Domestic Violence is a Social Crime–Korea Women’s Hotline

After my experiences volunteering in South Korea last summer with the Korea Women’s Hotline and my work this semester with the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, I put together a newletter for USC’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program.  While I don’t think I’ll be able to return to Korea this summer, I hope to go back some time soon to continue my work with KWHL and my research on these important topics.  Kudos to Ranhee Song, KWHL, and all the activists I met in Korea who continue to fight against injustices.

[Update: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 version of USC’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program newsletter, however, the link I had appears to no longer work. I’ve included the article below.]

Domestic Violence is a Social Crime / By Alexis Stratton

“Most people think domestic violence happens to other people,” Ranhee Song says, sitting across from me in one of the small counseling rooms of the Korea Women’s Hotline (KWHL) office building in Seoul.

I’m in the seat usually reserved for clients needing crisis counseling, and the midday light shines in through the window behind behind Song.  I imagine the people who have sat there before me, across from someone like Song, perhaps feeling afraid or alone, or maybe feeling like they can finally begin to see a way out.

She tells me that the people who come to KWHL often don’t recognize their experiences as “domestic violence,” since such “violence” can take many forms, from physical to emotional to psychological.  They tell their stories and then, according to Song, they ask, “Is this really violence?”

Song and I met early in May 2011 when first I wandered into the KWHL office, tucked away on a hill somewhere in what seemed to be the very outskirts of the sprawling Seoul metropolis (but is really somewhere still nearish the middle).  Before I arrived in Korea, I’d e-mailed with her a few times, and we’d spoken once over the phone, our conversations a mix of English and Korean.  I told her I’m a writer studying Women’s and Gender Studies, and I asked her if I could work with KWHL to research gender and violence in South Korea for a short story collection.  I was surprised to find she was immediately on board and, when I arrived, she welcomed me into the KWHL family and took me under her wing.

Founded in 1983, the Korea Women’s Hotline is one of the largest and oldest women’s movement organizations in Korea.  It supports survivors of domestic and sexual violence with a crisis hotline, counseling services, and shelters both in Seoul and throughout Korea’s provinces.  It also actively conducts human rights and violence prevention campaigns and monitors governmental policies and activities.  Song is the Director of the Human Rights Policy Department.

Song is in her thirties and has been working at KWHL since 2003 after completing her graduate degree in Women’s Studies at a university in Korea.  “I didn’t think I would work here more than one year,” she admits.  But after she realized how serious, complex, and difficult the issue of violence against women is, she decided that “one year is too short—how about three years?  But then, I still understood little.”  Thus, it became five years, and now almost ten.

As it is in many countries, the issue of violence against women in Korea is indeed complex and perplexing.  Across from her in the counseling room, I think about the fear and hope of the women, men, and families who come to KWHL to get help.  But I think most about the women, who make up the bulk of the NGO’s clients.  I think of the courage it takes to go against a culture that is still pervaded by an intense patriarchal ideology and ideas about the sanctity of the (private) family—a culture in which over fifty percent of marriages experience domestic violence, according a 2010 national survey on domestic violence by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (Korea Women’s Association United).

Song notes that the term “domestic” makes working against domestic violence difficult, particularly in Korea.  “Domestic” conjures family, home, and in Korea, such institutions are strongly patriarchal and private.  Even though the marital domestic violence rate might top fifty percent, a report submitted to the United Nations by Korea Women’s Association United (an affiliated group of NGOs in which KWHL participates) explains that “victims requested help from the police in only 8.3% of instances ,” and when respondents recorded their reasons for not reporting, “29.1% answered that ‘violence by their spouse was not serious enough,’ 26.1% ‘felt embarrassed to disclose domestic affairs,’ 14.1% were ‘unable to report one’s spouse to the police,’ and 10.9% did not report ‘for their children’s sake.’ The majority of reasons were related to social norms, but 9.3% of the responses answered that ‘reporting to the police would be useless,’ indicating distrust in the judicial system.” (KWAU).

This concept of the private or “domestic” being a space in which one cannot interfere is problematic, both in Korea and in other countries, especially when one seeks outside help from judicial or other support systems.  If police come to the home and consider a domestic dispute simply a private matter, what options do domestic violence victims have?  And what layers of problems does this type of neglect create?  According to the Korea Women’s Association United report, this is just the situation that Korea currently faces, as “50.5% of [survey] participants indicated that ‘the police just returned after visiting [their houses], saying that domestic disputes should be resolved within [the family],’ and 17.7% of the responses stated that ‘the police did not even bother to come to the crime scene, saying that domestic disputes should be resolved by themselves.’”

According to Song, in Korea, this kind of thinking is exactly what needs to change if she and other activists are to make a difference regarding issues of domestic violence and its prevention.  “We want to dismantle this idea,” Song says, noting that changing these sorts of socio-cultural attitudes is one of the most difficult challenges “to me—to every feminist.”

Because after all, she says, “Domestic violence is a social crime.”  And she would say it again and again during my month volunteering with KWHL.  This is what the world needs to understand.  Domestic violence is not about a single family, or a single disagreement, an argument gone too far.  It’s not a private matter, and it’s not justifiable by ingrained ideologies or a lack of presumed “seriousness.”  Every instance of domestic violence is serious; every instance of domestic violence is ours.

For more information about the Korea Women’s Hotline, visit their webpage.

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