Filipino ‘comfort woman’ leading her group’s quest for justice dies

Ronron Calunsod, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 24 2021 03:54 PM | Updated as of Nov 25 2021 03:52 PM

Isabelita Vinuya, president of Malaya Lolas, a group of Filipino comfort women, speaks to ABS-CBN News in an interview in 2015. Screencrab from ABS-CBN News File
Isabelita Vinuya, president of Malaya Lolas, a group of Filipino comfort women, speaks to ABS-CBN News in an interview in 2015. Screencrab from ABS-CBN News File

MANILA (2nd UPDATE) — A Filipino elderly woman who claimed she was among those sexually abused during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines died on Tuesday, the same day her ordeal started 77 years ago when foreign troops raided their community in Pampanga.

Isabelita Vinuya, 90, president of the Malaya Lolas, one of the country’s “comfort women” organizations, passed away at her home in Mapaniqui, Candaba, Pampanga, her group and family said Wednesday.

“November 23 marks the 77th year since the attack of Mapaniqui. It is now also the day our beloved President of the Malaya Lolas, Lola Lita Vinuya has returned to our creator's arms,” the Malaya Lolas said on its Facebook page.

Vinuya had been bedridden for around two months before her passing, her daughter-in-law Elizabeth told ABS-CBN News.

"Si Lola po ay na-diagnose na may pneumonia. Sobrang nahirapan po si Lola dahil na rin po sa kaniyang edad," added her grandchild, Rosen Faye Vinuya.

(My grandmother was diagnosed with pneumonia. It was a serious case for her because of her age.)

“It comforts us that she was surrounded by her family during her last moments,” the Malaya Lolas said.

Vinuya had shared in past interviews how Japanese forces stormed Mapaniqui on Nov. 23, 1944 on suspicion that it was a haven of Filipino spies against them.

At the age of 13, she was sexually abused at the Bahay na Pula in neighboring Bulacan province where several women were brought by Japanese soldiers, she said.

She had also recounted seeing several men from their village who were tortured before being brought inside the school there that the Japanese troops later set on fire.

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Just as the other comfort women's group Lila Pilipina, members of the Malaya Lolas continue to demand justice from the Japanese government, including an official apology and just compensation.

The Malaya Lolas petitioned the Supreme Court to hold officials from the executive branch liable for not espousing their claims, but it was junked in 2010 and again in 2014.

“We did not win that case, Lola Lita, and you and your group are now a textbook case in Philippine jurisprudence. I am sorry that despite our efforts, you and many other Malaya Lolas died without receiving reparation,” Harry Roque, who lawyered for the group, said in a statement Wednesday.

“Reparation is not just a recognition that you are victims of one of the worst war crimes, but also a restoration of the status quo ante, including payment of compensation. We will continue this advocacy,” he said, as he expressed his condolences to Vinuya's family.

The wartime sexual abuse issue between the Philippines and Japan is already resolved as far as President Rodrigo Duterte is concerned. 

In 2018, he said, "The Japanese has paid dearly for that. The reparations started many years ago. So let's no longer insult."

Duterte's predecessor, the late President Benigno Aquino III, had also pointed out that Japan already fulfilled its obligations to the Philippines in relation to the war, including the comfort women issue, through the 1956 Reparations Agreement between the two countries.

Malaya Lolas was organized in 1997, grouping some 90 women victims of sexual abuse by Japanese soldiers in Mapaniqui.

The first Filipino who publicly came out with her wartime sexual slavery experience was Maria Rosa Henson in 1992. Lila Pilipina was put up that same year, with 174 original members.

Members of Malaya Lolas and Lila Pilipina refuse to accept as official the statements of apology issued by several Japanese officials in the past. Some of their members also rejected payments made through the Asian Women’s Fund in the mid-1990s, saying it came from private donors.

“This year we have lost so many of our lolas and it is hard to stay strong… She may have passed away but the things she has fought for her whole life, we must continue, to seek justice,” the Malaya Lolas said of Vinuya.

“Her memory will live on.”

Virginia Suarez, the lawyer of Malaya Lolas, said that despite being sick and weak, Vinuya's spirit remained strong during their last meeting on Oct. 22.

"I asked her, 'Paano na ang laban natin Lola? Pagod ka na ba?' She said, 'Aba, tuloy ang laban, Atty. 'Di tayo susuko," Suarez recounted.

(I asked her what will happen to our struggle, and if she is already tired. She said the fight goes on and we should not give up.)

Filipino comfort woman Isabelita Vinuya was visited by Atty. Virginia Suarez, the lawyer of her group, Malaya Lolas, last Oct. 22, 2021. Photo courtesy of Atty. Virginia Suarez
Filipino comfort woman Isabelita Vinuya was visited by Atty. Virginia Suarez, the lawyer of her group, Malaya Lolas, last Oct. 22, 2021. Photo courtesy of Atty. Virginia Suarez

According to Suarez, only 21 members of Malaya Lolas remain alive.

"The struggle of the Lolas... is really very important to me because the Lolas are the living witnesses of the ills and the terrors of wars and militarization," she said in a media interview in September.

"There should be no second generation of comfort women. There should be no additional violence, or military sexual violence. Our organization is opposed to all forms of wars and militarization. And the Lolas signify that."

"Comfort women" is a euphemism for Asian women who were forced to work in Japanese Imperial Army brothels during World War II. In the Philippines, an estimated 1,000 women were said to have fallen victims to the system.

Decades since the war, relations between the Philippines and Japan are robust, with a strategic security partnership signed in 2015. The two countries also share vigorous trade and tourism exchanges.