Hollaback! Korea: A Determined Group Works to Fight Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is a global problem that cannot be ignored. With the recent founding of a Korean chapter of the international group Hollaback!, women, and even men on the peninsula, have somewhere to turn for support.
SEOUL, South Korea -- All too often women and girls around the world are sexually harassed on their way to work, on their way home, and even on their way to middle school. It’s a problem in Korea as well, with a 2010 survey finding that four in ten Korean commuters experienced sexual harassment on public transport. One of the four were men.
However, the days of simply putting up with it are over, with a number of organizations now providing Koreans and expats alike with the support, tools, and resources to help raise awareness and fight back against their harassers.
One such organization at the forefront of the fight is Hollaback! Launched in 2005 in New York, Hollaback! is a photoblog and grassroots initiative that seeks to raise awareness about and combat street harassment by posting photographs and narrative accounts victim’s encounters with offenders.
Chelle Mille, an expat living in Korea, was inspired to start a Hollerback! Korea website this past December, after reading comments by Korean netizens who were often quick to blame the victims of sexual harassment.
“I’d always been angered by news stories of harassment, both back home and after I arrived in Korea in 2006,” Chelle says, “but at least I could assume that everyone was outraged just like I was. But when KoreaBANG came along, a website that specializes in translating netizen comments, it made me realize there were a significant number of people that not only didn’t care, but were actively involved in victim-blaming too, and really putting the onus on the person involved to have done something about it.”
From there she set about making her vision for addressing the problem a reality.
“This gave me the idea that we needed to have something like a safe subway campaign, and I started trying to get friends interested in it...when I realized that Hollaback! could provide the tools if we provided the translations, then I realized that I could have a much larger scale project...and benefit from being connected to something international, and being able to network and learn about best practices elsewhere.”
Chelle applied to the main Hollaback! organization to set up a Korean branch last summer, and after being accepted began months of training with other members. By the time of the official launch, Hollaback! Korea was composed of a mix of Koreans and expats, differing genders, sexual orientations and with chapters in several cities.
While its activities and contributions are endless, at the heart of the group are the stories of harassment collected on its website (www.korea.ihollaback.org), where victims can submit anonymously either on the web or in realtime via the smartphone app. It is a crucial service, as it allows victims to get immediate support from members and access to resources at a time when friends, relatives, and authority figures may be indifferent or even hostile to their speaking out—which can easily lead to a spiral of self-blame.
Under Korean law, site moderators are required to blur the face of a harasser, but a police officer who participated in a discussion at the Gwangju chapter’s launch suggested that they are still important as evidence (although the official stressed that authorities should always be contacted immediately). In addition, when submitters indicate where incidents take place they appear across a map on the website, which provides a way to inform both the public and authorities where harassment may be occurring more often.
One future goal, Chelle explained, “is to share the stories we gather with a really effective lobby organization like the Korea Women’s Hotline, which could be submitted in a joint report for the National Police Agency to show where more action and greater policing is needed.”
Another future goal is doing increasingly localized activities. But it is important to note that very little is necessarily unique about harassment in Korea--despite how it can appear to expats sometimes, whose own experience(s) may have involved an unfamiliar racial component.
Jin, a Korean member of Hollaback! Korea, acknowledges that sometimes lax attitudes by Korean victims and the “just put up with it” attitude of her mother’s generation still prevail. But that’s not always the case with the new generation, says Jin.
“Koreans get just as angry [as foreigners] at being told to take harassment as a compliment, and at light sentences for harassers and rapists just because they were drunk,” she says, adding, “at least half my Korean friends would directly confront a harasser, and I encourage readers to do the same.”
Chelle says that this change in attitude can be seen at all levels of society.
“The dialogue around violence has totally transformed in the last eight years. I think people talk about it so much more, and I do think there are more people who are prepared to stop and say ‘This is wrong’. I think there’s better police enforcement, and communication about the law with the public, in Korean and in English media.”
This is backed by a major overhaul of sex-crimes laws in Korea last year, as well as a law change in 2007 that required police to forward all cases of domestic violence to a prosecutor (previously it was at their own discretion), plus an October 2011 law that enabled the police to give restraining orders on the spot.
This is not to deny that negative experiences with the police and legal system do still occur, nor that media reporting could still be improved. Much like the comment that sparked the Slutwalk movement, a July 2013 survey of South Gyeongsang Province police officers found that over half supported the view that women who wear revealing clothing are somehow culpable in any attacks, and in October the Seoul Shinmun reported that “Seoul Police found that the high rate of sex-related crimes in Gwanak-gu, Seoul, was due to the high numbers of single women living alone in the district”—another form of victim-blaming which Taylor, an expat in the area, found irresponsible at best.
Not Just about Women
“Hollaback! Korea isn’t ‘just a women’s group’” he said, “and harassment isn’t just a ‘women’s issue.’ Really, what social issue is?”
Taylor calls on men to get more involved.
“I encourage men to join, and ask that if someone ever tells you about harassment they’ve experienced, please don’t second-guess him or her and try to play Devil’s Advocate for their harasser, or downplay their feelings. Remember, you weren’t there. Just listen, and be supportive.”
Chelle asks that expat teachers also look for signs of harassment and take action.
“If you see harassment occurring with your students, but are uncomfortable or unable to confront it directly, please at least let victims know about our site. Let them know there is a place where they can share their story (in their language), and where people will listen and read it and support them.”
In that vein, one of Hollaback! Korea’s main goals in 2014 is to work more with schools.
“We want to host a workshop for high school students as a pilot for an outreach project, through which kids can learn about how they can be better bystanders, and what to do when their friends are making jokes or bullying somebody,” says Chelle. “Fortunately, there are already good anti-bullying programs in schools to tap into, with many inspiring young leaders.”
What’s more, students’ enthusiastic response to the recent ‘How are you doing?’ movement—albeit generally blocked by school authorities—shows that a passion for social causes is there, despite the huge workload Korean students suffer from.
For further information on how readers can help them, including the possibility of setting up a Busan chapter, and how to receive support if you’re a victim yourself, please visit the website at korea.ihollaback.org, the Facebook page @facebook.com/HollabackKorea or follow on Twitter @HollabackKorea.
NOTICE: Join Hollaback! Korea in Seoul for a discussion about street harassment and how we can end it. Hollaback! Korea supporters will meet Saturday, February 8 from 2-4PM at Ben James coffee shop near Hapjeong station exit 5. Hollaback Site leaders from Seosan and Seoul will be present and welcome all members to participate in the discussion and/or share their stories for support. Hollaback! Korea supporters will strategize how to end street harassment in our communities.
Saturday, February 8, 2014 2:00pm until 4:00pm Cafe Ben James, Seoul Mapo-Gu, Hapjeong-Dong 411-5
See details and RSVP on the Facebook page.
Photos courtesy of Hollaback! Korea
Read more from James Turnbull