Last March 8, 2023, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women declared that the Philippine government had failed to uphold the rights of Filipino women who were victims of systematic and organized sexual slavery by Japanese occupying forces during World War II. The UN found the Philippine government violated the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), of which the country was a signatory. The declaration was made as a judgment on a case brought to the UN in 2019 by 24 surviving Filipino “comfort women.” The group, Malaya Lolas (Free Grandmothers), had repeatedly requested the Philippine government to support their claims for reparation and an official apology from the Japanese government. Government authorities dismissed their request, with their last appeal turned down by the Supreme Court in 2014. The government had argued that it had no duty to take up the cause of the complainants and that doing so would be inimical to the national interest. The government also claimed that the issue of reparations had already been addressed by the compensation provided by the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan in 1956. However, the lawyers of the Malaya Lolas argued that the treaty’s wording limited compensations to war veterans, widows, and orphans, not victims of sexual slavery.
A representative of the Japanese embassy in the Philippines pointed out that an Asian Women’s Fund had been set up in 1995 by the Japanese government and private donors that provided atonement money, letters of apology from prime ministers, and welfare support to comfort women in countries invaded by Japan, including the Philippines. This fund was accepted by some and criticized by others. One issue raised against the fund was the inclusion of private-sector donations, which some critics interpreted as a sign of the Japanese government’s avoidance of bearing full responsibility. The letters of apology by successive Japanese Prime Ministers expressed personal remorse but were not considered by some survivors as formal apologies from the Japanese government.
After the UN declaration last March, the current Philippine government belatedly started a process of providing aid to the last remaining comfort women. Last May, the Department of Social Welfare and Development gave cash aid amounting to less than $200 to the surviving women, who were ailing and mostly in their 90s. While this cash aid benefits women and their families somewhat, it still does not negate the demand for full reparation and an official apology from the Japanese government.
The comfort women and their allies are gravely concerned about attempts to cover up or erase the memory of sexual abuse during the Japanese occupation. A statue of a comfort woman that had been installed in a public space in the city of Manila in 2017 was removed after four months. The President at that time, Rodrigo Duterte, supported the statue’s removal from government property, arguing that the country should avoid insulting Japan. The removal was both ironic and sad, considering that the Philippines has numerous memorials for the thousands of Japanese soldiers who died in the country. There is even a memorial for kamikaze pilots at a former airfield where they launched deadly attacks against Allied ships. Without denying the importance of Philippine-Japanese diplomatic and trade relations, the government should not remove a memorial to victims of sexual abuses during World War II to avoid offending Japan.
Supporters of the cause of comfort women have pushed back against attempts at historical erasure. Activists in the country have installed memorials honoring these women on private property accessible to the public. Comfort women advocates are campaigning to have a dilapidated mansion called “The Red House” used as a brothel during the war designated as a memorial and shrine. Statues and markers honoring comfort women have also been installed in other countries despite opposition from the Japanese government. As the number of survivors gradually dwindles, they must have their voices and experiences heard and remembered.
In their long struggle for justice and recognition, comfort women shared the same pattern of experiences as the victims of sex abuse in the Church. The comfort women were shamed into silence and stigmatized by their communities. Their experiences of abuse were ignored, dismissed, or minimized by authorities. There were denials and cover-ups from those responsible and calls for just compensation were met with resistance. Those in power preferred that the victims disappear or remain silent. Their advocates and defenders struggled to keep the reality of sexual abuse relevant in the public’s consciousness. Just as the Church needed public pressure to be held accountable for the sexual abuse of its clergy, the Japanese and Philippine governments needed public and international pressure to address the atrocities committed against comfort women.
Some may think that wartime sexual slavery is a thing of the past, and some hope that this uncomfortable memory will fade as the last survivors eventually pass away. But sexual assault remains a tactic of war, seen recently in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That is why keeping the memory of the experiences of the comfort women is so important. Just as holocaust memorials are preserved in many countries to remind and educate future generations of the grave evils inflicted by the Nazi regime and to honor those who suffered, memorials to the victims of sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation are needed to serve as a condemnation against the use of rape as part of the conduct of war and to honor and remember the women have suffered such grave injustices.
 United Nations, “Philippines failed to redress continuous discrimination and suffering of sexual slavery victims perpetrated by Imperial Japanese Army, UN committee finds,” Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, 08 March 2023. Retrieved from https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/03/ philippines- failed-redress-continuous-discrimination-and-suffering-sexual
 Atsushi Kuwabara, “Japan has sincerely address the issue of comfort women,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 04 April 2019. Retrieved from https://opinion.inquirer.net/120540/japan-has-sincerely-addressed-the-issue-of-comfort-women
 Nestor Corrales, “Marcos to government agencies: Help ‘comfort women,’” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 14 May 2023. Retrieved from https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1768862/marcos-to-govt-agencies-help-comfort-women
 CNN Philippines Staff, “Duterte backs removal of comfort woman statue from gov’t property,” CNN Philippines, 29 April 2018. Retrieved from http://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2018/04/29/Duterte-backs-removal-comfort-woman-statue.html
 Aie Balagtas See and Nestor P. Burgos, Jr., “Comfort woman statue greets Boracay visitors,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 07 February 2019. Retrieved from https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1082518/comfort-woman-statue-greets-boracay-visitors; Mark Saludes, “Marker of Filipino ‘comfort women’ unveiled,” Union of Catholic Asian News, 26 August 2019. Retrieved from https://www.ucanews.com/news/marker-in-honor-of-filipino-comfort-women-unveiled/85948
 Elise Hu, “‘Comfort Woman Memorial Statue, A Thorn on Japan’s Side, Now Sit on Korean Buses,” NPR, 13 November 2017. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/11/13/563838610/comfort-woman-memorial-statues-a-thorn-in-japans-side-now-sit-on-korean-buses; Julian Ryall Tokyo, “’Comfort woman’ stature in Berlin angers Japan,” DW, 10 January 2020. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/japan-comfort-women-korea-berlin-sexual-slavery-world-war-ii/a-55117648
 Ewelina Ochab, “United Nations: Rape is part of Russia’s military strategy,” Forbes, 14 October 2022. Retrieved fromhttps://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2022/10/14/united-nations-rape-is-part-of-russias-military-strategy/?sh=74e952ea36a0