70 years on, the “comfort women” speaking out so the truth won’t die
Up to 200,000 “comfort women” were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Army before and during World War II. 70 years after the end of the war, American photographer Paula Allen recalls the survivors she met in 2005 in South Korea and the Philippines.
It’s been 10 years since I met them, but I still think about the women all the time. I imagine I will return one day soon and find out who is still alive. They were in their 60s, 70s and 80s when we met in 2005. I know that many of them have since passed away. But they bravely broke their silence before their lives ended.
I remember one woman in particular from the Philippines. Her name was Lola Maxima. She did not just speak her story; she physically acted out her experiences: clawing, screaming, falling onto the floor, crawling in an attempt to get away, curling up into a ball… Her daughter, who was present, froze as she watched her mother. It was the first time she had heard her mother speak about what had happened so many years ago.
Their voices and bodies spoke together
When I travelled with Amnesty International campaigner Suki Nagra to interview survivors in 2005, I was struck by their courage to come forward despite the years, in order that the truth would not die with them. I was also struck by the solidarity among them. In Korea, they lived together in a place called The House of Sharing, and in the Philippines they had formed a group to fight for justice.
I photographed them because they wanted me to. They were presenting evidence, remembering, both their voices and bodies speaking of the truth. There were many who would tear off their clothes while we were interviewing them. They pointed to the areas of their bodies that had been wounded: a breast where a soldier had beaten a woman with a hot spatula, a vagina where penetration had been brutal and relentless, or feet that had been bound with tight ropes.
I photographed them because they wanted me to. They were presenting evidence, remembering, both their voices and bodies speaking of the truth.
They were all once young girls who had dreams for the future, but they were sexually, emotionally and physically brutalized. Many were killed or killed themselves. Those who survived and returned home did not share their stories of horror for decades, for fear of being stigmatized.
Opening the door for other women
When South Korea’s Kim Hak-soon testified in August 1991 about her experiences as a sexual slave for the Japanese military, she was the first woman in her country to break over 50 years of silence. When she did so, she opened the door for survivors all over Asia to start speaking up about their own experiences.
The women’s refusal to be silenced has had an impact, perhaps beyond measure, for other female victims of sexual violence throughout the world. In recent years I have travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and women and girls are now speaking out about mass rape and violence while the brutality of war rages on.
The women’s refusal to be silenced has had an impact, perhaps beyond measure, for other female victims of sexual violence throughout the world.
70 years and still waiting for justice
The sexual slavery survivors have called for full reparations and a genuine apology from the Japanese Government. As of now, 70 years after the end of the end of World War II, they are still waiting for both.
Many of these women did not see justice served in their lifetime, and I’m aware that those still living may also not live to see the day. But to me, the women have achieved something that is monumental by continuing to challenge the Japanese government, even in the face of lies and denial.
The fight for justice has strengthened the voices of women all over the world. The voices of these survivors have inspired a global movement demanding that crimes of sexual violence be redressed.
The Japanese Imperial Army enslaved tens of thousands of women, euphemistically called, “comfort women”, from around 1932 to the end of World War II. The victims were Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, Dutch, East Timorese and Japanese. Ex-soldiers have also disclosed in memoirs and interviews that women from Viet Nam, Thailand, Burma and the USA were also forced into “prostitution”. Read more in Amnesty’s 2005 report, which includes Paula’s photographs.