A group of elderly Filipino women, who were abducted and sexually assaulted by Japanese soldiers almost 80 years ago, are urging their government to establish a compensation fund to recognize the trauma they experienced during the war.
The remaining survivors, all in their late 80s or 90s, see the reparations request from a United Nations committee as their final chance for justice after facing numerous letdowns in their pursuit.
“Before we pass away, I pray that we can receive the compensation for the suffering we endured,” expressed 88-year-old survivor Maria Quilantang from Mapaniqui village. The village is near the Japanese barracks where approximately 100 women and girls were subjected to abuse in 1944.
“We demand justice … We are exhausted from waiting,” stated Ms. Quilantang in a conversation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a gathering of the Malaya Lolas (Free Grandmothers) organization. The group, which was established 25 years ago with almost 100 members, now only consists of about 20 members.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has announced their ruling in March, requiring the government to present an action plan by September.
As a country that has signed the CEDAW convention, the Philippines is obligated to comply with its rulings.
Unfortunately, numerous women have passed away with the fight still on their minds, such as 97-year-old Hilaria Bustamante who passed away one week after the CEDAW ruling. She was one of many plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in 1993 for the use of sexual slavery by the military, but unfortunately, they were unsuccessful.
Attorney Virginia Suarez, who advocates for women, stated that the ruling by CEDAW could potentially serve as a reparations blueprint for numerous former sex slaves in Asia. These individuals are still seeking compensation, official apologies, and other forms of redress from Japan.
“The grandmothers have achieved a significant triumph. However, this alone does not equate to justice. Without proper implementation and execution, the decision will remain a mere victory on paper,” stated Ms. Suarez.
The Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s office stated that the government has provided a written reply to the CEDAW Committee in the beginning of this month, without specifying the actions it intends to implement.
The government stated to the Thomson Reuters Foundation that it acknowledges the pain experienced by women who were victims of heinous violations during World War II, even though it does not share the Committee’s perspective on the CEDAW interpretation regarding the communication.
Following the CEDAW ruling, the Department of Justice (DoJ) announced plans to urge Congress to enact a law granting reparations to the Malaya Lolas and other Filipino individuals who suffered sexual abuse during wartime. However, there has been no advancement in legislation thus far.
The location of the red wooden mansion, known as Bahay na Pula, is in the center of a grassy field in San Ildefonso, a town in Bulacan province. This is where women were held captive and assaulted. The structure remains standing to this day.
Nearby is the location where older women gathered for their meeting in Mapaniqui, a region known for its presence of guerrilla fighters during World War Two. The area was attacked by Japanese Imperial troops in November 1944.
According to Ms. Quilantang, her father was one of the victims who were bound to poles and murdered by the soldiers. At the young age of 8, she and other girls were brought to Bahay na Pula where they were subjected to multiple days of sexual abuse.
After eighty years, Ms. Quilantang expressed that the enduring suffering they experienced was “beyond measure and comprehension”.
Some of the other female participants, including 88-year-old Pilar Galang, expressed that discussing the events at Bahay na Pula was still too emotionally difficult. Instead, the women come together during meetings to remember their sorrow through singing.
At the recent gathering, their voices shook with emotion as they sang in slow verses about how the women’s dignity was destroyed, using words like “horrendous” and “abominable.”
The majority of the surviving individuals use canes for walking and experience health issues such as arthritis and diabetes.
From 1932 to 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army enforced a practice of sexual enslavement upon approximately 200,000 women known as “comfort women” – a term used to describe those who were forced into sexual servitude during World War II – in nations such as South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, and China. This information was reported by Amnesty International.
In 2015, the South Korean government reached an agreement with Japan regarding the issue of tens of thousands of women who were forced into Japanese wartime brothels. As part of the deal, Tokyo was required to provide 1 billion yen (equivalent to $9.3 million) to a foundation for compensation to Korean comfort women.
Several Filipino women have been given compensation, known as “atonement money”, from the Asian Women Fund. This fund, worth 700 million yen (equivalent to $4.73 million), was donated by Japanese civilians in 1995 to support comfort women. However, according to Ms. Suarez, the Malaya Lolas were not included in this compensation because they were not subjected to prolonged periods of rape or trafficking.
Ten years later, the women petitioned the Philippine Supreme Court to compel their government to address their case and seek reparations and direct compensation from Japan.
The petition was rejected, however, the women submitted a statement to CEDAW in 2019 with assistance from the Center for International Law and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights.
The CEDAW committee supported the argument that the Philippine government did not fulfill its duty to offer compensation, legal recourse, and solutions for women who were victimized by sexual slavery.
Ms. Suarez declined to put an amount on how much money the state should allocate for the women, but called for it to set up a benefit fund similar to one established for Filipino war veterans.
She mentioned that it could cover expenses related to health, disabilities, and death benefits for their heirs.
The CHR, a separate organization dedicated to protecting human rights, stated that reparations were long overdue.
“It is imperative that (they) are sufficient, efficient, and timely in order to truly advance justice, peace, and authentic healing,” stated the email. The email also emphasized the need for compensation for economic and moral harm, as well as rehabilitation measures such as medical, psychological, social, and legal support.
The women are anticipating that Marcos will fulfill his commitment to give a “thorough answer” to the CEDAW ruling.
Ms. Suarez stressed the importance of time and recommended that Marcos utilize an executive decree to expedite the process of creating a compensation fund through legislation.
She stated that guaranteeing acknowledgement and compensation for women is also crucial in preventing future generations from experiencing the same violence, not just in the Philippines but also in other areas.
She expressed concern about ongoing conflicts in various regions of the world, fearing the potential for a new generation of comfort women or Malaya Lolas. She emphasized the need to prevent this from occurring.Thomson Reuters Foundation