AFTER A schoolwide referendum on Jan. 7, 2019, the General Female Student Council (hereby the Female Council), was effectively abolished and a substituting organization, the Sexual Abuse Response Committee (hereby the Sexual Abuse Committee) was established. However, almost four months later now, the Sexual Abuse Committee is yet to be organized. Its absence left the students in confusion as they were not informed of the organization’s duties and responsibilities. To shed light on the situation, The Yonsei Annals interviewed various members of the Yonsei community to take a deeper look into the effects of the Female Council’s abolition and the future prospect of the Sexual Abuse Committee.
How did the abolition come about?
The movement to abolish the Female Council came after Mo-eum, the 29th Female Council, hosted the second annual Human Rights Festival. Mo-eum invited writer Eun Ha-sun to the event to speak about the “Human rights movement in universities and backlash.” However, some students argued that Eun was an inappropriate speaker for Yonsei University because they deemed some of Eun’s publicized comments to be blasphemous and prejudiced against men. These students requested that Mo-eum cancel her speech, but the Female Council held the event as scheduled.
The students in opposition of Eun’s speech considered this the Female Council’s abuse of authority and its refusal to communicate with the rest of the Yonseians. This soon led them to criticize Mo-eum’s administrative failings and establish the General Female Student Council Abolition Committee (hereby the Abolition Committee). “There isn’t any systematic inequality between the male and female constituents of Yonsei University anymore. The school needed changes in structure and that included the abolition of the Female Council,” said the Abolition Committee* in an interview with the Annals.
Along with their proposal to abolish the Female Council, they also proposed to establish the Sexual Abuse Committee as a succeeding organization. The Abolition Committee explained that the Sexual Abuse Committee was not designed as a replacement to the Female Council but as an organization that solely deals cases of sexual violence since that was the only remaining agenda of the Female Council.
Dissenters of the abolition, on the other hand, have criticized the referendum for happening too quickly without Yonseians actively and openly discussing whether there was a fundamental need for the Female Council. They have pointed out that many of the discussions over the abolition of the Female Council were held informally in an anonymous online forum called Everytime. According to Park In-Pyo (1st Sem., Dept. of Atmo. Sciences), a member of the feminist student club Go-yang-yi Bal-ba-dak, “There was already a general disapproval of the Female Council among the users of Everytime. So there was no constructive discussion among users on what role the Female Council plays and whether it is still necessary or not.”
According to Park, because most users on Everytime agreed with the Abolition Committee, this influenced the majority of Yonsei students and eventually led to the referendum. While it is hard to confirm Park’s opinion over Yonseians being swayed by the majority, the Annals’ interview with one student** fits Park’s description perfectly: “I have no idea what the Female Council did. I just know many people around me asked why we even needed a Female Council, so I was for its abolition.”
In December 2018, the 30th Female Council, PRISM was elected only to face a schoolwide referendum for its abolition a month later in January 2019. Among the 13,637 students who voted, an estimated 79% voted in favor of the abolition and 18% voted against.
Along with the abolition of the Female Council, the school bylaws were amended to officially announce the establishment of the Sexual Abuse Committee. The amendments took immediate effect. However, in the absence of a General Student Council, the interim acting Emergency Exigency Committee deemed that it was not responsible for appointing a head to the Sexual Abuse Committee, especially given that the elections for the General Student Council were scheduled for April 2019.
Female Council vs. Sexual Abuse Committee: How are the two different?
The abolition of the Female Council marked the end of its 31-year-long history. The Female Council used to take seats in the school’s Central Management Committee*** to represent the voices of the female constituents.
In an interview with the Annals, Lee Min-sun (Jr., Dept. of Theology), the President of PRISM, highlighted, “it [Female Council] also worked to give voice to other minorities such as the disabled, vegetarians, and the LGBT community in Yonsei, under the rationale that these groups share similarities with the female students in terms of their underrepresentation.” By raising awareness about the issues that these groups face, the Female Council ultimately heightened Yonseians’ sensitivity to human rights. Its efforts included the ratification of school bylaws regarding sexual violence and the validation of female students’ absences during their menstruation.
