SOUTH KOREA COURT ORDERS TO LIFT DECADES-OLD ABORTION BAN

by Pankhuri Prasad
Staff Writer

Abortion rights continue to garner widespread attention in the United States and around the world, with restrictions on abortion and the reproductive rights of women constantly in flux. In May 2018, Ireland was acclaimed when it passed a referendum that struck down the eighth amendment of its constitution, which previously placed the life of a fetus and the life of a woman at equal importance. Most recently, in April 2019, South Korea followed suit by moving towards more progressive legal options for abortion.

Abortion had been legally restricted under South Korean criminal law since 1953. Certain exceptions were granted to allow abortion in the case of rape, incest, or serious threat to the mental or physical health of the expectant mother. However, even in these exceptional cases, the procedure required consent of the spouse. Otherwise, a woman would face up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 2 million won for an illegal abortion (approximately $1,750). A case was brought to the court in 2018 by a doctor who was facing prosecution for performing nearly 70 abortions. Medical professionals, if prosecuted for performing the procedure, may be sentenced for up to two years in prison under the current law. The Constitutional Court reviewed the law in 2012, but the ban was upheld since the court was split evenly. In a landmark victory for human rights in April of 2019, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled the 1953 law was unconstitutional. The verdict gives the Korean Parliament until the end of 2020 to revise the law, after which it will become null and void.

In South Korea, the “pro-choice”—or pro-abortion—activism gained momentum in 2017 when 230,000 people signed an online petition to strike down the ban on abortions. In the months leading up to the court decision, rhetoric and protests from both sides intensified. On March 30, 2019, more than a thousand women took to the streets to protest the ban on abortion. Activists have argued that the government has long viewed women simply as “baby-producing machines.” In the 1970s and 1980s, the government was faced with the challenge of curbing the unsustainable population growth. During this time, the government simply ignored illegal abortions, as it pushed for only one child per household. In recent years, the government has grown worried about the falling birthrate—one of the lowest in the world—and has become more stringent about restricting abortions. As a consequence, many women in South Korea feel that their reproductive freedoms have been taken away from them.

Access to safe abortion services should transcend national borders because it directly violates women’s right to health. When abortion is illegal and cannot be conducted safely, it forces women to carry out unwanted pregnancies, face serious threats to their health, or even risk death. According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 13 percent of maternal deaths worldwide are attributable to unsafe abortion—between 68,000 and 78,000 deaths annually. In fact, unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide and lead to an additional five million largely preventable disabilities, according to the WHO.This is easily preventable by legalizing abortion. Banning abortion does not end abortions; rather, it drives it underground and forces women to seek illicit and unsafe procedures. This has been the case in South Korea where, despite the ban, abortions are rampant. Collecting accurate data regarding abortions in Korea is extremely challenging as government statistics have relied on calculating national health insurance claims and doctors who perform abortions do not report their procedures. As a result, most estimates about Korean abortion rates likely undercut the actual rate. Data based on surveys of various medical providers put the estimated number of abortions in 2005 at 342,433. The Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimated that approximately 3,000 abortions occurred daily in 2017, which also contradicts other figures reported by national agencies.

Although the court’s ruling is welcomed by women’s rights activists, concerns about the stigma surrounding abortions persist. Many Koreans see abortion as immoral and for “naughty” girls. The Catholic Church in Seoul has expressed regret over the court’s ruling and urged people to choose “life over death.” The discussion on reproductive freedoms cannot end at increasing access to abortions, but must also address society’s prevailing attitudes on reproduction. In most societies and cultures, the burden of preventing unwanted pregnancies is left to the woman.

Crowd in front of the South Korean Constitutional Court in Seoul following the ruling to overturn the 65 year old ban on abortion.

A study conducted by the UN in 2015, Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide, shows that across the world contraceptive methods such as female sterilization and IUD’s make up the majority while male sterilization and male condoms make up only a small fraction of total contraceptive usage. Female surgical sterilization methods can be much more complicated and dangerous procedures than male sterilization, yet they are hardly done. This is only a symptom of a larger trend. Similarly, the most recent effort in 2016 to create a male birth contraceptive pill was stopped before completion since the side effects on the health of the participants were deemed too severe. It can be argued that the effects experienced by men—including acne, mood disorders, and raised libido—are relatively minor compared to those suffered by women on the pill, which include anxiety, weight gain, nausea, headaches, reduced libido, and blood clots. Additionally, restricting abortion unfairly raises the stakes for women. This can be worse in countries such as South Korea where there have been multiple cases of husbands and boyfriends using women’s secret abortions to blackmail them to extort large sums of money.

Society and culture do not change overnight, and women who seek abortions will undoubtedly continue to face strong stigmas despite the newly-won legality. This is the reality for many women across the world. However, legalizing abortion guarantees—at the very least—safer and affordable access to procedures. Still, there are further steps needed to ensure positive change.. If the Korean government is committed to this issue, it must build infrastructure to support women who suffer from serious physical and mental consequences after the procedure.

Photos by:
Bonnielou2013

GLOBAL CHALLENGES FOR THE “#MeToo” MOVEMENT: THE CASE OF FRANCE

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by Pankhuri Prasad
Staff Writer

The years since 2012 have broadly been classified under fourth-wave feminism. Brave individuals have battled against systematic sexism through multiple avenues; most recently, the work of 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners Dennis Mukwege and Nadia Murad stands as a powerful example of individuals striving to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. In many countries, the feminist movement has heavily utilized technology and social media to fight for gender equality. Specifically, the #MeToo movement has been the most publicly acknowledged feminist campaign in the last year. Differences in perception of the movement in various countries provide important insight into the cultural distinctions that define each country’s views on feminist issues.

In particular, France’s wary reception of #MeToo stands out compared to the widespread support the movement received in the United States. This stems from French views on sexuality, suggesting that greater consideration of intersectionality is necessary when considering the cultural nuances that complicate a global social movement.

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2018 Philadelphia Women’s March

Is it a Global Movement?

The #MeToo movement was launched by the “#MeToo” hashtag, which spread virally on social media in October 2017. People who have been victimized by sexual violence used the hashtag to share their stories, revealing the extent of sexual assault and harassment faced by women everywhere, especially in the workplace. The hashtag went viral and was adopted by many celebrities soon after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Harvey Weinstein, a famous American film producer. Later that year, TIME magazine named ‘The Silence Breakers’ collectively as their “2017 Person of the Year”, honoring not one individual but all of the people involved with the rise of the #MeToo movement.

#MeToo resonated with individuals around the world, with many translating the movement into their own languages. An article in the Washington Post describes the scope of the movement: “From Stockholm to Seoul, from Toronto to Tokyo, a torrent of accusations has poured forth. Survivors spoke out, and many were taken seriously. Powerful men lost their jobs. A few went to prison. How diverse societies — some liberal, others conservative — saw sexual harassment seemed to be changing.” As the movement spread across the world, it raised new questions on how different cultures view sexual harassment and what kind of challenges may arise when trying to spur a change across different societies.

The “#MeToo” Movement in France

The French counterpart to the #Me Too movement is known as “#BalanceTonPorc”, which loosely translates to “Rat Out Your Pig.” First started by journalist Sandra Muller, #BalanceTonPorc resulted in thousands of French women speaking out on social media. However, unlike in the United States, the movement faced a backlash from the same demographic that had championed it in America. One hundred prominent French women ranging from artists to intellectuals, including famous French actress Catherine Deneuve, signed a highly publicized open letter denouncing the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc movements. They defended what they called a “right to pester” and explained that “Trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not a crime”. The letter argued that the movement had gone too far: seduction was an inherent part of French culture and the movement was too moralizing, threatening to curb the sexual freedom that people enjoyed in France.  

