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A Place of Refuge: Sae Gil Shelter

BUSAN, South Korea — Her husband used a pressure cooker to burn half of her face. She was in her early thirties, with two daughters. She was Lee Sung Yol’s first patient at the Christian Counselling Centre she had opened in Busan on February 1st, 1990. “Please help me,” she pleaded. Lee knew the woman and her daughters could not return to the home where she had suffered eight years of abuse.  With her own money, Lee got a small three bedroom apartment for them. Since then, Lee’s been devoted to helping victims of domestic abuse, providing them with support and services that barely existed twenty years ago.

Sae Gil Welfare Corporation’s multi-stage shelters are the growing result of her efforts. It began as a single shelter, Busan’s Women Shelter founded in 1992. The main shelter in Yeonsan has two floors for a Domestic Violence Survivors Shelter and one floor for a Sexual Violence Survivors Shelter. Sae Gil also runs the Goeje Shelter (Domestic Violence Survivors Long-term Shelter) and 26 group homes. Hidden in a maze of uneven side streets, dull-colored buildings and busy parking lots, large wooden fences wrapped in healthy foliage enclose the Yeonsan shelter. The sound of children playing emanates from behind the tall wooden gate, equipped with a security camera and an electronic locking mechanism.

Families staying at the Yeonsan shelter are provided with a single room containing a bathroom and can stay for up to nine months. After, they can move to the long-term shelter and can stay up to two years. Five rooms are shared among 15 – 20 women staying in the Sexual Violence Survivors Shelter. These young women can remain at the shelter until they are 18. When the women have nowhere to go except back to where their abuse took place, Sae Gil will try to continue to care for them. Currently there is no long-term shelter for survivors of sexual abuse, but Sae Gil hopes to provide one in the future. However, it’s a project that may have to wait, as the corporation continues to face funding challenges.

Before government support was available to the shelter in 2000, Lee drove to markets, collecting leftover food. She held bazzars and concerts, raising money to support victims of abuse that came to the shelter for help. The staff at Sae Gil still do the same, finding donations where ever they can to fill the void that little government funding has left. Changes made to government funding this year have made it tougher. It is difficult to provide women and children with even the basic essentials like food and clothes. The Protection Cost Support for Protection Facilities Act previously provided support for living and medical costs to all victims of domestic violence that have been admitted into protection facilities.

However, as of 2011, victims whose assets equal more than 54 million won before entering a protection facility, such as a shelter, are no longer eligible for the same financial support. “We survived 10 years without government funding, we will survive again,” says Lee. “We just have to work harder.”

Both foreigners and locals in the community have been contributing a great deal to Sae Gil and other organizations like it. This February, a production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was performed in Busan for the second year in a row. The production is the heart of V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women. Hayley Goodwin, this year’s producer, saw huge potential for raising awareness of women’s issues within the foreign and Korean community in Busan.

“I am so proud of what the women of Busan accomplished this year and last,” she says. This year, donations collected at both The Vagina Monologues show and a live music event, Voices for Vaginas, were for the Sae Gil Welfare Corporation. A total of 3.4 million won was raised – more than double last year’s donations. Food and clothing donations were also accepted at both performances. "It is not easy to live [in a] different country with a different culture,” says Lee about foreigners in the community, “but, you folks [still show] concern about abused women in Korea.”

Sae Gil’s shelters offer help to anyone – locals, foreigners, immigrants. However, in Korea, social acceptance of men physically assaulting their female partners has caused victims of domestic abuse to suffer quietly. When the Domestic Violence Prevention Laws were introduced in 1997, the goal was to provide victims of domestic abuse protection and support, but some women who tried to report being abused by their husbands were intimidated and humiliated. In one case, the son of a woman who was severely beaten by her husband was reprimanded for trying to report the abuse. The police told him that no good son would report his own father.

The process of providing victims with protection has been met with resistance in Korea, where issues of domestic violence are hidden away, undermined and sometimes ignored. The Ministry of Gender Equality initiated the first national survey of domestic violence in Korea in 2004 — a huge step towards acknowledging the existing issue of domestic abuse. The survey revealed that one out of six married households experience physical violence between husband and wife. In November 2007, amendments were made to the Domestic Violence Prevention Laws, making it mandatory for the police to investigate any report of domestic abuse. Police are also required to stop the violence and provide the victim with appropriate access to support services or medical facilities.

Other traditional Korean views see domestic violence as being provoked by a disobedient wife and sometimes, little sympathy is shown for the victims. Actress, Choi Jin-Sil came forth as a victim of domestic abuse in 2004 when she appeared in public with a black eye and bruised face – injuries said to have been caused by her husband. She was sued by Shinhan Engineering and Construction for breaking her contractual obligation to “maintain dignity” as a model for the company’s apartment building advertisements. The High Court ruled in her favor, but on June 4, 2009 (less than a year after Choi’s suicide), the Supreme Court reversed the ruling and stated that Choi’s public display of her injuries conflicted with the company’s brand image, “failing to keep her social and moral honor.”

Even anti-domestic violence campaigns in Korea are limited, only allowed to air on television for a brief time, if at all. “People don’t want to see it,” says Michelle Broczek, volunteer coordinator for the English program, organized by the Association of Teachers of English in Korea (ATEK), at Sae Gil’s shelter. Volunteers teach English to children and women living at the shelter. Programs like these offer victims a chance to feel less secluded and segregated from the rest of society. “They’re just like any other kids,” Broczek says about the children at Sae Gil, “they’re little rascals.” Many programs at the shelter help women and families heal mentally and physically, preparing for the lives they will lead when they leave. There are English and yoga classes, as well as job training. “[The staff] dedicate their lives to these women 100 per cent,” Broczek says. “They see their mission in life is to help these women.” The director of Sae Gil, Kim Eun Lee, has been working at the shelter for eight years now and says it is a difficult job, mentally and physically. Struggling to find the correct English words to express how she feels, Kim places both of her hands flat over the left side of her chest. “Same as my heart,” she says. “The women here [are the] same as me.”   

  If you or a friend is in need, call 1366  for the domestic violence and sexual abuse hotline.




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