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Whatever Happened To ... The WW II Sex Slaves Fighting For Justice?

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Isabelita Vinuya, 88, reflected in mirror, bids farewell to Perla Bulaon Balingit in the village of Mapaniqui in Pampanga. They are two of the last living "comfort women" of the Philippines. On Nov. 23, 1944, Vinuya, Balingit and some 100 other girls and
Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

Isabelita Vinuya, 88, reflected in mirror, bids farewell to Perla Bulaon Balingit in the village of Mapaniqui in Pampanga. They are two of the last living "comfort women" of the Philippines. On Nov. 23, 1944, Vinuya, Balingit and some 100 other girls and women were taken to the Red House and systematically raped by the Japanese Imperial Army.

Oxygen tank at her side, Isabelita Vinuya, 88, struggles as she sits up in her bed, too weak to stand and too listless to talk about the cause that animated her life the past 25 years. She organized the "Malaya Lolas," women who endured the Japanese Imperial Army's system of sexual slavery during its occupation of the Philippines in World War II. NPR's radio and digital account of the survivors' stories — and their decades-long struggle to win reparations from Japan — was honored with the Edward R. Murrow Award by the Radio Television Digital News Association and named a finalist in the Online Journalism Awards for Excellence in Audio-Digital Storytelling. Here's an update on how the surviving Lolas are faring.

When we first met the survivors known as "Lolas," Filipino for grandmother, in the summer of 2019, they numbered only a few dozen. In their 80s and 90s, they were girls in the 1940s when soldiers in the Japanese Imperial Army systematically raped and brutalized them. Historians estimate that some 200,000 women were victimized by Japanese soldiers in parts of Asia occupied by Japan. For 50 years the survivors in the Philippines buried the trauma, until they emerged, at first tentatively, then defiantly, to demand reparations from the Japanese government.

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They make up two survivor groups now — the Malaya Lolas (Tagalog for Grandmothers of Freedom) and the Lila Pilipina (League of Philippine Lolas), the country's earliest organization for survivors euphemistically called "comfort women."

Over the course of the past year, many of the survivors have become too infirm to leave their home to converse with friends and go about their regular business. Some are now confined to bed, frail and failing.

This year, three more Lolas have died: Magdalena Billones, Feb. 26; Belen Alarcon Culala, Feb. 28 and Januaria Galang Garcia, Sept. 3.

And the roughly three dozen survivors have been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Teresita Bermudez Dayo originally told us she had overcome the "anxiety" of her own trauma at the hands of Japanese soldiers by deciding to live in "the present" and take up dancing. "It changed my life," she said and stood to show us her moves. Today, her daughter, Divina Dayo Bermejo, reports that her mother, who used to dash around to help at local clinics or the barrio government office, has lost her strength. "Not being able to go out has made her weak," she says.

Narcisa Claveria, an original member of the Lila Pilipina who turns 90 in December, is in remarkably good health and cares for her now bedridden husband in their home in Antipolo outside Manila. "My children are not allowing me to leave because I might catch COVID. So I do my best to busy myself." In the morning, she says, "I jog — go up and down the stairs and get a bit of sunshine on the veranda," where she tends a small garden.

Claveria says the Lolas in her group have not seen each other for the past year due to COVID-19 lockdowns. She pines for a reunion.

"I feel the pandemic is a bit similar to the war," Claveria says, referring to the economic devastation and sense of isolation the health crisis has wrought. The Lila Pilipina was not able to offer the women financial assistance from private donations they had raised in the past, and the office has been off limits as the familiar gathering place where the women had for so many years shared companionship and camaraderie. Calveria says she hopes the pandemic ends soon "so we Lolas can finally get together."

Claveria converses with her fellow Lolas over the phone and says they all want the pandemic to be over "because it's so hard to be imprisoned in the house." She is not vaccinated. Claveria explains, "My grandmother told me, 'the moment you were born in this world, there's also a pre-ordained time when you leave this world.' But if you add things like that [vaccine], you're going to accelerate your life to dying."

Her sister Estela, who too was forced to sexually service Japanese soldiers during the war, tells Claveria, "We'll probably die now and not get the justice we deserve." Claveria says she tells her sister: "Leave it be. This is how it is. It's a long fight."

There Is One Last Legal Avenue

The Malaya Lolas are waging what is expected to be the last legal fight for these victims of sexualized violence in wartime Philippines. Having exhausted their avenues before the courts in Tokyo and Manila, in late 2019 the Malaya Lolas petitioned the U.N. under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in late 2019. CEDAW is a sweeping treaty that obligates member states to oppose the effects of discrimination, including violence, poverty and lack of legal protections. The Committee that reviews such cases consists of 23 independent experts on women's rights from around the world.

The Lolas petitioned to find that the Philippine state had failed in its obligation to eliminate discrimination against them.

Berlin-based attorney Silvia Rojas-Castro, who is with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, represents the Malaya Lolas before the U.N. Committee. She told NPR: "Even if the Philippines clearly did not commit the original violations against the women ... we're saying still, as a state, you have the obligation to protect your citizens to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. And you are not doing that."

