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Incest victims fight back against abusers in South Korea

Claire Lee

The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

 /  Mon, April 4, 2016  /  02:36 pm
Incest victims fight back against abusers in South Korea

Kim is one of many South Korean incest victims who received support at Sunflower Centers, government-affiliated support institutions for sexual violence victims. (shutterstock.com/-)

When Kim Mi-eun was in middle school, she accidentally read a story about an incest victim in a newspaper. That’s when she realized she had been constantly raped by her father, who had told her to keep their “playing sessions” a secret.

“I’d been abused by my father since I was a first-grader, and it lasted for 12 years,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “During sex education classes at school, they teach you to run away when a stranger tries to sexually abuse you. But they don’t specifically tell you it’s abuse when your own father engages in sexual activities with you. I was confused, but I didn’t really get it until I read the news story.”

Kim is one of many South Korean incest victims who received support at Sunflower Centers, government-affiliated support institutions for sexual violence victims. 

After receiving many years of therapy and psychiatric treatment, the college student now volunteers at the center to support other victims like her. Her mother, who is no longer with Kim’s assailant, has also formed a support group for incest victims and their families.

“I wanted to break all the stereotypes,” Kim’s mother said. “I wanted to prove that incest victims and their families do survive post-abuse, and they indeed want the abusers to be punished.”

While rarely a subject of public attention, incest against minors is not uncommon in South Korea.

According to the Gender Ministry’s latest data, 17 percent of all reported rape cases against Koreans aged 19 or under in 2014 were committed by the victims’ biological parents or siblings. “We predict that the actual proportion would be higher, considering a lot of incest cases remain unreported,” said an official from the ministry.

Alarmed by the statistics, the Sunflower Centers have begun offering therapy sessions for the victim’s parents -- the spouses of the abusers -- starting from this year.

“Many times, the mothers don’t believe it when their children tell them they’ve been abused by their fathers,” said Park Hye-young, the associate director of the Sunflower Center’s Seoul branch.

“And sometimes the mothers don’t want to report their spouse to the police because they are worried about losing the breadwinner of the family. The role of the spouse of the abuser is crucial for children who have been sexually abused by one of their parents, especially once they decide to file a complaint. This is why we’ve decided to run programs for the mothers.”

Even for Kim and her mother, the process hasn’t been easy. While attending high school, Kim started experiencing both visual and auditory hallucinations resulting from enduring abuse. She would often see another version of herself in front of her, who would constantly tell her to leave for somewhere else.

“I’d been always told (by my abuser) that if I told anyone about it, our family may not be able to live together. I was too afraid to hurt my mother, so I kept it to myself as long as I could,” she said.

Finding her condition unbearable, while not wanting to reveal the truth to her mother, Kim secretly visited a youth support center to seek help. Her visits to the institution were discovered by her schoolteacher, who eventually reported the case to the Sunflower Center.

“I was overwhelmed and I didn’t know what to do,” said Kim’s mother, recalling the moment she found out the truth at the center. “My ex-spouse would also physically abuse me in the presence of our children at home. Having watched me being abused by her father, I think my daughter instinctively thought I’d be incapable of helping her even if I found out the truth. And this still breaks my heart.”

Upon learning the truth 12 years later, Kim’s mother began to take the fight immediately. She reported her husband to the police and filed for divorce. One of the toughest challenges was dealing with her in-laws, who tried to persuade her daughter to drop the case against her father. Even her friends suggested it’s more “practical” to settle the case and move overseas with her daughter using the settlement money.

“The abuser’s father told my daughter, in my presence, ‘what kind of a daughter sues her own father and lets him serve a prison term?’” said Kim’s mother. “I told my daughter to get up and we left the house on the spot. There was nothing more to talk about.”

Kim told The Korea Herald that her paternal grandmother once threatened to kill her for wanting to see her father punished. “It was traumatic,” she said. “I thought out of all people, my grandmother would understand.”

Associate director Park said Kim’s experience with her father’s side of the family is common among incest victims, and many in fact end up dropping their cases after being guilt-tripped by their relatives.

“I must say, not every victim’s mother protects their child the way Kim’s mother has done,” she told The Korea Herald. “Many times, the mothers are afraid to lose their spouses because they don’t want to lose that sense of financial and emotional security. We’ve had the victims’ relatives -- mostly the parents and siblings of the abuser -- storming into the center and screaming at the victims for being an ‘unfilial’ child for wanting to file a complaint against her or his own parent.”

Kim’s father received a 10-year prison term about five years ago, which both Kim and her mother think is too light. “Even after he was jailed, I would see hallucinations of the abuser in front of me,” said Kim. “I knew that he was in jail physically, but the hallucination of him would say, ‘hey, come here. Dad is back.’”

Still, the two are determined to prove that incest victims do survive and live fulfilling lives post-abuse. Now a college student majoring in cinema studies, Kim’s dream is to make a film featuring her own experiences as a survivor. “I want to prove to my fellow survivors that incest victims can make art, and openly share their stories,” she said.

“And for those who are being pressured by their relatives not to file a complaint against their own parent, I want to tell them that by not reporting the abuser, you may be doing injustice to potential victims of sexual violence. When you report your abuser, you are not only doing it for yourself, but also for the world.”

The name of the interviewed victim has been changed upon request. -- Ed.

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