Rights have become a hot topic for young South Korean college students. Increasingly, students at Ewha are taking an interest in gender issues and a variety of other human rights areas as well.
In my “Chinese Politics” class, we talked about the right to a clean and safe environment, political rights, and rights violations among migrant workers and other marginalized groups.
In my course “Gender and Politics” this semester, students have discussed the barriers women face to entry and advancement at the workplace, and how worldwide poverty impacts women’s rights in a variety of ways.
Many of these are issues that directly pertain to the Korean society today. For instance, Amnesty International is currently running a campaign to raise awareness and stop torture.
In its 2014 publication, “Attitudes to Torture,” a survey of South Koreans shows that a startling 54 percent believed that if arrested, they would not be safe from torture practices.
Given this interest I often meet students who tell me they would like to pursue a career related to human rights. Yet their activities rarely reflect their interest.
Some are hesitant to join human rights advocacy organizations because of preconceptions about the tasks they will have to do. I’m shy and do not like to stand up in front of people. If I join these groups, won’t I have to go out and campaign in the streets? Or, some are worried they might join the “wrong group.” Aren’t all these groups politically active? I don’t want to get into politics. I’m neither left nor right, and I don’t want to be dragged into anything I can’t handle.
The real answer is: you can find something you can do, the way you want to do it, as long as you are passionate about it. The reality is that most rights organizations and groups are open to most people who want to help, and not all of this requires students to take party physically in campaigns or participate in political activity.
Civil society in South Korea has evolved to the point where believing in social change through participation does not necessarily mean that you have to take an ideological stance.
Increasingly, we are seeing groups that prefer to lobby both sides of the political aisle: if a party will listen to women’s rights and issues, it does not matter whether they are left or right.
Tasks, too, are often more flexible than students tend to think. While advocacy may certainly necessitate an on-the-street presence, students can easily volunteer their skills for office work and documentation. If you have foreign language skills you can volunteer to translate.
If your organization is oriented toward social services, you may find pleasure in being able to personally help the homeless or elderly, or other marginalized groups in society. So if you are interested in rights, or you feel like changing the society but don’t know how, this is the time to start looking for.
Try volunteering your time and energy to a group of your choice. Don’t be afraid to cold call, or join a student organization on campus.
Gain a deeper understanding of the reality as well as the academics of human rights.
*Jeong Ji-hyeon is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations.