By Desiree Hoffman, Director of Advocacy
November 6, 2012 will always be a memorable day in my book. It was the day I took my longest international trip – 18 hours from my home city of Washington, D.C., with pit stops in Dallas, T.X. and Tokyo. My final destination was Seoul, Korea, where I was chosen by the World YWCA to attend an International Training Institute (ITI) on Violence Against Women and Peacebuilding.
November 6 is also the same day that President Obama won a second term in the White House, winning battleground states like Ohio, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. When I landed in Tokyo, I ran to the nearest TV and, although I couldn’t understand Japanese, it was clear by the electoral map shaded in red and blue who had won.
The next day, I woke up feeling desperate for a cup of coffee. But that need slowly dissipated when I met women at breakfast from New Zealand, Great Britain, Zambia, Lebanon, Columbia and other countries. We made small talk about our journeys to Seoul as we ate a traditional Korean breakfast, which included rice and kimchee.
Together we made our way to the national YWCA of Korea, where we were greeted by the staff and board members of the YWCA of Korea and YWCA of Seoul. While I am not a practicing Christian, I enjoyed the morning worship (see the altar in the picture at left) and did my best to sing along, even if my pitch was off and I have zero mastery of the Korean language. At one point, we were asked to go to a table and pour water and serve rice bread to our neighbor. I thought this was symbolic of the social justice work we at the YWCA do to care for our own neighbors.
The YWCA of Seoul is celebrating its 90th anniversary, and it is the second largest in the world (followed by the YWCA USA). We traveled there to begin to work together as part of the Institute, defining violence against women, discuss root causes, and thinking of ways to combat violence against women globally. (Here are some of the participants of the Institute in the picture at right).
We watched a powerful video; while none of the statistics were new, the stories and images of women are forever etched in my head. The video showed young child brides being married at the ages of 8 or 9, to 40 and 50 year-old men. It told stories of honor killings, where a woman can be shamed or killed to protect her family’s honor in a dispute, even when she is not at all involved. The video demonstrated how rape is used systemically during war as a weapon of violence against women, young and old. Human trafficking has become a global business, with an estimated 800,000 people trafficked annually and the majority (79 percent) trafficked for sexual exploitation. I walked away feeling heavy with the weight and gravity of these issues.
We were asked to think about violence against women in our respective countries, and issues that may be specific to our countries alone. It had me thinking about violence against women in our own borders, and how the U.S. has come a long way. We now have improved mechanisms to respond to violence, such as the coordination of healthcare providers, local law enforcement, and social service agencies. However, domestic violence, sexual assault and rape are still pervasive. These problems have not gone away even in a country that has the resources, know how, and education to prevent such intolerable acts. While the U.S. may not be grappling with war inside its borders, the seriousness and consequences of violence against women and girls is real and urgent here.
We lightened the mood by doing some window shopping and taking a walk through Seoul in the crisp, autumn air. I honestly couldn’t shake some of the experiences and conversations I had had throughout the day, as our group walked together to Insadong shopping center (pictured, left) for traditional Korean bulgolgi. (It was almost like a taco – grilled meat and rice wrapped in lettuce instead of a tortilla). I made a promise to myself for when I returned to the U.S.: that the YWCA USA would take part in 16 Days of Activism, held from November 25 thru December 10, which is known as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Stay tuned for more from my trip to Seoul! And see more of my photos on the YWCA USA Facebook page.