With the letter facing criticism from many inside and outside France, Deneuve apologized to victims of sexual harassment and distanced herself from the incident. Regardless, the letter provides an important perspective on the role of cultural differences in global movements. France has historically valued artistic freedom and prided itself on its lack of censorship in art. As a result, movements such as #MeToo face a challenge in adapting to a culture which fears cultural purging for accommodation of political overcorrection and fights censorship while still striving towards building a safer environment for women. Many in France were quick to reject the movement as an American import, while many in the United States called the letter a reflection of French internalized misogyny. Americans failed to recognize French concerns that the massive power of the movement, stemming from its popularity and size, could result in a censorship of the artistic, sexual and even ideological freedoms earlier generations have fought hard to achieve. Their anxiety stems from a past where a woman exerting her own sexual agency and depicting that in cinema, art and other forms of culture, were considered brave acts in defiance of existing patriarchal taboos. It seems people on both sides are ultimately trying to protect the same thing—an individual’s agency to make his or her own decisions. However, the letter’s argument is put forth in a problematic manner, potentially allowing harassers to present themselves as victims of misconstrued advances and entrenching the idea that a “certain” level of harassment is normal and should be accepted. The letter has highlighted a fundamental debate within feminism-sexuality as a source of power versus a source of oppression. France must not let traditional views on the nature of courtship and social interactions such as flirtation restrict it from participating in the new, albeit difficult, conversation on sexual harassment.

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Demonstrations in France against sexual violence

The challenge that the #MeToo movement has encountered in Francecultural criticism and religious stereotypingamplifies the need for intersectionality in not only France’s feminist movement but in feminist movements across the world. Intersectionality refers to interconnected ways in which different social categorizations-in this case class, race and gender-apply to a group (or individual), aggravating overlapping and interdependent features of sexism. In analyzing the Deneuve letter, there is a need to remember that the ultimate goal of the #MeToo movement is to empower people. If the movement starts restricting the freedoms of others, then it must be restructured. Cultural differences like those demonstrated by France’s reception of #MeToo must ]be an essential consideration in feminism. Similarly, those supporting the letter must not forget that many individuals sharing their stores as part of #BalanceTonPorc are on the lower end of an established social hierarchy. They are often intimidated into remaining silent in the face of abuse. Therefore, publicly defending the “right to pester” only emboldens harassers who would like to use the “seduction” argument to defend themselves in situations where their actions could be considered harassment. Therefore, the social element of privilege has to be accounted for when considering any argument regarding feminism. Intersectionality is not only relevant to French feminism but across all feminist movements. If a movement seeks to be truly global, it must cease to be purely American and become a more inclusive platform. More efforts are needed to combat systemic sexism; ensuring global movements account for cultural differences and resonate with those of all backgrounds is an important step in that direction.

 

Photos by:
Alter1fo
Rob Kall
Jeanne Menjoulet

ERADICATING THE PRACTICE OF FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING ON YOUNG GIRLS IN SIERRA LEONE

by Ami Bhakta
Contributing Writer

Executive Summary

Female genital cutting (FGC) is a pressing issue in Sierra Leone that not only can cause an abundance of health problems in young girls, but is also correlated with dropping out of school and child marriage. It is a serious prohibitor of girls’ potential and impedes on a girl’s ability to control her own body. To combat this problem, conversations need to be started in Parliament about partnering with INGOs to develop educational services regarding the harmfulness and unnecessariness of FGC. These educational services will benefit Sierra Leone as a whole by also promoting democracy and community developing by incorporating community conversation through a nonjudgmental rights-based approach.

Statement of Issue

Progression towards gender equality includes attempting to change legal frameworks and the discrimination that stems from patriarchal attitudes and prevailing gender norms. This includes attempts to alter laws and societal mindsets towards female genital cutting, which will hereby be referred to as FGC. FGC is practice inflicted mainly upon young girls before marriage (typically the only economically viable life choice for women) in order to ensure their purity and to control their sexuality. FGC holds the risk of an abundance of mental and physical problems, including increased risk of HIV, bladder infection, blood loss, menstrual complications, childbirth complications, death, etc. (28 Too Many, 2018). The specific problem being addressed is the lack of policies regarding educational services about the implications of FGC, and thereby the lack of access community leaders, parents, and FGC executors have to these services.

