Disabled sexual abuse victims struggle

By Claire Lee

Victims still suffer human rights violations in unreported cases

  • Published : Jun 8, 2014 - 21:29
  • Updated : Jun 8, 2014 - 21:39
In 2011, South Korea announced a new bill that would impose tougher sentences on people who sexually abuse the disabled, after “Dogani” ― a popular film which dramatized a real-life case of sexual abuse against hearing-impaired schoolchildren ― sparked public outrage. More than 4 million tickets to the film were sold following its release in September that year, and the bill, dubbed the “Dogani Bill,” was passed at the National Assembly just a month after. The new act included an abolishment of the statute of limitations for sex crimes against the disabled and children.

More than two years have passed since the release of “Dogani,” but sexual abuse victims with disabilities still suffer in the dark, with many of their cases unreported to the police. Among the victims, the most vulnerable are the more than 70 percent who have intellectual disabilities. Only 26 percent of them report their cases, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, partly because of their lack of understanding of the situation.

“The human rights of disabled victims of sexual violence are still being violated,” said Cho Hyun-ok of the Women and Family Policy Affairs Office of the Seoul government.

Last month, the Seoul government opened its fourth therapy center specifically for disabled women who have been sexually abused. Last year, the first three centers handled 3,382 cases, and the majority of their clients had developmental disabilities. “The number of cases is large considering the centers only offer programs for female victims with disabilities,” the city officials said in a statement.

Lee Hee-jeong, who heads one of these counseling centers, has been working in the field for some five years. Her job is to speak to the clients in their therapy sessions, as well as to accompany them when they attend trials. Lawsuits can be tedious and stressful for both Lee and her clients. It usually takes one to three years to hear the final ruling.
Lee Hee-jeong, head of a therapy center for female victims of sexual abuse with disabilities in Seoul (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

“Many times I got the impression that the judiciary doesn’t really understand the special condition of the developmentally disabled victims,” Lee said.

“One time, we submitted our client’s school report cards, to prove that she is developmentally disabled. She attended a special-education school for the disabled, and we thought the fact that she went to such a school could be proof. But when the judge read what her teacher wrote on the report card, which said she is ‘well behaved and clever in school,’ he concluded that the victim had sufficient ability to judge the situation and say no to the abuser. You can’t jump to that conclusion by reading a report card issued by a special-education school.”

According to the Seoul government, more than 65 percent of abusers are known by the developmentally disabled victims. They include the victims’ teachers, relatives or neighbors. Lee said many of them are also trusted by the victims, and because of that, physical violence is rarely involved.

“Abusers are usually nondisabled men and they start by giving the victims gifts, or buying them their favorite food,” Lee said. “In one case, the abuser asked the victim at night to go somewhere with him. The victim asked him, ‘Are we friends now?’ and the abuser said, ‘Yes.’ Thinking that they were ‘friends,’ she trusted him and followed the man. And of course, a nondisabled woman wouldn’t ask such a question to a stranger at night. But that abuser kept insisting in court that he didn’t know that she was disabled.”

Being a therapist for developmentally disabled victims has its own set of challenges, compared to talking to victims with other disabilities, Lee said.

“They don’t talk in chronological order, and many times, they don’t have the right grasp of what actually happened to them. Sometimes they don’t want to talk. It’s like putting all the pieces of a puzzle together. Art therapy is especially helpful for the developmentally disabled victims.”

Lee said intellectually disabled victims experience post-traumatic stress disorder, even if they may not acknowledge that they were abused. Symptoms include sudden weight gain, nightmares and eating disorders. “One of the victims would refer to the abuser as a ‘monster,’ while saying ‘He had been very good to me’ at the same time,” Lee said.

“Many of them grew up watching their parents being sad or were stressed because of them, so they feel guilty when they learn that they have been abused, because they feel like they’ve caused more trouble to those around them. They also find it intimidating to speak at court, or speak to police officers, because they were raised not to question or challenge the authorities. So it’s important to let them know that it is not their fault.”

Lee said it is also important to provide programs for the victims’ parents, many of whom unintentionally end up blaming their children for being abused. “Instead of saying, ‘Don’t worry, you didn’t do anything wrong,’ they’d say something like, ‘Why on earth did you leave the house at night?’” Lee said. “Some of them also have been in denial for a long time, because they didn’t want to accept the fact that their child has a disability. One of them in fact thought her child didn’t study hard enough until she finally accepted the reality.”

While opening more therapy centers for the victims may help, Lee said that public education on human rights is most important. “Nothing really is meaningful unless the public perception changes,” she said. “For example, it is simply not okay to think, ‘Women who wear miniskirts deserve to be assaulted.’ Our law and policies should be more considerate of the special conditions of the disabled.”

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family recently announced that is plans to train lecturers who specialize in gender equality and human rights education, as well as sexual violence. “It is important to have qualified teachers as more human rights and gender equality education is in demand in the country,” Minister of Gender Equality and Family Cho Yoon-sun said.

“We will try our best to create public awareness about violence as well as prevention education.”

By Claire Lee (