|PHOTOGRAPHED BY LEE SEUNG-YEON
2016 WAS truly an eventful yet troubling year for Yonsei University. Within the school, there were numerous incidents that infringed upon students’ human rights. For instance, a teaching assistant implied during a lecture that students who are incapable of fluently giving presentations in front of an audience were lepers. Also, a group of students directed sexist, misogynist, and inhumane remarks at their colleagues via online chatting last September. Such actions or words violate the fundamental human rights every individual deserves to hold and have caused many students to feel uncomfortable and outraged. In order for humans to live and enjoy the basic virtues of human dignity within a harmonious student society, it is necessary for the community to become more sensitive.
The lack of human rights awareness in school
According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, human rights sensitivity refers to the psychological process through which individuals perceive and understand specific circumstances in which human rights are at stake and recognize their responsibilities in each respective situation. Human rights sensitivity is crucial because it is the most basic conduct of action that defends human rights. According to Bae Chung-jin (Prof., Donga College of Health), “If a relationship arises based on empathy and communication, incidents that violate or abuse human rights will be greatly reduced. Therefore, to improve human rights sensitivity, respective education is necessary. It will allow the society to mature and develop into a society based on respect and love, and also create a society void of any discrimination originating from gender, position, or caste.”
Nevertheless, in South Korean universities, human rights education is increasingly degenerating. According to a discussion held by the Daily University News Network of Korea (UNN), Lee Na-young (Prof., Dept. of Sociology, Chung-Ang Univ.) stated that the problem lies in the fact that as the current South Korean administration has become conservative, the Ministry of Education has changed its focus toward a more conservative direction, where performance is preferred over values. Therefore, our current system of education focuses on academic programs and research that are more performance oriented. On the other hand, there is less emphasis placed on academic programs and research on equity studies or women’s studies, which, in fact, retain values crucial for the society. In addition, the fact that there has long been a smaller proportion of female professors, remaining at less than 30% according to *Daily UNN*, is another reason why the field of women’s studies and human rights education is limited.
Problems and limitations of institutions responsible for human rights
The Gender Equality Center (GEC) is the one and only institution provided by Yonsei University which aims to protect students’ human rights. The center, currently under the jurisdiction of the Student Welfare Office, offers a variety of educational programs for students of all genders in order to promote gender equality and counseling services. It also opens two gender related lectures: “Sex and its Cultural Reappearance” and “Sex and Human Relationships” and offers both online and offline education regarding sexual assault, sexual harassment, prostitution, and domestic violence.
However, despite being the only institution on campus that exists to promote students’ human rights, the GEC suffers from low accessibility to students. It is difficult to search for the GEC’s webpage (equity.yonsei.ac.kr/women), as it is absent on the Yonsei University portal webpage. In addition, according to the 28th Women Student Council Around, there are currently only two professional sexual assault counselors who are in charge of all sexual assault cases within the entire University, including both Sinchon Campus and Yonsei International Campus (YIC). The YIC is void of any services such as the GEC so the counselors must travel in order to assure counseling service for students living in the YIC. Therefore, both the quantity and quality of the counseling service offered at the center is substandard because of the limited number of counselors. Consequently, such premises create the potential for incidents of human rights infringement to occur. In addition, with its current programs, the center is unable to handle in a comprehensive manner the different types of issues regarding human rights on campus. The center exclusively deals with issues regarding sexual assault and harassment. Hence, minorities with problems such as school violence or violence within student societies are driven into dead zones, with their requests neglected.
The Student Welfare Office has now made it obligatory to complete violence preventive education as of the second semester of 2016. All members of the school community, including faculty staff and students, need to complete the online education program or participate in a respective offline lecture. However, it has yet not been widely promoted among students, and students remain unsure about its coherence and importance. For instance, the deadline for its completion last semester had been delayed for 20 days because students were unaware of the program.
The Women Student Council is a student-led organization that helps with human rights issues on campus. Once an organization exclusively for females, the Women Student Council now exists for all minorities on campus and fosters all individuals’ human rights empowerment. However, Women Student Councils in South Korea are now on the verge of disappearing. According to Korea University’s feminist magazine Seok-soon, only 37 universities out of 217 universities in Korea, excluding women’s universities, have an operating Women Student Council as of 2016.