Implementation of educational services teaching on the detriments of FGC are crucial to changing the social convention that revolves around the practice. Today, around 200 million girls in the world have been affected by the practice that defines the legitimacy of a woman and causes unnecessary health problems (28 Too Many, 2018). In Sierra Leone, an African state with one of the highest percentages of FGC practice, it has a prevalence of 89.6%, and the state currently has no laws in place banning FGC; while it was shortly banned in 2014 during the Ebola Crisis, the ban has since been lifted, and there appears to be no sign of discontinuation (28 Too Many, 2018). Eradicating FGC is also important because there is a strong correlation between undergoing FGC and child marriage in some ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, and many drop out of school after being cut (28 Too Many, 2018). If communities in Sierra Leone can slowly begin to condemn FGC, there might be a larger number of girls staying in school and getting married later, which is clear progress on the pathway towards UN Sustainable Development Goal #5 of gender equality. Furthermore, FGC of girls in Sierra Leone is extremely prevalent in households with uneducated mothers (95%), as compared to in households with mothers who have at least secondary education (74.2%) (Bjälkander et al., 2012). If these educational services can get the ball rolling and have girls stay in school for longer, these educated future mothers will work in conjunction with any anti-FGC initiatives or laws in place by the time.

Following the statement of the issue, this policy brief will dive into the origins of FGC and how it plays out in Sierra Leone society today. The lack of policy regarding FGC in general, nevertheless regarding anti-FGC educational programs, certainly warrants critiques. Many anti-FGC initiatives have been implemented in various sub-Saharan African countries, such as alternative rites of passage and alternative employment for FGC executors, but the best approach to take for a long-term cessation of FGC is the approach that advocates for community conversation and dialogue.

Origin of the Problem and the Current Context

Originating in Africa, FGC is currently condoned in 28 countries (Bjälkander et al., 2012). While it is not certain when the practice originated, in the past few decades it has come to be recognized as a human rights violation.  In Sierra Leone, 70.1% of women aged 15-19 have undergone FGC compared to 96.4% of women aged 45-49, implying some change through the generations, but this shift is still not as fast as it ideally should be, and many more young girls are still at risk (Bjälkander et al., 2012). Though it is important to know that FGC has no health benefits, the origins of its purpose lie within the misogynistic ideas that a girl is only marriageable and a real woman if she has undergone FGC. The International Center for Research on Women claims that cultural consensus agrees that FGC maintains family dignity and respect, is ingrained in communal and ethnic identity, and improves female hygiene (ICRW, 2018). Aside from this, FGC still has practical implications for Sierra Leonean women today; in order to be marriageable, a woman must be cut, and marriage is often times the only way a woman can financially support herself and her family. As gender roles are an integral part to the various cultures of ethnicities in Sierra Leone, women are expected to remain pure, faithful, and modest—FGC is viewed as a prerequisite for all three (International Center for Research on Women, 2018).

The largest group of FGC excisors in Sierra Leone is known as the Bondo Society, a secret society comprised of all cut women (Bjälkander et al., 2012). The Bondo Society is prevalent in all ethnic communities of Sierra Leone, with 90% of women in the country belonging to the Bondo Society (28 Too Many, 2018). For them, FGC is not viewed as a human rights violation, but rather as entry into a society of women who have elevated community status and power.  In the current context, community elders decide when FGC will take place, and then notify the families of all the girls of age; the traditional excisor of FGC, also known as a Sowei in Sierra Leone, visits the families of young girls and informs them of the process of the ritual—FGC is very much a community-based decision (Bjälkander et al., 2012). Women are especially involved in the FGC decision making process for a young girl in the family (and therefore should be key targets of any anti-FGC reform, along with community elders and parents of boys). They are the largest stakeholders in the practice of FGC, as if they are not cut, they are subject to alienation and terms equivalent to “foolish”, “stupid”, “childish”, or “impure”, and if they are cut, it provides them with a sense of community and agency (28 Too Many, 2018).  These conditions make it difficult to unweave the precedent FGC has set in the fabric of Sierra Leonean society.

