By Desiree Hoffman, Director of Advocacy
I was reading through my scribbled notebook today from my trip to Seoul, Korea. A name was written by a fellow conference attendee from Palestine, who I promised to add on Facebook after I returned home. She was someone to remember, as she had strong opinions about violence against women in conflict and post-conflict countries. I vividly recalled her remarks after watching the Abigail Disney film, “I Came to Testify,” about Bosnian women whose testimony before the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) resulted in the verdict that “systematic rape” and “sexual enslavement” in time of war was a crime against humanity – second only to the war crime of genocide. Instead of allowing anger to dominate my friend’s response (the way I had) after hearing the stories of Bosnian women being systemically raped as a weapon of war and ethnic cleansing, she said that we need to stand empowered and fight against horrific acts like this.
And now my thoughts are with my ITI friend, who has returned home to civil unrest in her home country of Palestine.
I returned to the USA from Seoul less than a week ago, and I am still being asked by friends and colleagues about my experiences. Meeting with women from other countries and hearing statistic after statistic about how violence affects women and girls globally is overpowering. Domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and other forms of violence are inescapable, no matter what country you live in. While the statistics vary, violence is a global epidemic, and its root causes are not unknown to us. Before we can envision a world free of violence, nation-states need to take steps to ensure that women and girls reach their full potential and are afforded educational, political, economic, and social opportunities.
After visiting Seoul, I have a broader definition of violence against women. I have a new lens to look at the world, as if a door has been opened. I see nation-states and global actors as having a hand in eradicating or perpetuating forms of violence against women and girls, and against other vulnerable communities.
I have a lot of lingering questions about my trip, especially after having an open dialogue with attendees from the YWCA of Korea. I am still curious if all Koreans share their sentiment about a reunified Korea, and what the stories are of the women, men, girls, and boys who escape or leave North Korea to live on the other side. A good friend of mine who is Korean said to me, “Can you imagine being separated from your mother or siblings, never to see them again?” The YWCA of Korea does a lot of great work, and in particular they have a country-wide project collecting money for baby formula and rice so that they can ship it to North Korea to prevent malnutrition. (See their pamphlet about it, and a cell phone charm, above.)
Our group traveled to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – the area that divides North and South Korea. It is 155 miles long and just 2.5 miles wide. Former President Bill Clinton once described the DMZ as “the scariest place on Earth,” as it is the most heavily-fortified border in the world, bristling with watchtowers, razor wire, landmines, tank-traps and heavy weaponry.
From the Cheorwon Peace Observatory Tower, I saw a little bit of that through the telescope, but there is much more there than meets the eye. Almost two million troops face each other on each side, and are ready for war at a moment’s notice. Should North Korea ever step foot on the other side, the United States is automatically at war — under a 1954 treaty backed by United Nations resolutions, the U.S. is committed to defend South Korea.
Images of the DMZ and the stories of the women from the film still linger in my head. At the same time, I leave Seoul with a renewed faith in sisterhood. I feel as if I have a global partner, a sister to call on, ask questions, or send my thoughts to – and she is simply a click away. There is power in unity, and I am eager to continue to explore this new-found sisterhood.
(View more of my photos from Seoul on the YWCA USA Facebook page.)