According to the 28th Women Student Council Around, Women Student Councils are disappearing in number and size because a majority of the students think that the role of such institutions are not important and neglect the importance of the council. For instance, the voting rate for the 28th Women Student Council Around remained low at a staggering 50.56%, which was just above the least necessary threshold for ballot counting, despite the extension of the election period.
Also, in schools that are lacking such institutions, students feel burdened in creating a new student organization because of the possible criticisms that may be raised. In extreme cases, Women Student Councils are targets of misogyny as can be seen by posts on anonymous online communities on campus. Such posts include questions on whether the Women Student Council is necessary and concerns that its presence may promote female chauvinism rather than gender equality.
Therefore, Women Student Councils in other universities are increasingly disappearing. Hence, not only are gender recognition education and activities decreasing, but also the necessary discussions are not taking place. The fact that sexist, misogynistic and inhumane remarks are being made around campus suggests that gender equality is lacking on campus. Nonetheless, universities should be able to reflect on whether they have been complacent in dealing with gender issues or search for ways to prompt discourse on such topics, as educational institutions. The Women Student Council’s role is to allow for such opportunities to take place and let everyone’s voices be heard. For such reasons, the Women Student Council retains great importance.
Cases of human rights infringement on campus
One incident that has shown the school’s low level of human rights sensitivity was in the course “21st Century Technology Management.” The course hosts CEOs of Korean small and medium-sized businesses and aims to teach the students on how to succeed as entrepreneurs. The course however, stirred a wave of controversy following a lecture held by the CEO of Vainer. According to a participant of the class, he made inhumane remarks regarding females. For example, he stated that “men should not aim for women’s bodies, but their hearts. If men win their hearts, they will offer men their bodies as a bonus.”
The CEO apologized to the Chief of the Start-up Support Center, the Yonsei office that runs the class, through an e-mail message that was read at the following lecture. Nevertheless, the participant said “the e-mail seemed insincere as it was absent of apologies related to his misogynistic remarks.” Consequently, the Chief of the Start-up Support Center, after the incident, promised to screen in advance the speeches of prospective lecturers.
Another example that reflects the low human rights sensitivity on campus can be seen during last year’s Joint Cheering Match between Yonsei University and Korea University. Both schools’ cheering teams used derogatory terms relating to disabled people and sexual and gender minorities. Outraged at such insensitivity of the two organizations, several student organizations joined in solidarity to denounce such unacceptable behavior. Consequently, Akaraka, Yonsei University’s cheering team, apologized for their actions during the event, and stated that they should understand the event is not only a competition between the two universities, but also more importantly an event for Yonseians to enjoy.
However, this was not the only issue. Compared with the previous year’s setup of the field for the cheering match, fences were installed on the running tracks during the festivities in order to prevent students from moving onto the grass. Therefore, there was significantly less space for students assigned to participate on the ground floor. This was especially dangerous for students using wheelchairs, because they were adjacent to the gushing crowd of students. Whenever students tried to enlarge their space by moving the fences, they were stopped by the staff. Likewise, there was a lack of recognition of the disabled students who relatively could not move freely alongside the crowd. This was both disrespectful of the human rights of people with disabilities and also dangerous for everyone in the crowd in terms of public safety.
Prospects for cultivating human rights sensitivity on campus
There have been continuous efforts on campus to raise awareness of human rights issues and assure human rights for all. For instance, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of Yonsei University annually holds a cultural festival on disability rights. The festival consists of various games and discussions on the promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities, including the “Big Walk”, in which participants walk around the campus and discuss about how disabled students travel within the campus, and the “Braille Café”, where students can order food through a Braille menu.
In addition, the course “Understanding and Practices of Gender Equality Leadership”, held various student-led projects during the first semester of 2016 that promoted basic human rights. For instance, one project raised awareness of the difficulties faced by disabled students while moving from Dormitory 2 in YIC to the lecture halls because of the lack of a downhill road. Students who cannot use the stairway had to travel around the outside of the dormitory in order to reach the lecture halls. Consequently, the school, considering the students’ requests, constructed a ramp.
