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Church centers offer dignity to abused women in South Korea

Rodem House has served about 3,000 victims of abuse since its foundation in 2003

UCA News reporter, Seoul

UCA News reporter, Seoul

Published: May 24, 2021 05:41 AM GMT

Updated: May 24, 2021 05:50 AM GMT

Church centers offer dignity to abused women in South Korea

South Korean Buddhists attend a celebration ceremony to mark Buddha's birthday at Jogye temple in Seoul on May 19. (Photo: AFP)

Park Yang has experienced degrading forms of abuse — physical, sexual and mental — since she was a child, leaving her extremely frustrated and traumatized.

The 19-year-old South Korean spent much her childhood in childcare facilities as her parents divorced when she was only four.  

She faced an abusive environment in childcare facilities, forcing her to change shelters now and then. She also dropped out of school following a spate of bullying.

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Park then joined a fruit-selling company as a part-time employee to eke out a living. Her boss made suggestive remarks that as a woman she must use her physical appearance to attract more customers.

She could no longer take abuse that hurt her dignity as a human being and quit the job soon afterwards.

Park’s life changed for the better after she joined Rodem House in Masanhoewon-gu district in Changwon city in Gyeongsangnam-do province in July last year.

You don't have to be trembling with fear anymore

Housed in a four-story building, the center offers food, clothing, shelter, education and counseling services to women and girls who have faced various forms of abuse. Over the years, it has served about 3,000 victims since its foundation in 2003.

It is run and funded by the Diocese of Masan that covers the southeastern coastal province of Gyeongsangnam-do, west of Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city. 

Park said she is completely satisfied with the services she has received at the center. "You don't have to be trembling with fear anymore," she told The Catholic Times.

In recent months, Park has received sessions on healing from sexual abuse and human rights education that restored her confidence and encouraged her to resume her studies.

Jo Jung-hye, aka Rosa, the director of the center, said that they have modeled Rodem House as a family and community type professional welfare institution for those who have suffered abuse including domestic violence and sexual exploitation on digital platforms.

“We help them by providing food, clothing and shelter as well as counseling, education and employment so that they can be healthy and self-reliant,” Jo said.

She emphasized that families must play an important role to end the abuse of women and girls, while the culture of commercialization of women must end.

“Women should not be treated as objects or products but as human beings who deserve rights and dignity,” she added.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights and Counselling Center at Cheonho-dong of Gangdong-gu in the capital Seoul has also been serving abused women including sex workers who are coerced or forced into the profession against their will.

Before coming here, I was not treated as a person but as a product

While offering counseling, the center provides medical care, vocational training and legal support to retrieve compensation for the victims and help them find alternative stable jobs.  

Kim Hyo-jeong, 40, a former victim and now the head of rescue and support team at the center, recalled how her life had changed since she came to the center.

“I am proud to be a success story. Before coming here, I was not treated as a person but as a product. At times it was difficult for myself realize my self-worth,” she said, adding that the environment at the center and support she got enabled to her to improve her life.

Kim now works with eight staff of the center to locate women in entertainment establishments who were forcibly pushed into prostitution and now seek to quit the profession for a life of dignity.

The center also undertakes community campaigns and education programs to prevent prostitution and other forms of commercialization of women.

The extraordinary services of the center draws support and funding from the Sisters of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, an international Catholic religious order. Founded in 1877, the order has about 5,700 nuns in up to 79 countries.

Sister Lee Soo-gyeong, general secretary of the center, strongly emphasizes that "prostitution undermines the dignity of women as human beings." 

“Prostitution is an act that is performed in a discriminatory manner with a patriarchal mindset, which means that women are considered as products that can be bought and sold. They also face economic exploitation and threats,” the nun said.

Sister Lee also pointed out that structural problems in society force women in difficulty to be caught in prostitution and members of society fail to be responsible and helpful to these women.

Sister Hong Seong-sil, director of the center, echoed such sentiments and called for fundamental changes in society to prevent poor women from falling into prostitution by offering them necessary support.

“Jesus did not condemn a woman who committed adultery and held members of society to account for their own responsibility. Similarly, we must recognize that these women are precious beings created by God and continue to care and help them,” the nun said.

South Korea also has a high level of gender-based violence

Women activists say that despite being an economic powerhouse, South Korean society is still male-dominant and biased against women.

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index ranked South Korea 127 out of 153 countries on economic participation and opportunity, making it the largest gap among advanced economies.

South Korea also has a high level of gender-based violence. Data from police in 2019 showed that women accounted for 98 percent of victims in the nearly 10,000 cases of crimes against intimate partners. A government study in 2015 found that eight out of 10 respondents admitted they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, yet prostitution and advertising agencies linked to illegal sex businesses are huge in the country. A 2017 survey estimated South Korea’s commercial sex industry to be worth US$13 billion a year.

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