While Taiwan has made progress in raising the social status of survivors of sexual assault, most victims in Asia are still deprived of a voice. Specialists and victims of sexual and gender-based assault from around the world took part in a workshop organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy last week. Stacy Hsu reports.

 

Standing in front of a packed room full of participants at a workshop on ending sexual and gender-based violence in Asia on May 24 — part of the three-day East Asia Democracy Forum organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy — 18-year-old Taiwanese Victoria Hwang (黃靖茹) electrified her audience with her vivid account of the sexual assaults she suffered at far too young an age.

Hwang was 10 when a close relative raped her at her home. Due to the belief that “the ugly should be kept within the family” and the unfortunate Asian culture that regards sex as a taboo subject at home, Hwang’s parents neither called the perpetrator out nor provided their daughter the emotional comfort she desperately needed.

Instead, they tried to pacify her by saying that the family relative only touched her because “he liked her.” Until this day, Hwang is forced to face her rapist at family reunions every year. The worst part? She has to pretend nothing happened in order to maintain household harmony.

At age 15, Hwang was sexually assaulted by a male friend, to whom she admitted she was attracted. The man also justified his action by saying he had feelings for her. The excruciating realization that she could not turn to her parents for help, or talk to someone about what had happened to her, led to her being diagnosed a year later with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Read Your Pain founder Victoria Hwang.

Hwang’s trauma was not only caused by the two people who sexually violated her, but also a patriarchal society’s tendency to silence rape survivors. “If this society does not allow rape victims to tell their truths, they will never acquire the strength and support they need,” Hwang said.

Fortunately for Hwang, she stepped out of the shadows after realizing later that she had to overcome her fears and get her story out there for society to listen and change its traditional mindset. She also initiated a scheme called “Read Your Pain,” which publishes the stories of victims of sexual violence anonymously to help facilitate their healing process and raise awareness of the issue.

The 18-year-old’s successful transition from “a rape survivor to an activist” may seem encouraging, but many more victims of sexual assault remain encumbered by past trauma in the darkest corners of the world.

As Garden of Hope Foundation chief executive officer Chi Hui-jung (紀惠容) said in her opening remarks at the workshop, while Taiwan has made progress in raising the social status of survivors of sexual assault, most victims in Asia are still deprived of a voice.

“How to empower these victims to help them through trauma, and make society realize they are not responsible for what happened to them, are the goals most countries are working towards,” Chi said.

Chi’s views were echoed by Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Vice President Ketty W. Chen (陳婉宜), who believes the entrenched practices of “blaming the victims and assuming they must have done something wrong” are the greatest impediments to an appropriate societal attitude toward sexual violence and their survivors.

Though Taiwan currently has a relatively comprehensive sexual-assault safety net — including prevention campaigns by authorities and women’s rights groups, as well as an administrative mechanism of mandatory reporting of suspicious rape cases — there is still much room for improvement.

The time-consuming legal process for solving sexual abuse cases, coupled with a lack of gender awareness among some judges and prosecutors, can add to the already heavy psychological burden of victims, Chi said.

Chi gave the example of a recent case where a migrant worker was sexually assaulted three times by her employer. “The authorities, convinced of the existence of an emotional bond between the assaulter and the victim, concluded that the sexual acts were consensual and decided not to prosecute the case,” she said.

Education is another aspect that requires more emphasis, said Wang Yue-hao (王玥好), deputy chief executive officer of the Garden of Hope Foundation, singling out the common misconception that most sexual offenses are committed by strangers, while in fact in most cases the perpetrators are acquaintances.

Lee Ping-chang (李炳樟), a specialist at the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Department of Mental and Oral Health, also warned against the association of rapists with mental illness, saying that less than 10 percent of sex offenders are actually found to have psychological problems.

“That is why we should focus more on monitoring them [sexual assaulters], rather than treating them,” Lee said.

Such a mistaken belief also prevails when people think about violence against women, said Malaysian gender consultant Ivy Josiah, who formerly served as executive director of the Selangor-based Women’s Aid Organization.

“Violence against women is not a mental health issue, but one rooted in gender inequality, power imbalance and discrimination,” said Josiah, adding that alcohol, work-related pressure, or financial difficulties are merely enabling factors of such violence, as opposed to the primary causes.

Malaysian gender consultant Ivy Josiah.

Whether it is sexual or gender-based violence, there was a resounding consensus among the workshop participants that more action by both government and communities is needed to resolve the problem.

All Japan Women’s Shelters Network Assistant Coordinator Yuki Kusano stressed the importance of government funding for shelters for victims of physical violence. According to statistics provided by Kusano, physical violence at the hands of a husband in Japan is the cause of death of a wife every three days.

Kusano said her organization took the initiative in establishing the first shelter for victims with a minority sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) in Japan in August 2014, but the project only lasted eight months and fell apart shortly after they ran out of government subsidies.

All Japan Women’s Shelters Network Assistant Coordinator Yuki Kusano.

Although almost every country today provides shelters and emergency hotlines for violence survivors, Josiah said community involvement is still vital to helping battered women and their children.

“While it is easy to find help in a small nation like Taiwan, in big countries like India, you cannot find services everywhere,” Josiah said. “So there is a lot of work to get the community to stand up to provide service to each other.”

As to what can be done next to further combat violence against women, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs gender specialist Crystal Rosario offered an interesting suggestion: Incorporating gender-sensitive elements into soap operas.

Rosario’s idea resonated among many participants, including Josiah, who urged TV producers to come up with popular drama shows that challenge gender stereotypes rather than reinforcing them, as most Korean soap operas tend to do.

Other suggestions included providing interactive and educational touring plays to local community centers, launching campaigns that better engage men on gender equality, and offering re-education for members of society.

Re-education is particularly important at a time when people have started to see sexual assault and domestic violence as social norms, Josiah said, adding she regretted that only sensational news stories, such as one about a woman being raped by 20 men, receive public attention nowadays.

“We should really try to change and challenge this mindset,” she said.

Taiwan Foundation for Democracy vice president Ketty W. Chen.

Women’s group Gabriela secretary-general Joms Salvador.

 

All photos by the Garden of Hope Foundation.