Some earlier campaigns to combat FGC have actually been counterproductive, and have resulted in the medicalization of FGC, which is potent in Sierra Leone today. Anti-FGC initiatives to paint FGC as an inhumane process that leads to severe health problems have resulted in licensed doctors performing FGC in order to satiate parents’ fears of health problems (Bjälkander et al., 2012). Fighting FGC by solely portraying it as a health violation only led to the addition of another acceptable excisor. This has actually further legitimized the practice and depicts in a healthy light because it is being executed by a doctor, even though the same health risks are still present. Because FGC is so culturally accepted and significant, doctors will usually have no problem performing the act. The current context of FGC in Sierra Leone is that it is still widely practiced and encouraged today, regardless of any prior initiatives to eradicate the process.

Critique of Policy Options

It is hard to critique policy options, because currently there is no passed legislation regarding FGC in Sierra Leone today (28 Too Many, 2018). Therefore, this section will target previous attempts to eliminate FGC that have failed and must be avoided. Though Sierra Leone’s constitution addresses the concept of basic human rights, neither the constitution nor parliamentary meetings address “women’s access to resources, education, reproductive health, political representation and perceptions of women in public and private spaces, or basic human rights” (Smart, 2012). There is a great gender disparity regarding conversations about men and women, and parliamentary silence on issues that affect women essentially imply their views on practices ingrained in Sierra Leonean culture, including FGC.  Parliament’s failure to tackle the practice helps to sustain its legitimacy in Sierra Leone. In fact, there is even more incentive for Parliamentary members to avoid condemning FGC because it is viewed as a “vote-winner” because it so popular among ethnic enclaves and women in Sierra Leone (Women’s Health Law Weekly, 2005). The only female presidential candidate in 2002 garnered less than 1% of voters, and blames her poor turnout on her anti-FGC stance. Though Sierra Leone signed the Convention for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1988, no legislation has been passed criminalizing FGC because it is not viewed as a threatening women’s rights violation (Women’s Health Law Weekly, 2005).

In Sierra Leone, the Amazonian Initiative Movement has convinced some midwives and other FGC excisors to stop performing the practice by giving them another type of employment (Women’s Health Law Weekly, 2005). However, Sierra Leone’s relationship with FGC is unique because close to all FGC excisors are Soweis from the secret Bondo Society, whose livelihood largely depends on transforming girls to women, which FGC is a big component of. Convincing them to drop the practice will be hard, and if any progress is made, it may be ephemeral, or just make FGC go underground. FGC is so central to the mission of the Bondo that when an organization called Conscious Family launched an anti-FGC campaign, the organization’s leader had to go into hiding due to death threats from the Bondo (28 Too Many, 2018). Even for just speaking out against the practice of FGC, young girls can be forcefully cut by the Bondo because the Sowei wants to initiate girls before they are “‘taken up’ by the human rights discourse” (Bosire, 2012). Converting excisors in Sierra Leone is especially difficult, as compared to other countries like Mali or Somalia where excisors are stigmatized or from a lower class, because excisors in Sierra Leone are revered and “powerful ritual specialists” (Johansen et al., 2013). Given the place of excisors in Sierra Leonean life, converting their employment is not a reliable way to eradicate FGC. Both the Amazonian Initiative Movement and the Inter-African Committee have launched campaigns to give FGC excisors other employment or worked in conjunction with local police forces and schools to convert FGC excisors to farmers (28 Too Many, 2018). Although this approach may have some impact on how many FGC excisors are still employed in the field, this approach does not change the social convention or mindset regarding FGC, and it will still continue to be an in-demand process here for the long-term. According to UNICEF, this approach can work well with complementary approaches, but alone, this was and is not enough to put an end to FGC (28 Too Many, 2018).

Policy Recommendations

As observed, solely focusing on changing the discourse in Parliament, or attempting to provide alternative forms of employment for FGC excisors, fails to spark permanent change against the practice of FGC. The best policy recommendation at this point would be to facilitate community dialogue and to employ a human rights-based approach through mandatory educational services that local communities have easy access to. Assessing the problem of FGC will be best done not by purely passing laws or offering jobs to FGC executors, but by addressing and changing the societal and communal mindsets revolving around the practice to ensure a permanent shift in attitudes toward FGC.  Sustaining community conversation and dialogue will not only eventually lead to a consensus among locals that FGC is an unnecessary practice but is also a more fulfilling approach than just targeting a certain group in Sierra Leone in hopes of eradicating the process. Educational services that host these conversations will help local parents, leaders, youth, and medical personnel change their collective societal mindset on the harmful practice of FGC.

