Reeve Jairo A. De Los Santos


The Malaya Lolas (lit. Free Grandmothers) is an organization composed of grandmothers who were ‘comfort women’ during World War II along with their husbands, children, and grandchildren gathered for one cause: demand honorable and genuine reparation from the Japanese Government, and now, the Philippine Government too.

Photo Courtesy by Hannah Reyes Morales/Virginia Quarterly Review

The ladies who stood strong with 90 members, now just about 30 individuals, have recently been spotlighted after being ignored by the national government since their establishment in 1997. After the decision by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women-United Nations, Japan’s deliberate inaction and Philippine’s complacency have been publicized as violations against human rights.

24 in ’44; In Asia, thousands more

On November 23, 1944, Natalia Alonzo and 23 other women were abducted from Mapaniqui, Candaba, Pampanga, and locked in the Japanese headquarter barracks, Bahay na Pula (lit. Red House), in San Ildefonso. The women were raped and defiled — and “other forms of sexual violence, torture, and inhumane conditions of detention” — by the Japanese Imperial Army soldiers for a day to some, three weeks to most.

They were forced to live, sleep, and have sex with as many as 30 men per day with each soldier having a 30-minute allotment of sexual relations. Alonzo and the others were only a few of the people subjected to the sexual slavery system during the World War II in all the Japanese territories referred to as ianfu (慰安婦), commonly heard as ‘comfort women’ or ‘comfort girls.’

The women noted in their statement to the Committee that they have endured long-term physical, psychological, social, and economic consequences, including physical injuries, mental and emotional suffering consistent with medical descriptions of post-traumatic stress, permanent damage to their reproductive capacity, and harm to their social relationships in marriage, work and the community. Although after the war, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, or Tokyo Tribunal, took the matter at their discretion and tried many Japanese officials for various war crimes against humanity, sexual slavery was still never mentioned in any way despite a myriad of evidence.

The Asian Women’s Fund collated historical data that summarized the number of women between 50,000 to 200,000 from mainly Korea, Philippines, Japan, and China. More women were sourced from other countries such as Burma-Myanmar, Thailand, Taiwan, and Papua New Guinea, and were kept in “comfort stations” such as the Bahay na Pula.

Like the red house, Japanese barracks became brothels called comfort stations with rooms divided into tiny cubicles where tens to hundreds of women were kept individually. In those environments, sexually transmitted diseases were rampant. Only fewer than 30% of the women survived the war; some fortunate enough were able to return home through refugee boats like Korean survivor Kim Bok-Dong. Some never went home while to others, suicide was the way out.

Kim shared to Asian Boss that men stood in queues outside the rooms and that it was continuous every day from morning until night. The soldiers used condoms and lubricants to “make it easier” for them which still did not prevent the illnesses and pregnancies. She ended that the Japanese “tried to cover up the existence” of such comfort stations by dubbing them “nurses.” Kim was taken at the age of 14 which was about the same age as Natalia Alonzo and the 23 other Filipinas from Mapaniqui who were born between 1924 and 1945. Kim passed away on January 28, 2019, and she, too, never received any official apology from the Japanese government.

Band-aid solutions from enemies and faux allies

Japan ─ Throughout the years post-war, the Japanese government went on with a handful of peace treaties with the countries it damaged. In the Philippines, the country ratified a ‘Treaty of Peace with Japan’ in 1956 which also failed to address the state of the mass-rape victims of WWII. This was explicitly complained in the Committee’s letter that the authors see such that it “undermines the post-facto restoration of dignity, value and personal liberty that have been ruthlessly and continuously violated.”

Thirty-nine years after the said treaty, the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) was formed in 1995 which aimed to commit itself to compensating the sexual torture victims of the Japanese Imperial Army of the 1940s. The Fund was codependently raised by the Japanese Government and its people as an effort to provide “atonement payments” which was translated to be only of monetary value. The offers were rejected by many of the survivors including Alonzo and the other 23 Mapaniqui women because the AWF’s compensation was a mere slab of fortune with no depth and true accountability of legal responsibilities.

The AWF website was disbanded in 2007. Furthermore, in December 2000, the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery was formed which emphasized that Japan is responsible to provide reparations in “various forms” aligned with the “rape and enslavement of women and girls.” The tribunal was cited in Alonzo and the others’ complaints but failed to further address the issue with its own domain.

Philippines ─ According to Alonzo (et al.)’s statements, they first approached the Philippine Government through the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 1998 requesting assistance for further reparation from the government of Japan referring to the sexual-slavery crimes from decades ago. The DOJ, led by then Secretary Teofisto T. Guingona, Jr., failed to address their files as required in R.A. No. 6713 of 1989.

The honorable women were further dismissed of their attempts that year in seeking help from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), led by then Secretary Domingo Siazon, Jr., and from the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG); their dismissals were reasoned that the reparations they sought were already satisfied by the Treaty of Peace with Japan as well as the AWF.

