Lisa Betham said she still finds it hard to shake off being groped on the street of Boryeong, South Chungcheong Province, during the city’s mud festival one year.
As she and a friend were walking back along the beach to the motel, a group of men headed toward them, shouting in Korean. Only when they had approached did Betham realize they were just distracting her so one of them could grab her crotch.
“They walked off, laughing and clearly proud of what happened,” said Betham. “I did not seek help as I didn’t know there was any available. I was shocked after the incident but not surprised by it ― I had heard a lot of stories from my friends about groping and sexual harassment here in Korea.”
That was neither the first nor last time she had been harassed in Korea, she said. That’s why she has got involved in projects to end sexual harassment, most recently the newly launched Korea chapter of Hollaback!, a worldwide movement that has spread to 71 cities in 24 countries.
“Personally I have endured, like many, frequent glaring and creepy advances from strange men. I have had a taxi driver withhold my change until I made it very clear I was not a prostitute whilst he stared at my legs,” said Betham, who is based in Seosan, South Chungcheong Province. “After setting up a forum for people to talk about their experiences I learned that this is a widespread problem, affecting a large number of people I know.”
Four months in the making, Hollaback! Korea launched its website on Dec. 3 with 23 volunteers across the country, all of whom are involved in other common causes. Group members are Koreans and expats, of both genders and all sexual orientations, said site leader Chelle Mille.
Hollaback! aims to build a community of support by allowing harassment victims to share testimonies and encouragement with each other.
“It is already supporting those that come forward,” said Mille, who herself was harassed near her school last month on her way to a Hollaback! meeting, and posted an account of her experience on the site soon after.
“I feel very isolated by harassment and usually dwell on it all day; sometimes I even blame myself. This time, there was an online community of over 300 people and within minutes people were supporting me. It helped me to cope with the incident and to get back to work.”
In Seoul, Mille experiences the most harassment on or near the subway or bus, she said. She was once followed through train cars full of passengers, attempting to flee a harasser, but was unable to shake him off until she ran out of the station, she said.
“I was able to ask fellow commuters for help, but didn’t get any,” she said.
Cases like this are not isolated, as 4 in 10 salaried workers have been harassed while commuting on the subway, she noted, citing a 2010 survey from the Korean job portal Career. Of them, 8 in 10 were women.
It is public incidences like these that Hollaback! especially aims to eradicate. Street harassment can happen on subways or streets. It can come in the form of cat calls or, as some users on Hollaback!’s site attested, public groping or harassers pursuing them as they were jogging or waiting for the bus.
One of its main first-year goals is to encourage bystander awareness and intervention by educating the public, both online and at events, on ways to stop harassment when they see it. The website includes advice on how to intervene, as well as a list of resources of where to get help after experiencing harassment.
The website also features a map that lets users pinpoint locations where they’ve experienced or witnessed harassment, and organizers plan to identify high-incident spots and campaign there to raise neighborhood awareness. Hollaback! also aims to compile reports with other rights groups to help police and policymakers improve public safety.
“This project is about reminding us all that we are not alone and that there are resources we have a right to use in order to address harassment,” she said.
Hollaback! has held launch parties in Jeju and Gwangju, and is building a strong online base in Daejeon and Seosan. It will hold another launch party at Yogiga in Hapjeong, Seoul, Saturday, from 7-10 p.m. Organizers will set up an area for audience members to write messages to “holla back at harassers and bystanders in their lives,” said Mille.
For more information, find Hollaback! Korea on Facebook or visit korea.ihollaback.org.
By Elaine Ramirez (firstname.lastname@example.org