Young Women In South Korea Are Driving An Era Of Change

Feminists have led the country’s Me Too movement and advocated for the recent overturning of an abortion ban.

Not long ago in South Korea, it wasn’t uncommon for female students to feel embarrassed walking around campus with a physiology textbook. The functions of the body — especially the female body — were embarrassing, dirty and taboo; a topic that could not be openly discussed. This is really something of the past.

Abortion was also shameful. The topic recently came up at a gathering of girlfriends I had known intimately for more than a decade, and I was surprised we had never discussed it before. Everyone shared the circumstances that led them to contemplate or go through with an abortion. These were tough memories my friends had kept buried — as most women do, according to abortion researchers. For decades, women have been forced to navigate their abortions alone because the procedure was considered a crime until earlier this month.

After 66 years, though, the Constitutional Court relegated the crime of abortion to the byways of history. On April 11, the court’s nine-judge panel ruled that the crimes of performing and receiving an abortion are unconstitutional. By the end of next year, the law criminalizing the procedure will be overhauled.

South Korean women's rights activists hold a rally against the abortion ban outside the Constitutional Court in Seoul on Apri
South Korean women's rights activists hold a rally against the abortion ban outside the Constitutional Court in Seoul on April 11. The yellow placards read "Abolish punishment for abortion."

The landmark decision came after years of activism led by young women, from teens to women in their 30s, who have been willing to confront taboo issues head-on. These women are responsible for organizing a national petition in favor of abolishing the crime of abortion, which more than 230,000 people signed. They organized mass assemblies and launched social media hashtags to raise awareness of everything from abortion to sexual violence.  

Last year, when the Me Too movement was in full swing, activists organized an event in Seoul at which women of all ages shared experiences of everyday sexual violence. Participants remarked about how surprised they were to learn that behavior they had experienced actually amounted to sexual violence — they simply didn’t have the language to describe what had happened to them.

From the 2018 Me Too movement to the decriminalization of abortion, the clock of feminism in the Republic of Korea has been ticking fast. In the backdrop are young, social media-savvy feminists who do not put up with injustices. The hashtag #IAmAFeminist began gaining traction in 2015 as women stood up to online abuse in male-dominated cyberspace. This new consciousness drew attention to the fact that the nation was not adequately protecting women. So women joined together on social networking sites and in the streets to push for change. These were small groups that weren’t always well-organized, but their results were great. Even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who recently visited Korea, said, “The image of Korean women sharing their experiences on Twitter and bringing about change is impressive.”

The noisy young women of Korea are changing the world. They are also showing the power of social networking sites. Words are everything; words are power.

This column was originally published in the Korean daily newspaper JoongAng Ilbo. The author is an editorial writer for the publication.