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The forgotten women of Gwangju

HONG KONG (UCAN): As the #MeToo movement sweeps the globe, some South Koreans have been inspired to expose the mistreatment of women and girls who, nearly four decades ago, demonstrated against military regime of strongman, Chun Doo-hwan, in the southern city of Gwangju.
In what was to become known as the Gwangju Incident of May 1980, students and citizens protested against ongoing military rule. The government sent in troops who opened fire. The death toll has been estimated at more than 600 during 10-days of clashes.
On a trip to Gwangju, members of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong, met with women’s rights advocates who have been collecting testimonies from women who were abused at that time.
Jackie Hung Ling-yu, a project officer for the commission, said progress is slow because there are only a handful of women involved in the probe.
She said that although Korean officials and non-government organisations had continued to collect information related to the 1980 crackdown, the individual stories of many female victims have largely been ignored.
Hung believes that this state of affairs reflects a deep-rooted view among many Koreans that females are inferior to males.
As a result, many former women protesters suffered in silence fearing others would not believe their accounts of what happened to them.
However, as the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse emerged in 2017 and started spreading around the world, such Korean women have been emboldened.
Researchers have obtained testimonies from female dissenters about gang rapes and other sexual abuses as well as humiliation in the form of women and girls being forced to urinate in public.
Victims of sexual assault are alleged to have included a 10-year-old girl and a woman who was pregnant.
In recent years, South Korean authorities have apologised for such rights violations, including torture and killings.
Political leaders, including Chun Doo-hwan, as well as various members of the security forces, were punished.
But while the general nature of atrocities against women have long been in the public domain, researchers say the details on gender-specific rights violations are only now coming to light.
Hung notes that in addition to violent rapes, women are now telling of being ridiculed through the malicious public display of feminine hygiene products.
In May, Kim Sun-ok was inspired by the campaign to reveal her story to a television reporter. She told of how she was arrested for participating in the 1980 protest and repeatedly tortured. Later, a major in the military raped her resulting in her becoming pregnant, Kim recounted.
Due to the conservative attitude of the society and the opposition of her daughter, she has not publicly disclosed the incident for many years.
However, her story, when told, caused great concern in Korea.
On November 7, the defense minister of South Korea, Jeong Kyeong-doo, publicly apologised on behalf of the government and the military on television.
He admitted there were cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual torture against women by the martial law soldiers. Among those cases, at least 17 were gang rapes. 
The victims were between the ages of 10 and 30, including secondary school students and pregnant women.
Although he promised to set up a committee to investigate the incident, including sexual violence, Kim declined to accept his apology and called for the perpetrator to be penalised. “Otherwise, it would be useless to apologise a million times,” Kim said.
Back in 1980, she had contemplated suicide, her father was dismissed from his job and her mother, suffering depression, died. “What should they do to compensate my life?” she asks now.
During the trip to Gwangju, Hung met a priest who told her that many people in Gwangju still face unfair treatment in society.
The people of Gwangju are moving ahead by trying to improve their lives.
However, they, and supporters such as Hung, still want the women abused in May 1980 to finally be able to speak out.

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