I want to highlight the lives of two women whose inspiring work demonstrates what hard activism looks like. Angeline Jackson is a Jamaican activist, whose organization, Quality of Citizenship Jamaica, works on behalf of LGBT individuals, particularly lesbian and bisexual women, facing systematic discrimination in the country. Jihyun Park is a refugee from North Korea. While trying to escape, she was trafficked for sex, forced into a labor camp, and eventually made her way to the United Kingdom, where she now works at the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea. The efforts of these two women have something to teach us, and the situations that led to their experiences touch on many of the crimes people choose to perpetrate against the dignity and freedom of others.
A persistent social horror, which exists in major cities and remote parts of the world alike, is the staggering amount of sexual violence against women. Angeline Johnson was walking the streets of a town outside Kingston when she and a friend were raped by men at gunpoint. In her testimony, Angeline recounts the reaction of a female police officer who, rather than seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice, told Angeline that she should leave her ‘lifestyle’ and find the church. Thousands of miles away, as Jihyun Park attempted to escape North Korea, she was tricked by a broker who sold her to a man in China. In China, she had a child, was placed in a prison camp, and because she had no legal papers, was repatriated back to North Korea. There, she was placed in a labor camp, forced to carry tons of dirt in an ox cart pulled by herself, and other camp laborers.
The lack of freedom accorded to Angeline and Jihyun in their countries of origin happens in many ways. In Jamaica, LGBT people live with a constant awareness that they may be attacked in public at any moment. Gay teens are stabbed to death, lesbians face ‘corrective rape’, and police officers are unhelpful to the extent that one officer shot a lesbian woman after she was attacked by a passer-by. Vigilante attacks are not isolated in the country. Jamaica has an anti-sodomy law in place, which has contributed to the dangerous atmosphere that threatens the lives of LGBT citizens. Yet, despite the infringements on her rights and safety as a gay woman, Angeline insists that she does not want to leave Jamaica. Instead, she is determined to contribute in a positive way to her homeland.
In North Korea, Jihyun’s life was very hard. Living under a totalitarian state, hunger, long working hours and a bleak future were her life. People began to leave in large numbers after the extreme famine in the late 1990s that killed well over 2 million people. By 2009, around 50,000 or more North Korean refugees had escaped to China. Jihyun says that “dictators create two kinds of life, and two kinds of food: physical and political.” Leaders of North Korea tell their citizens that they can persevere through physical hunger, but that life would not be possible should they be without food for the mind (propaganda). She says that “in exchange for our loyalty, we receive famine and death.” As her father was dying, he encouraged Jihyun and her brother to escape to China. It was in China that she was sold to a Chinese man and had her son. Her truly heart-wrenching story was made into a short documentary (see link below). Her current work at the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea helps to build a community for North Koreans who have sought refuge. It works to understand how the North Korean government has withstood international pressure to reform and to “empower the North Korean people, inside and outside of their country, by providing a platform for their voices and a means for their agency.” One of the programs that the organization offers is a platform called North Korean Memoirs. There are incredible stories to be found there (see link below).
Governments, organizations, corporations, and people often seek to limit the liberties and rights of people. The only guarantee for open society is through the hard work (what the political philosopher Hannah Arendt calls ‘work, labor, and action’) of people. These two people, Angeline Johnson and Jihyun Park are doing that hard work every day. Another noted political philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, argues that societies decay when public policy is guided by the emotions of shame and disgust. This is never more true when minorities, like the LGBT community, are scapegoated, and when autocratic rulers oppress their people. The world needs advocates for human dignity like Angeline Johnson and Jihyun Park and I am so humbled to highlight their work in Unsung Heroes. William Duncan