“Comfort women” and the cost of war on women’s bodies

“War isn’t just the fighting, it is people trying to keep their lives together when all hell is breaking loose around them.”
– CHRISTINA LAMB 

Women have long been seen as spoils of war. In recent conflicts, rape is used deliberately as a weapon. The UN estimates that for every one rape reported in connection with a conflict, 10 to 20 cases go undocumented. In countries including Burundi, Colombia and Sudan, the UN found that gender-based violence had increased significantly; reporting rates in Yemen alone increased by as much as 70% in some areas in 2018.

Thousands of young girls have been kidnapped and sold as “bush wives” by the Boko Haram, Yazdi women were called devil worshippers and sold as slaves to ISIS fighters, and Rohingya women were tied to banana trees and gang raped by Burmese soldiers.

What is more shocking is that in all the talk about war and war crimes, crimes against women are ignored and erased. There’s been no justice for the “comfort women” kept by the Japanese army, or the German women raped by the Soviet Army during World War Two.

According to Christina Lamb, author of Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women, rape was prosecuted as a war crime for the first time in 1998 in Rwanda, where a group of women managed to prosecute the mayor of a small town called Taba. Lamb says, “There have been a number of successes in different places, in recent years: Guatemala, Colombia, Chad. But each time it’s been where the woman or women involved have been incredibly courageous, and incredibly persistent. There isn’t any institutional change, or major international movement to try and help these women.”

I was shocked to learn that to this day, 80 and 90 year old Korean women, survivors of the Japanese atrocities, march every Wednesday outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, demanding recognition of and an official apology for the horrors perpetrated against them. And that Japan still refuses to acknowledge this horrific atrocity.

I didn’t know anything about “comfort women” or the brutal 35-year occupation of Korea by Japan until I read Daughters of the Dragon by William Andrews earlier this year.

The novel begins with the Japanese occupation of Korea and China during World War II, when more than two hundred thousand Korean women were forced to serve the soldiers as “comfort women.” I stumbled across this book on Kindle Unlimited, and I’m so glad that I did. World War II literature is often dominated by stories of the holocaust, Pearl Harbor, or the allies. What happened in Korea seems to have gone largely unnoticed — or maybe I just didn’t notice it until recently.

As I read more about comfort women and their continued demands for an official apology or compensation from Japan, it became clear that wartime atrocities still weighs heavily on the South Korean national psyche – and finds voice in an enduring suspicion of Japan.

The Japanese Army systemically trafficked hundreds of thousands of girls and young women, with the majority from Korea, China and the Philippines, and forced them into sexual slavery. They were housed at “comfort stations”, often at the frontlines of the fighting, where they served anywhere from 5-­60 soldiers a day, resulting in a fatality rate of approximately 87%, compared to 27% for front line Japanese soldiers.

A Chinese girl from one of the Japanese Army’s ‘comfort battalions’ sits on a stretcher, awaiting interrogation at a camp in Rangoon. 

Only about 10-25% of the victims survived the end of the war. Many “comfort women” died from their conditions and the Japanese executed many more before retreating. Once the war ended, the Japanese government tried to destroy all documentation and evidence of “comfort stations” and “comfort women” .

While some of the survivors returned home, many others remained at the “comfort station” out of shame and fear of discrimination. Many of these women lived out their days ostracized from family and community for no fault of theirs. Others, fearing ostracism in their own countries, took their secret to the grave. But in 1991, Kim Hak-soon, a South Korean, became the first to testify about her wartime forced prostitution experiences in public. “We must record these sins that were forced upon us,” she said.

In 2007, the US Congress unanimously passed House Resolution 121, which notes:

“The “Comfort Women” system is “considered unprecedented in its cruelty and magnitude, included gang rape, forced abortions, humiliation, and sexual violence resulting in mutilation, death, or eventual suicide in one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century.” Historians state that this is the single largest case of institutionalized sexual exploitation committed by a government entity (Japan) in modern history.”

Till date, the Japanese government refuses to issue a cabinet-approved apology to the surviving “Comfort Women”.

For the surviving victims, the quest for justice is a battle against time. As of July 2021, only 14 of the 240 registered survivors of Japan’s wartime brothels are still alive in South Korea. Cho Young-kun, a manager of the House of Sharing, which has served as a shelter for elderly survivors for 26 years, says “Most of the grandmothers were born in the 1920s and just over a dozen remain nationwide. I’m afraid such accounts [personal accounts] will vanish in the mists of history when the remaining ones pass away.”

Stories like these are uncomfortable and difficult, but we need to read and learn and stop ignoring the heavy price that women continue to pay during war and in conflict zones.

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5 comments

  1. I have read about comfort women before and have followed the story of the Filipinas fighting for their dues from the Japanese for all suffering they were put through. More recently, the stories out of Rwanda and the crimes of the Boko Haram, and the Myanmar soldiers too are horrific!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing this heart-wrenching story, Shinjini. How utterly shameful that despite history bearing witness to crimes of such magnitude, the truth is so easily shoved under the carpet as if it never existed. People in Japan were not completely unaware that there were comfort women during wartime. Those who went to war knew, that they existed. But there was almost no awareness of the issue as a social problem. History now tells us that what these women went through could very well be the cruellest outcome of Japan’s colonization of Korea. We need more of these stories to be shared and heard so that the world can gauge the extent of what women suffered and endured in silence over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes – more of these stories need to be shared. I think the problem of refusing to acknowledge the problem stems from the fact that aggressors often look at the oppressed as sub-human and not worthy of empathy or care. Whenever there is war, that is always the case – and there seem to be no solutions or answers in sight….

      Liked by 1 person

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