Rojas-Castro says Manila has failed both to press Tokyo on the women's claims for reparations and to provide sufficient domestic remedies to support them. "Failing to provide effective remedies is a violation of the convention in this case," she says.

For its part, the Philippine government says that the women have failed to specify any action, judicial decision or policy that affects or prejudices their rights just because they are women. Rojas-Castro says that argument fails to "understand that the violence against women through the wartime sexual slavery system is, in itself, one of the most serious forms of gender-based discrimination."

Manila also insists that all claims were settled by the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which legally ended the state of war and re-established peaceful relations between Japan and Allied Powers. But the women argue their claims were never considered at the time the treaty was negotiated.

Rojas-Castro says with final submissions completed this summer, the CEDAW Committee will now render a decision. It's not clear when. She has argued that "the longer the proceedings take," the less likely the survivors themselves "will be able to enjoy what is due to them."

Moreover, she says any ruling would be non-binding and would only recommend what the Philippines might provide as restitution.

She says the surviving Malaya Lolas specifically seek regular medical care, housing support and livelihood assistance for their families but agreed to leave it to the government to determine what level of compensation would be appropriate.

Rojas-Castro is not optimistic. She says there is little expectation that the Philippine government will alter its position that the government has discharged its obligation.

A successful outcome, however, will not rest upon any financial recompense, according to Rojas-Castro. A victory is more likely to be measured in the contribution the case makes to historical memory, she says.

"We're trying to send a larger signal," she explains. She believes that acknowledging "this crime, the need for reparations, the need to hear the victims and survivors at a very advanced age" could serve as "some sort of precedent" for future generations.

Rojas-Castro says a decision in their favor would still "be a good step forward," asserting it will have a "validating power to the struggles of the women's movement in the Philippines."

Resignation Vies With Resilience

Back at Vinuya's house in the village of Mapaniqui, attorney Virginia "Virgie" Suarez, who earlier represented the Malaya Lolas, pays a visit in September 2021 to deliver food, wheelchairs and medical supplies to the ailing women of the group. Joining her in the small one-story home are Vinuya's six daughters, who are caring for their pneumonia-stricken mother. Not far from the nestle of the family's modest homes sits the dilapidated mansion known as the Red House — where the women, including Vinuya and her older sister Emilia dela Cruz Mangilit, had been repeatedly raped the night after Japanese troops stormed and burned their village in November 1944.

Suarez sits on the edge of Vinuya's bed, eyes brimming with tears. Where there were once 99 Malaya Lolas, she says "now there are 26 or 27 left."

"It is frustrating to know that all Lolas might leave this world without seeing justice," Suarez says.

The isolation from each other during the pandemic has been a sad coda to their lives. "For the Lolas, coming together is very important," she says. "You see the smile on their faces when they come together. Now they can no longer do it."

Vinuya's sister Emilia reports that she doesn't sleep well and busies herself sweeping in the early morning. "Even the front of my children's houses since we live together in a compound."

Emilia says, "I find this pandemic so hard. It's like being tied down without a rope." But she does come to her sister's home from time to time and recently marked with her the third anniversary of the death of Isabelita's husband. "She asked if we could pray. So we prayed. I stayed here the whole day."

Emilia says she prays every night that her large family – whose members have been unable to obtain vaccinations – will be protected. "I pray, 'Lord, please repel COVID from our home." And she prays for strength for "my sister Lita. That's all I wish, and I hope God listens."

She hopes too that one day soon "someone will give us the compensation due us." Emilia, whose life has stretched over nine decades, says, "We can't really be choosy. We'd be glad to receive anything just to soothe our inner selves."

While she hopes, she hedges. "We are not expecting that to arrive in our lifetime anymore" — but who knows, she says.

Attorney Virgie Suarez says it's less about winning the case before the U.N. CEDAW Committee "but it's really the fight itself. The journey of struggling. The journey of fighting all the way."

She comes this day to tell Isabelita Vinuya "how proud I am as her lawyer, as a woman. Seeing her, knowing her and how she led the organization and how she fought the case without reservations."

But most important, Suarez says she has come to pay tribute to the Lolas who are "the living witnesses of the ills and terror of war and militarization." If Japan doesn't pay reparations, she says, the Philippine nation should find a way to compensate, recognize and remember what happened here in this village of Mapaniqui.

After all, she says it was, "the siege of Mapaniqui. It's not only the case of the women here. It's the case of the entire community." And that memory must be preserved for new generations. "The teachers and educators here owe it to their own culture and history to keep the stories of the Malaya Lolas alive," she says.

For Some The Dream Won't Die

For those survivors still in good health, that dream of justice and remembrance is still strong.

Narcisa Claveria takes no medication save for vitamins. She's tiny in stature but granite in her resolve.

"As soon as the pandemic is over," she says with her signature grit, "we'll go back to the streets to make noise against the government and the government of Japan. We'll do rallies again."

NPR Manila-based producer Ella Mage contributed to this project.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Yunghi Kim grant.

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