South Korean women march through the streets of Seoul.

© 2018 Courage to be Uncomfortable
On June 9, about 22,000 South Korean women marched through the streets of Seoul. The protest – reportedly the largest by women in South Korean history – focused on the proliferation of so-called “spy cams,” tiny cameras used to invade women’s privacy, filming them in toilets and up skirts, with images often posted online. Activists say the government is not taking the issue seriously – except in the rare case where a man is the victim.

Spy cam use is one of many rights violations women face in South Korea. The World Economic Forum recently ranked the country an abysmal 116 out of 144 countries in gender equality. In a survey of 2,000 South Korean men by the Korean Institute of Criminology, nearly 80 percent said they had physically or psychologically abused a girlfriend. A 2015 survey of 500 people by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found more than 78 percent of sexual harassment victims in the workplace did not seek recourse but “put up with it,” often believing they would not get help if they complained.

Abortion is legal only in cases of rape or incest, risks to the mother’s health, or if the parents cannot marry legally or have specific hereditary disorders or communicable diseases. Even so, married women need their spouses’ permission for an abortion, and illegal abortion is punishable by up to one year in prison or fines up to 2 million won (US$1,820). Healthcare workers providing abortions face up to two years in prison.

The recent protest was the latest of a growing number of demands for change. In April 2018, more than 200,000 people signed a petition demanding a ban in sales of hidden cameras and stronger punishments for hidden camera crimes. In October 2017, more than 235,000 people signed a petition demanding legalization of abortion. A lawsuit on this issue is moving forward in the courts. The #MeToo movement took hold last year, with women demanding government action on sexual harassment.

President Moon Jae-in promised a cabinet with at least 30 percent women – and kept that promise. He pledged to strengthen the law on workplace sexual harassment, but has yet to do so. On abortion, the government kicked the issue down the road, saying they will study the issue and follow the ruling of an ongoing constitutional court case.

Saturday’s protest was a clear message. South Korean women see inequality all around them, they have had enough, and are demanding action by the government. Let’s hope their government heard the message.