MANILA — A United Nations (UN) panel focused on women's rights has found that the Philippines "violated the rights" of Filipinas who suffered sexual abuse by Japanese soldiers during World War II.
The finding by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was coincidentally released during the celebration of International Women's Day on Wednesday (Geneva time).
According to the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, CEDAW's decision stemmed from a complaint by 24 members of the "Malaya Lolas" (Free Grandmothers), composed of elderly women who survived sexual slavery during the war.
The group said the Philippines has failed to provide reparation, social support, and needed recognition for the Filipina victims, leading to "ongoing discrimination against them that continues to this day."
These survivors, known as comfort women, have been pressing the Philippine government to support their claims to get reparations from Tokyo for their suffering under the Imperial Japanese army.
"Their repeated efforts, however, were dismissed by the authorities, with their last action turned down by the Supreme Court in 2014. The Philippines’ government has always maintained that it is not in a position to claim compensation from Japan after ratifying the Treaty of Peace with Japan in 1956," the OHCHR said.
The commission was referring to the Reparations Agreement, wherein the Philippines agreed to receive some $550 million from Japan in services and goods as compensation for Filipino victims of World War II.
The Malaya Lolas sought CEDAW's help, aiming to compel the Philippines to fulfill its commitments under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
The UN panel noted that despite the Treaty of Peace, there remains apparent discrimination against Filipina comfort women.
"The committee observed that the Philippine Commission on Women had not addressed the institutionalized system of wartime sexual slavery, its consequences for victims and survivors, or their protection needs. In contrast, Philippine war veterans, who are mostly men, are entitled to special and esteemed treatment from the Government, such as educational benefits, health-care benefits, old age, disability and death pensions," it said.
CEDAW said that the Philippine government also breached its obligations under the convention, saying it has failed to implement appropriate measures to prohibit all prejudice against women and protect their rights "on an equal basis with men."
The committee called on Manila to provide the sexual abuse survivors full reparation, "including material compensation and an official apology for the continuing discrimination."
CEDAW's finding is a "symbolic moment of victory for these victims", committee member Marion Bethel said.
“This case demonstrates that minimizing or ignoring sexual violence against women and girls in war and conflict situations is, indeed, another egregious form of violation of women’s rights. We hope that the committee’s decision serves to restore human dignity for all of the victims, both deceased and living,” she said.
The Philippine government has yet to issue a statement on CEDAW's report, as of writing.
Before President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s visit to Japan last February, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it was unlikely the Chief Executive was going to raise the issue of Filipino "comfort women" with Tokyo.
In 2018, then-President Rodrigo Duterte said the wartime sexual abuse issue between the Philippines and Japan was already resolved, as far as he was concerned.
Duterte's predecessor, the late President Benigno Aquino III, had also pointed out that Tokyo already fulfilled its obligations to Manila over the issue, through the Reparations Agreement.
The complaint examined by CEDAW was filed by victim Natalia Alonzo and 23 other sexual survivors.
According to the complaint, on Nov. 23, 1944, they were forcibly taken to the infamous "Bahay na Pula" (Red House), which was the Japanese military's headquarters in San Ildefonso, Pampanga.
"They were detained in the Red House for one day to three weeks, where they were repeatedly subjected to rape, other forms of sexual violence, torture and inhumane detention conditions," the OHCHR said.
The surviving comfort women have been suffering since then from "long-term physical, psychological, social and economic consequences, including physical injuries, post-traumatic stress, permanent damage to their reproductive capacity and harm to their social relationships in their community, marriage and work."
The previous president of Malaya Lolas, Isabelita Vinuya, died in 2021 at the age of 90. She passed away on the same day 77 years after the Japanese raided Mapaniqui, her hometown.
Organized in 1997, the Malaya Lolas had petitioned the Supreme Court to hold officials from the executive branch liable for not espousing their claims, but its pleas were junked in 2010 and again in 2014.
The group -- along with another comfort women organization, Lila Pilipina -- still refuses to accept as official the statements of apology issued by several Japanese officials in the past, including former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's letter in 2001.
Some of their members have also rejected payments made through the Asian Women’s Fund in the mid-1990s.
Virginia Suarez, the lawyer of Malaya Lolas, said in 2021 that only 21 members of the group remain alive. — With a report from Ronron Calunsod, ABS-CBN News