Great examples of community wide campaigns (that take into consideration the cultural value of FGC, unlike the two previous approaches mentioned) are Tostan International’s FGC education model in Senegal and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood’s work in Egypt. In Egypt, by incorporating children, parents, leaders, medical practitioners, journalists, and judges into social media and educational campaigns, the NCCM was able to issue a law which made FGC illegal in the country in 2008 (ICRW, 2018). In Egypt in 2016, FGC moved from being a misdemeanor to a felony. Encouraging dialogue amongst the community and within families is the best way to eradicate the social convention around FGC. For example, one specific employment of this appears in Senegal through the Grandmother Project, which used grandmothers’ revered status within the family hierarchy to foster conversation about community values and traditions (ICRW, 2018).  Besides promoting development and democracy, these courses should also remember to maintain using the rights-based approach mentioned earlier. Success of these educational initiatives can be measured based on how many communities deliver a public declaration to abandon FGC, which is a good indicator that the social convention around the practice has changed.

Conclusion

Overall, there is not one direct way to tackle FGC in all countries it is practiced in. Solutions that only cater to one part of the problem are futile; change cannot occur just from trying to persuade members of Sierra Leonean Parliament, or by finding a new job for an FGC excisor. The decision to change must be arrived at by the community. This process takes effort and time, and it takes a culturally sensitive and holistic method that encompasses all members of the community. Educational services are a good idea to implement and be made accessible in Sierra Leone. Referring to them as community development programs instead of anti-FGC initiatives will ensure that the Bondo Society and communities in general do not react harshly to the courses. It is of the utmost importance to start the conversation in Sierra Leonean Parliament about working and partnering with INGOs to set up these educational services in as many communities as possible. Stopping FGC will result in girls going to school for longer and decrease the likelihood of child marriage, a strong step in the path toward gender equality and sustainable development.

Works Cited

Bjälkander, Owolabi, Bailah Leigh, Grace Harman, Staffan Bergström, and Lars Almroth. 2012.

“Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone: Who are the Decision Makers?” African Journal of Reproductive Health 16 (4): 119-31. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1353615817?accountid=14524.

Bosire, Tom Obara. “The Bondo secret society: female circumcision and the Sierra Leonean state.” PhD diss., University of Glasgow, 2012.

“Country Profile: FGM in Sierra Leone.” 28 Too Many. Accessed February 19, 2018. https://www.28toomany.org/static/media/uploads/Country%20Research%20and%20Resources/Sierra%20Leone/sierra_leone_country_profile_v1_(june_2014).pdf.

Female Genital Mutilation; Politicians in Sierra Leone use Support for Female Circumcision to Win Votes.” 2005.Women’s Health Law Weekly, Apr 10, 39. https://search.proquest.com/docview/232641884?accountid=14524.

Johansen, R. Elise B., Nafissatou J. Diop, Glenn Laverack, and Els Leye. “What Works and What Does Not: A Discussion of Popular Approaches for the Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation.” Obstetrics and Gynecology International 2013 (2013): 1-10. doi:10.1155/2013/348248

LEVERAGING EDUCATION TO END FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION/CUTTING WORLDWIDE.” Accessed February 19, 2018. International Center for Research on Women. https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/ICRW-WGF-Leveraging-Education-to-End-FGMC-Worldwide-November-2016-FINAL.pdf.

Lionello, Anna M. 2015. “Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience of Abandonment.” Order No. 3700987, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1680833593?accountid=14524.

Smart, Nina. “Resisting World Polity Transmission: The Silence on the Globalization of anti-FGM legislation in the Parliament of Sierra Leone.” PhD diss., University of California, Irvine , 2012.

“The Community Empowerment Program .” Tostan International . Accessed February 20, 2018.

“What is FGM?” 28Toomany. Accessed February 19, 2018. https://www.28toomany.org/what-is-fgm/.

 

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