The Korean medical community is notorious for having a strict hierarchy and a male-dominant work culture in Korea. That is why so many Korean female physicians expressed empathy to Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun’s difficult but courageous revelation of her experience of sexual harassment by a former Justice Ministry senior official.
Seo’s story sparked the nationwide spread of “Me Too” movement, shedding lights to hidden issues in the Korean society.
However, not just Seo but many female physicians have continued to open up about their experiences of sexual violence, which made it a publicized issue. In other words, woman doctors have had their version of Me Too movement.
When a sexual abuse case would come up in the medical field, victims rather than offenders used to keep a low profile. While offenders continued to work at the same hospital, victims, mostly female, used to move to another hospital, in many cases.
However, the situation is entirely different now. Most of the offenders of the sexual violence cases in the past year received adequate punishment. Koreans’ stricter attitude toward sexual abuse played a part, but the Korean Medical Women’s Association’s (KMWA) support for victim doctors helped the medical community take a stern measure against the offenders.
|Korea Biomedical Review on Feb. 6 met executive members of the Korea Medical Women’s Association at the KMWA’s office in Mapo-gu, Seoul. From left are Joh Jong-nam, head of the KMWA’s human rights committee; Kim Bong-ok, president of the KMWA; Lee Hyang-ae, vice president of the KMWA, and Huh Joo-ryung, the KMWA’s legal affairs director of the joint task force with the Korean Women Lawyers Association (KWLA) to make standardized manuals to help sexual assault victims report the incident.|
It has not been very long since the KMWA began to respond to the sexual violence in the medical sector aggressively. Even among doctors, mentioning issues such as sexual molestation and sexual harassment was taboo. Physicians could not include the word, “sexual violence,” in the title of a seminar that themed on the issue of sexual violence. The KMWA held a seminar on the topic of sexual abuse in the medical sector at the K-HOSPITAL FAIR 2017 on Sept. 28, hosted by the Korean Hospital Association (KHA). However, the title of the seminar was “Present and Future of Gender Equality in Medical Institutions.”
“Internally, there were many pros and cons, but we ended up using the word ‘gender equality’ in our seminar’s title. At that time, doctors were very cautious in dealing directly with sexual harassment issues,” said Kim Bong-ok, president of the KMWA and a professor of rehabilitation medicine at Chungnam National University Hospital.
“Speakers could not even make the seminar’s material book in advance because they had trouble to decide how far they should go in choosing words of sexual violence. This happened less than a year ago. We summed up their presentations and made the first record in the newsletter of the KMWA.”
Kim added it was unprecedented that publishing a story titled, “Let’s enhance our capacity to prevent sexual violence in medical institutions,” on the front page in the Sept.-Oct. issue of the KMWA’s newsletter.
Victims of sexual abuse in hiding
Even female physicians regarded sexual violence as “an issue to cover up.” Such perception was shown in the October incident at Gangnam Severance Hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology department where a senior professor sexually harassed a trainee female doctor at a dinner. At that time, the public criticized other physicians for conniving at the crime.
Just like the legal field, the medical society is so intertwined in school connections and regionalism that sexual abuse victims tend to be quiet. Physicians attend the medical school with the same classmates for six years. After graduation, they usually get medical training at a hospital where their school is affiliated. Hospitals affiliated with a medical school such as Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital, Catholic Medical Center and Seoul National University Hospital often come under criticism that they have failed to fight against school ties.
The recent sexual cases that were widely publicized mostly happened at hospitals where such connections were relatively weak, according to the KMWA.
“All sexual violence in the workplace is violence using the authority of a senior position. If you disagree with a senior, you may not be able to get a promotion or get a job. In most of the cases, victims are afraid that they might face various disadvantages. So they try to hush down the issue,” Kim said. “It’s the same case with the medical community. You try to hide it because your master’s thesis might not pass or you might not become a professor.”
The weaker the school ties, the more victims talk, Kim said.
“Hospitals, where doctors graduating from another university are mixed, have more talks about sexual abuse. Victims at hospitals in strong school ties have to keep facing the offenders because they are both senior workers and senior alumni. That is why they cannot open up the issue,” she added.
Joh Jong-nam, head of the KMWA’s human rights committee and an ob-gyn clinic director, said victim physicians suffer more pain because the medical field is a male-dominant society.
“Sexual violence takes root in misogyny. The time has changed, so the medical society has to change. At medical schools, we need to educate students that men and women should respect each other,” Joh said.
KMWA sets up human rights center to help victims
The KMWA began to take actions to change the reality that victims of sexual violence had to hide. The September seminar on sexual abuse at the K-HOSPITAL FAIR, hosted by the KHA, was the start.
Two months later in November, the KMWA established a joint task force with the Korean Women Lawyers Association (KWLA) to make standardized manuals to help sexual assault victims report the incident. Its goal is to universalize sexual violence response manuals, which are now all different in every hospital. To do so, the KMWA is researching with the support of the Korean Medical Association’s medical policy think tank. The KMWA is also seeking the inclusion of the integrated manuals in the KMA policy.
The KMWA will also establish tentatively-named “Human Rights Center” to receive reports from sexual abuse victims and support them. The center will get reports 24 hours a day and guide responses. If victims need legal counseling, the center will get the help from the KWLA.
Huh Joo-ryung, the KMWA’s legal affairs director of the joint task force with KWLA and a professor of pathology at Asan Medical Center, said protecting victims rather than penalizing perpetrators is a top priority for the human rights center.
The human rights center will also nurture professionals to be capable of counseling victims of sexual assaults.
“Each hospital has a sexual violence response manual, but no legal regulation can punish those who do not abide by the rules. When a sexual assault occurs, the personnel committee or the disciplinary committee decides on the disciplinary action against the offender. But such committee does not have a female member, most of the time. It is important to integrate different manuals and apply them in reality,” Kim said.
Kim went on to say that the KMWA will work with the Korea Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education to offer education for physicians so that they can directly provide counseling for victims.
Currently, administrative employees at hospitals offer counseling but victim physicians find it difficult to talk about their experiences in detail to a male worker, Kim said.
“That is why female doctors decided to deal with the issue directly,” she added.
Joh said victims of sexual violence tend to have all kinds of thoughts including the victim has acted in such a way to be sexually harassed.
“Some of them are worried about whether or not to disclose their experience and damage. But they need to remember that they have senior female practitioners who are prepared to help with their past experiences,” Joh said.
Huh said not only the first damage of sexual assault but the second damage is serious.
“Even if there was no significant damage at the time of the sexual violence incident, the offender becomes apparently hostile to the victim later on. The victim might have to live with a tag called a victim of sexual assault,” Huh said.
“We need education and campaigns to prevent secondary damages in the long term. This is not just a problem coming from men. It is a problem in all of us, so we should all work together,” she emphasized.
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