While the Abolition Committee argued that there is no systematic inequality between the male and female students at Yonsei, Lee of PRISM disagreed, highlighting that the female students are still less represented. As an example, she pointed out that despite having a similar ratio of male and female students at school, the Central Management Committee is mostly comprised of male representatives from each college.
According to the Abolition Committee, the only remnant of the Female Council’s responsibilities lies in the Sexual Abuse Committee and its ability to deal with cases of sexual violence. The Abolition Committee has pushed for key differences from the Female Council in handling the cases of sexual abuse. The Abolition Committee argues that the Female Council portrayed female students as being disadvantaged, whereas the Sexual Abuse Committee would not address the cases of sexual violence in the perspective of a particular gender, framing the female students as victims and the male students as perpetrators. To achieve this, the Abolition Committee explained that the Sexual Abuse Committee will thoroughly and impartially investigate the incidents of sexual violence through the means of documenting these individual cases and requesting the student body’s opinions as to the method of resolving them. “We believe that the Sexual Abuse Committee will mediate cases of sexual violence in a fairer, safer, and more professional manner than the Female Council has done,” said the Abolition Committee.
The following is a chart that shows the Abolition Committee’s vision for the Sexual Abuse Committee, as explained in the revised student bylaws:
Upon reviewing the student bylaws proposed by the Abolition Committee, PRISM and Pace, the General Student Council of the College of Social Science, both pointed out that the collection of student opinions requires these incidents to be shared in public, which might discourage victims from seeking help from the Sexual Abuse Committee. Lee of PRISM puts it, “Both the victim and the perpetrator are Yonsei students. Given such definitive boundaries, how would a victim approach the Sexual Abuse Committee, which may unintentionally disclose the victim’s report? Even though the Sexual Abuse Committee guarantees anonymity, the victim might still fear that their identities may be known.”
Immediate concerns over the transition
The last four months since the schoolwide referendum coincided with various welcoming events for the incoming freshmen such as freshmen orientations and camps. Lee from PRISM hinted that the reports of sexual violence drastically increase during the first few months of the semester due to these events. However, Yonseians were left in confusion as neither the Female Council nor a General Student Council was in place to manage such cases.
Previously, the Female Council was the organization that took responsibility of educating college representatives on sexual violence and distributing manuals on the internal rules to prevent and deal with cases of sexual violence. However, this year, the Female Council lost its official status in the Central Management Committee, and with the Sexual Abuse Committee yet to be formed, there was no official organization to directly arbitrate issues of sexual violence.
Kim Ye-jin (Soph., Dept. of Sociology), the President of Pace, explained, “We had difficulties seeking consultations on how to properly manage incidents of sexual violence. Also, we couldn’t inform the students of the ‘anti-sexual violence internal rules’ during the camp, which some had requested.”
Even when the Sexual Abuse Committee is formally organized, it is unclear if it can act in the same way the Female Student Council did. As an affiliated organization of the General Student Council, the Sexual Abuse Committee has no voting rights and has a limited budget. Unlike the Female Council, which operated as an autonomous organization with official seats in the Central Management Committee, the Sexual Abuse Committee will have to run its activities under the Central Management Committee’s approval and receive necessary budgets upon the General Student Council’s revision.
“Before, we had the authority to start and mediate discussions about the protection of minorities at Yonsei. However, now that we lost our status, we can only hope that the student representatives will have enough awareness and initiative to help underrepresented groups in Yonsei and bring out meaningful discussions about their rights,” said Lee of PRISM.
The Abolition Committee, on the other hand, explained that voting rights would be systematically guaranteed since a cabinet member of the General Student Council will hold a position in the Sexual Abuse Committee. They also argued that since the Sexual Abuse Committee does not work to achieve certain pledges, they don’t need as large a budget as the Female Council did.