Although the university tries in certain instances to accommodate students with particular needs, awareness and support toward the promotion of human rights sensitivity are limited. For instance, The Support Center for Disabled Students only hires contract workers, meaning that it totally lacks any permanent staff and is therefore very unstable. Contract workers, unlike permanent employees, are not guaranteed long-term employment. Therefore, despite the fact that it offers essential support for disabled students, such as stenographed notes and substitute textbooks, the operation of the center is currently unstable. In addition, the school offers very few courses specifically dedicated to equity studies or human rights. As of 2016, there was one respective course held in YIC and two held in Sinchon campus.
In contrast with the dire conditions at Yonsei University, the University of Toronto serves as a progressive example regarding human rights. The university opens up frequent and active discussions related to human rights issues and holds various forums such as the “Decolonizing Conference,” which deals with the problem of racism, and Conversation Cafes in which students, faculty and staff can openly discuss about issues including consent in sexual encounters, minority representation in media, and many more.
In addition, the University of Toronto also encourages students to actively participate in related programs. An example is the Equity Outreach Program which hosts activities such as the Equity Movement Retreat, an overnight trip during which participants hold numerous activities and discussions related to the principle of equity and its place throughout Canadian history. Also, the program hosts series of workshops, including suicide prevention training, the effects of language on the perception of disabilities, and gender-based violence and prevention. In an interview with the Annals, Monika Lê (Soph., Equity Studies, University of Toronto), a member of the program, said “I believe everyone should learn about equity, the injustices ingrained in our institutions and everyday practices, and how to be aware of our own unintentional harmful actions. Inequity occurs in everyone's lives and it is important to learn how intersectionality is complex and people are oppressed in various levels.”
In addition, Seoul National University’s (SNU) Human Rights Center is another example of a collaborative and supportive institution that protects students’ human rights. Composed of 15 staff members, the Human Rights Center website is easy to find and well organized compared to that of the Yonsei Gender Equity Center. For instance, the SNU website offers a detailed procedure on how to report incidents and receive counseling, as well as school regulations and relevant laws on human rights infringement. Moreover, forums and lectures that extensively discuss various topics regarding human rights are held by the center.
According to the GEC, Yonsei University has proposed reforms in order to improve the operating system of the center, but exact details of the proposal have not been released to the public. Moreover, Women Student Councils, including Around, have requested that the university expand the center and also a GEC in the YIC as well. Likewise, significant reforms urgently need to be undertaken in order to solve existing issues on campus. With its current status, the center lacks the capability as a human rights protection mechanism.
Additionally, in order to prevent bigoted speech along the lines of what happened during the lecture “21st Century Technology Management”, strengthened human rights education is needed for students, faculty, and staff members. Hate speech has become a major problem not only in university lectures, but also in the everyday lives of students. Not only does it make students feel uncomfortable, but it also reinforces and aggravates stereotypes or prejudices that act against the subject. Especially considering that universities should be able to foster ideas of respect and coexistence, hate speech is intolerable.
According to Around, “The Kakaotalk incident of last year shows that the prominent cultural idea that perceives sexual harassment as a joke is problematic. We need to reflect on the problems of the prevalent cultural view that negatively identifies people who raise concern on such hate speech as “needlessly uncomfortable” or “needlessly sensitive.” Through our reflection, we can find ways to change towards a better direction.” Around encourages students to speak up as a collective voice to stand against discrimination and injustice on campus and eventually bring about change. Students need to be able to study and live in an environment in which their requests are accommodated and their ideas appreciated, instead of one in which they are identified as a jin-ji-chung* for raising their earnest opinions.
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Perhaps a majority of university students have already encountered, and perhaps even confronted hate speech, discrimination, stereotypes, and other aspects of human rights infringement. That is why all members of the school community should be increasingly careful and reflective on their thoughts, speech, and behavior and be keen not to upset or offend each other. Looking back to 2016, a year marked by numerous conflicts, it has become evident that the human rights sensitivity of many Yonseians is rather low. However, on the brighter side, the Yonsei community has the capacity to deal with various issues and concerns on campus. From posters displayed on campus that publicize inappropriate acts to student-led discussions that aim to enhance human rights sensitivity, small steps towards a more mature campus are being made. Yonseians have the potential to make 2017 a year of appreciation and respect.
*Jin-ji-chung: Refers to a person who is excessively serious, often containing a negative connotation