vehement protests have been continuously spreading not only across India but also in other parts of the world. These protest actions demonstrates hope in the midst of deep sorrow. However, when our anger and protests reaches its highest tenor, it is also the right moment for us to catch our breath and reflect where our anger is headed, and towards whom our anger is directed. 

I hope hurdles that many feminists in South Korea have faced for the last decade are not faced by feminist in India at this moment of heightened mobilization. Heightened public anger sometimes deflects the direction of our struggles. It may also lead us to set a wrong target for the movement. For the last few years, in the name of weeding out sexual violence, Korean government implemented several controversial measures such as electronic tagging and chemical castration, which are now actively debated in India as well. A series of atrocious cases of sexual violence against children directly contributed to the implementation of these controversial measures. For example, the Electronic Tagging Law was legislated after one child was sexually abused and killed in 2006. When a similar case happened to another 13-year-old girl, who was raped and murdered in Busan City, the Parliament legislated retrospective applications of electronic tagging to offenders convicted before the implementation of the law. Later Supreme Court in South Korea declared it legal as well. 

Not only electronic tagging, but also chemical castration was introduced after another tragic case, now popularly known as the Case of Cho Dusoon, who raped an 8-year-old girl and inflicted serious injuries upon her. This case brought about a legislation in 2011 which allows judges and a Committee of Ministry of Justice the power to sentence offenders who assault children under the age of 16 to chemical castration. On May 23, 2012, for the first time, the Committee ordered one offender to undergo chemical castration, and on January 3, 2013, a South Korean court sentenced a 31-year-old man to 15 years in jail and chemical castration. Again in January 17, 2013, a 21-year-old man was sentenced to chemical castration. 

Like India, 2012 was a significant year in South Korea which received the strongest public attention to the issues of sexual violence. A case of sexual violence against an 8-year-old girl in August, 2012, ignited public anger in Korea. Politicians, who were concerned with the upcoming presidential election, competitively presented different policies. Most policies were exclusively focused on enhancing severity of punishment for sexual offences because it was the easiest way for politicians to respond to the public anger and cash on the widespread sentiment of revenge in the society. It is also because, once we target individual offenders and demonize them as monsters and animals, solutions become simple: get rid of monsters from the society, and then we will be safe. On January 10, 2013, the offender who raped the 8-year-old girl was sentenced to death in a lower court. This strong sentence is obviously in line with a series of these recent measures focusing on the severity of punishment only. 

These punitive (or punishment-oriented?) policies, however, have been criticized by many feminist groups in South Korea who have worked for gender justice for several decades. The simple statistical fact itself shows how these punitive policies have been not successful. Between 2008 and 2011 when these controversial policies were implemented, the rate of instances of sexual violence has not decreased, but rather increased by 37%[1]. It demonstrates that these measures serve nothing but window shopping for political uses instead of addressing deep rooted causes of sexual violence. 

In South Korea, the “Act on the Punishment of Sexual Crimes and Protections of Victims Thereof” was legislated in 1994 after sustained campaign and strong demands by feminist movements. After this act was enacted, sexual violence for the first time was acknowledged as a serious criminal offence, and victims were entitled to receive institutional support. However, a big gap has persisted between the provisions of the law and its actual implementation. There are some inherent limitations and institutional barriers for this law to be efficient in dealing with sexual violence. One such limitation is the provision of 'an offense subject to complaint,' which limit the possibilities of bringing the case to the court. Prevalent gender insensitive environments embedded in the judicial and legal system also acts as stumbling block for victims to bring the case to the court. That is why even though large number of women in South Korea experience some form of sexual violence, the reported cases are significantly low[2]. In case of rapes only 11.9% gets reported. Moreover, patriarchal culture and social attitude that puts the blame on victims for rape and sexual harassment also contributes and perpetuates the culture of sexual violence in South Korean society. 

Thus, without addressing root causes of sexual violence, simply enhancing the severity of prison sentences for sexual crime and/or implementing electronic tagging and chemical castration cannot reduce or eradicate sexual violence. Rather it creates a danger of reinforcing the existing conception of sexual violence, which attributes it to men's ‘natural sexual instinct’ without dealing with social and structural problems of patriarchal social relations. 
Slut Walk was was held two times in South Korea aiming to challenge a patriarchal division between 'innocent' women and 'loose' women.
These are challenges that feminists in South Korea have faced and struggled with until now. As I mentioned earlier, serious sexual violence cases, particularly targeted towards children, have brought about strong public angers in South Korea and led to enactment of controversial measures such as electronic tagging and chemical castration. However, the root causes of sexual violence have not been adequately addressed. Also, it is notable that the public anger is particularly towards sexual violence towards 'child' who is considered the most 'innocent' of victims. What if the victims were sex workers, rather than 'innocent' children? Will it ignite public anger of same intensity? Perhaps not. The same is perhaps true of India as well. What if she was a sex worker, instead of a university student, and what if she was from North-East India, who face, apart from sexual violence, racism and other forms of violence on an everyday basis in India? 

I hope, the strong movement for gender justice that has sprung up around the tragic incident in Delhi will receive insights for the movement from similar experiences and movements in other countries. Also, I hope the emerging movement surrounding her death in India brings new energies to feminist movement not only in India but also in South Korea and other countries. I would like to conclude with my sincere condolence on her death and my heart felt solidarity with each and every protester demanding gender justice in India. 

Jiyoung LeeAn worked as a researcher-activist in Network for Glocal Activism/School of Feminism (NGA/SF), and as a program officer for Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA) in South Korea. Currently, she is a PhD student at Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University. 

[1] Nayong, "Protectors or Offenders? Limitation of Patriarchal response to sexual violence," a paper presented in open forum titled "Rethinking government policies on sexual violence", oct.24, 2012, co-organized Network for Glocal Activism and Monitoring for governmental authority, Human Rights Network. 

[2] 2010 National Survey on Sexual Violence conducted by Ministry of Gender Equality


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