Can one replace the other?
Aside from the immediate effects that the abolition of the Female Council and the absence of the Sexual Abuse Committee have brought upon Yonsei, some raised the question of whether the Sexual Abuse Committee is an appropriate substitute for the Female Council.
Lee of PRISM pointed out that the Sexual Abuse Committee only focuses on the resolution of sexual violence after the perpetration, and not on the prevention of sexual violence itself. Kim of Pace shared similar concerns, “One of the major roles that the Female Council played was to raise students’ awareness of sexual violence and to teach them preventative measures against such cases.”
Previously, the Female Council received training from the Center for Gender Equity at the Human Rights Center of Yonsei University on matters of recognizing sexual violence, responding to such cases, and approaching the victims. Using this knowledge, they would create manuals and distribute them to other student representatives.
In this process, the Female Council shed light that being a victim of sexual violence is not so far-fetched and may occur to anyone. To ensure a safe student community, the Female Council played a role in facilitating discussion among Yonseians on various factors of sexual violence. According to Chun Min-woo (Sr., Dept. of Atmo. Sciences) of Go-yang-yi Bal-ba-dak, “Sexual violence is not just limited to the act of it. It is more complicated than that; there are many external factors to consider, such as the power dynamics between upperclassmen and lowerclassmen, the influence of alcohol and drugs, and relationships with others.” He expressed his concerns on whether the Sexual Abuse Committee will be able to encourage Yonseians to have healthy and meaningful discussions on preventing sexual violence. These tasks are not found in the Abolition Committee’s proposal for the Sexual Abuse Committee. However, the Abolition Committee countered, "If the students become more aware of how the Sexual Abuse Committee operates to penalize the perpetrators and protect the victims, they will naturally take precautionary measures as well."
Although the Abolition Committee claimed that Yonsei has attained gender equality, dissenters of the abolition have pointed out that the debates on whether women are underrepresented or not are not resolved. Chun of Go-yang-yi Bal-ba-dak said, “It doesn’t mean that Yonsei has achieved gender equality just because the majority claims so.” Park of Go-yang-yi Bal-ba-dak added on, claiming that Yonseians should continue constructive discussions not only on the matters of sexual violence but also on the level of gender equality at Yonsei.
Although the Female Council lost its official status as a member of the Central Management Committee, it still exists as a student club. PRISM thus plans to continue its programs such as organizing the third annual Human Rights Festival, hosting Feminism seminars, and archiving hate speech in classrooms. “We are justifiably elected as representatives of the female students in Yonsei. As long as those 3,002 people who voted for us are there, I think it’s our duty and responsibility to continue our agenda for them,” said Lee of PRISM. She added that the referendum pushed the Female Council to find better ways to reach out to more female students in Yonsei, not necessarily discouraging them to do so.
As for the development of the Sexual Abuse Committee, Flow, the newly elected General Student Council, will take charge in organizing the committee. So far, Flow has proposed to consult the Center for Gender Equity in Yonsei and hold public hearings to actively communicate with the students. “With the abolition of the Female Council, it is up to the General Student Council to responsibly fulfill our pledges and represent the student body with heightened sensitivity to human rights and gender equality,” said Kim Hyun-jung (Sr., Dept. of Korean Culture and Commerce), the vice-president of Flow.
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“Although the referendum brought about controversies and conflicts, I think the arguments were not meaningless. It shows the student body’s initiative to find new approaches to the issues surrounding the abolition, which I am hopeful about,” said an anonymous interviewee. Following the four-month-long absence of the Sexual Abuse Committee, it seems that there is room for improvement. We can only hope that every stakeholder participates in active discussions to share their perspectives and reflect on the well-being of Yonseians.
*The members of the Abolition Committee requested to remain anonymous.
**The student interviewees requested to remain anonymous.
***Original name in Korean: “중앙운영위원회”
****The article was finalized prior to the General Student Council election’s final result notification on April 11, 2019.