The Marcos-ODA Scandal (マルコス疑惑)

A long band of Philippine history was led by a dictator, literally, former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who gained the spotlight and scrutiny from 1969 to 1986. Since their family amassed an estimated 5 to 13 billion U.S. dollars, it would only suffice that Marcos Sr. somehow acquired $550 million WWII reparation funds that were allegedly used for private interests.

The Marcos-ODA scandal, infamously referred to as the ODA scandal, was an alleged corruption case with multiple reports of evidence from large media publishing around the world when the global eye was still hot on the family after the EDSA 1 revolt. The case linked the Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) to the country.

This was enabled when Marcos Sr. operated and manipulated the entire administration to his perusal beginning with Upsilon Sigma Phi Fraternity brother, Atty. Roberto Benedicto, as Philippine Ambassador to Japan. This appointment enabled Marcos Sr. a close and illicit contact with leaders in the high office of Japan.

According to a report from Ateneo de Manila University, the Japanese Government requested inconspicuously to the succeeding administration led by then President Cory Aquino to be essentially downplayed and avoided by national media as it might affect the business sector and bilateral relations.

Dismissed syn. blind eyes

In 2004, another petition was filed by the Center for International Law Manila (CenterLaw) regarding the inaction of 1998 remarked by that treaty signed by both countries post-war was void for being contrary to the inclusive obligation in not providing immunity to sexually-affiliated war crimes and that the national departments which dismissed them then “constituted a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction.”

The 2004 petition was decided by the Supreme Court six years later in 2010. It was dismissed, again. Rejected with reasons of a.) because the executive branch referring to the DOJ, DFA, and OSG simply did not want to support Malaya Lola’s claims and b.) the “Philippines” had no international obligation to support them.

In the following months of May and July 2010, after being dismissed, CenterLaw filed a motion for reconsideration of the case. After four years, by August of 2014, again, the Malaya Lola was denied by the Supreme Court.

In 2016, CenterLaw along with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights submitted individual complaints to the then UN-Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes, and consequences as well as to the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences to request for their urge to the Philippine Government to support the lolas’ claims against the Japanese Government.

The latter UN agent concerned with contemporary slavery labeled the case to not be its area of mandate which “has not typically had a strong focus on historical violations relating to slavery.” On a brighter light, three Special Rapporteurs including the foremost sent a joint communication to the Government of the Philippines regarding its failure to support its people for rightful compensation and its plans to espouse the Malaya lola organization in demanding reparation in line with international human rights standards.

In comparison, Philippine war veterans, mostly men, have “esteemed treatment from the government” aside from notable benefits such as dependency and indemnity compensation, survivors compensation, burial allowance, burial flag; senior war veterans receive pensions of at least PHP20,000 and PHP5,000 for surviving spouses, no comfort woman receives any of this type of benefit.

Fighting the good fight

In April 2018, the State retained its position of apathy to consider Natalia Alonzo and the 23 others who were mostly only alive on the paper by then. The Court stood by its initial decision in 2010 from the first petition that everything was repaid through the treaty of 1956.

After enduring unspeakable crimes and money, even challenged by time, age, and a pandemic, the Malaya Lolas are still standing, and now, with the UN-CEDAW’s support for their organization to finally begin its final chapters in seeking a long-overdue resolution.

The 19-page report released on 3 March this year was marked as historical by many after the horrific crimes during the war and the decades-long inaction thereafter.

There is still no clear response from the Philippine Government after the report but UN-CEDAW’s statement demands that the administration provide full reparation in accordance with the Malaya Lola’s purposes: all forms of redress to victims of war crimes, most importantly sexual violence victims in addition to men who are war veterans. Furthermore, they also recommended an inclusive removal of discriminative provisions from Philippine laws and policies relating to war reparations.

Along these lines, the Committee highlighted in the advanced unedited version released that “the authors’ unsuccessful attempts since 1998 illustrate the repeated failure of the State party to take the measures necessary to eliminate the discrimination against the authors.”

Citing a similar case in South Korea, the government of the Republic of Korea also failed to act on its people’s similar claims; however, its Constitutional Court reacted much quicker to call out its executive arm compared to the Philippine case. To reiterate the complaint, “the Philippines has previously found that no duty exists of the executive to take up the cause of the authors.”

With these demands, the Philippine Government is also highly recommended to begin a State-funded program to compensate and extend a more benevolent hand to help the war victims and veterans. Moreover, Bahay na Pula was also highlighted to be considered as a memorial site to ensure its preservation.

Along with this goal is to honor their struggle for justice by constituting it as a study in university curricula as the history of Filipino women in wartime such that “remembrance is critical to a sensitive understanding of the history of human rights violations endured by these women.” It is also to emphasize empathy for human rights to avoid the recurrence of such violations.

For years and years, Filipino women have been denied of support to not be discriminated against as women in the Philippines which is a clear disregard of responsibility in the UN 1979 CEDAW Convention and the Government’s commitment to protecting its sovereignty and its citizens. During this year’s International Women’s Month, the celebration began when the remaining 21 Malaya Lolas finally began to grasp their long-overdue freedom from the fight that began in ’44.