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(Yonhap Feature) S. Korea's sexual assault aftercare has improved but challenges remain

All News 09:30 April 04, 2016

By Park Sojung

SEOUL, April 4 (Yonhap) -- Anyone who has been sexually assaulted knows the horror and the deluge of questions that ensues: Was I partially to blame? Should I report it to the police? Will doing so change anything?

Lee, who refused to give her first name out of fear of discrimination, has been through it all. Five years ago, she finally gathered the courage to tell someone she had been repeatedly raped for the past 12 years by her father. Without the help of Seoul Sunflower Center, which offers legal, medical and psychological assistance to victims of sexual assault, she says she may never have seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

"Since first grade, my father threatened me that if I told anyone, he and my mom would leave me," Lee, 23, said in an interview with a group of reporters on Thursday. The mother hadn't known until after Lee told her teacher in 2011. "I was afraid my mom would react emotionally. I thought if I got into college and spent time away from them, mom and dad would be able to live peacefully together."

Lee's mother, who has become an expert of sorts in domestic sexual violence since, says many victims delay reporting because they fear retaliation and potential financial repercussions down the road.

"What sexual assault victims fear most is the perpetrators' words," the mother, who wanted to go by her maiden name, Song, told reporters. "They say things like, 'You're going to break up the family.' Victims also fear the effects their disclosure could have on their families and finances."

Lee's teacher first referred her daughter to Ansan Youth Counseling & Welfare Center, which only provides counseling services to adolescents. Lee was later transferred to Seoul Sunflower Center to receive comprehensive care, including medical and psychological treatment.

Lee's father was convicted in 2011 and has been serving a 10-year prison sentence.

Lee remains his daughter legally because South Korean law doesn't allow children of parental abuse to emancipate themselves. The father made sure all her family's assets are registered under his name so Lee and her mother would be bankrupt without him, the mother said.

"Perpetrators are able to prepare for court battles way in advance, but victims don't have the same luxury of time," Song, who is studying to become a counselor, said. "We're often rushed into the process."

In addition to legal counseling, Seoul Sunflower Center has offered tips for mending mother-daughter relationships, which is critical for victims' recovery.

"The most important thing they told me is I have to trust my daughter," she said. "I had to gain back her trust."

Song herself has received counseling since 2011 and has reached a point where she may not need it anymore soon. The program includes group therapy with fellow mothers of abused children. The center has also organized various cultural outings, which Song says helped her rekindle the relationship with her daughter.

Considering most mothers drop out of the program mostly due to self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, Song is a rare, if not the only, mom who has become comfortable enough to talk about her plight and advocate for others.

"Without Sunflower Center's help, I wouldn't be sitting here," she said, adding she wants to encourage other mothers to persevere instead of giving up.

There are 36 Sunflower Centers housed within hospitals across the country to give victims easy access to all kinds of medical professionals, from gynecologists to internists. The centers employ a total of 120 female police officers who are on stand-by 24 hours a day throughout the year.

The first Sunflower Center prototype opened at Severance Hospital in Seoul in 2004, specializing in victims of sexual assault below the age of 19 and those with intellectual disabilities. Since then, other sexual assault aftercare centers opened at hospitals with varying services. In 2014, South Korea decided to call all of them "Sunflower Center" for simplicity.

Last year, more than 28,000 people consulted Sunflower Centers in South Korea. Most of them, or 70 percent, were victims of sexual assault, with the remaining 30 percent consisting of victims of domestic violence, sex trafficking and those categorized as "others."

Considering there were 30,600 cases of sexual assault in 2015, 65 percent of the victims received services from one of the 36 Sunflower Centers in the country. Not all cases are referred to the centers because a third of them tend to be minor crimes, said Choi Chang-haeng, a director at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

As for foreign victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and sex trafficking in South Korea, 1,731 of them received Sunflower Centers' assistance in 2011. The number increased every year to 2,092 in 2014, according to the Women's Human Rights Commission of Korea.

Protocols and quality of services at each center remain inconsistent, however, with resources distributed unevenly across the country. At Seoul Sunflower Center in northern Seoul, which offers one of the best services, according to center employees and social workers, victims go through initial counseling to determine the extent of their harm and whether they desire to press charges against the assaulters.

They then are screened for STDs and given emergency contraception. In cases where they were admitted within 72 hours of the incident, emergency kits are implemented, mostly to collect DNA samples. Female police officers question them before psychological treatment and follow-up services are provided.

The overall satisfaction rate by care recipients has been high for this five-year-old program. South Korea surveyed 2,517 people who completed treatment programs between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2015, and 92 percent said they were satisfied or highly satisfied with the counseling services offered at Sunflower Centers. On a scale of 0 to 5, all of the aspects surveyed, including the quality of police investigation and legal services, rated over 4. Satisfaction rates were the lowest for accessibility and timeliness of medical support at 71 percent and 80 percent, respectively.

Because of funding shortfalls, however, centers have been struggling to keep qualified professionals, said Kim Jae-won, director of Seoul Sunflower Center, adding the high turnover rate disrupts the consistency of care, which is optimal when offered by the same professional.

The gender ministry, meanwhile, says it has to see the bigger picture, balancing the quality of all centers and hopefully expanding their number in the near future.

"Each center costs about 600-700 million won (US$523,000-610,000) to maintain each year," said Choi, the ministry director. "We also provide 2 billion won in additional subsidies for medical expenses."

Choi vowed to keep pushing for greater funding and improve the work conditions of the centers' employees.

"We at the ministry are constantly thinking of ways to provide greater benefits to professionals working at these centers and increase their funding," he said.


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