Philippines: Sexual slavery during the Second World War

Philippines – Sexual and gender-based violence – Malaya Lolas

During the 1942–1945 Japanese occupation of the Philippines and other parts of Asia, the Imperial Japanese Army established a system of sexual slavery. In the Philippines, more than 1000 women, some of them under-age, were imprisoned as sexual slavery hostages.

On the occasion of the 75th-year commemoration of the invasion of the Mapanique district in the northern Philippines, ECCHR and the Philippine Center for International Law (CenterLaw) submitted a communication to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in November 2019. The communication, filed on behalf of 28 members of the Malaya Lolas, an organization of affected women, argues that the Philippines has failed in its obligation to provide access to justice and remedies for the women abused in sexual slavery. The communication called for urgent measures to provide the surviving Malaya Lolas, between the ages of 75 and 95, with an acknowledgement of the crimes committed against them, as well as reparations.

In March 2023, CEDAW recognized that the Malaya Lolas continue to be discriminated against by the Philippine state. This landmark decision recommends that the Philippines provide full reparations to the Malaya Lolas, including an official apology and financial compensation. Moreover, it recommends the establishment general legislative and policy measures in favor of all victims of the system of sexual slavery in the Philippines. In doing so, it sets an important standard that is now applicable to victims and survivors of CRSV worldwide.

Case

The institutionalized system of female wartime slavery established and institutionalized by the Imperial Japanese Army during Second World War resulted in crimes against international laws of the time, particularly the 1926 Slavery Convention and the 1933 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women of the Full Age.

While Japan bears responsibility for the commission of these crimes, the communication argued that the Philippines – by continuously dismissing the survivors’ claims – has failed to fulfill its obligations under the 1981 CEDAW Convention. After having exhausted all available domestic remedies, some of the survivors within the Malaya Lolas organization turned to the CEDAW Committee as a last avenue of recourse in November 2019. Given that the Philippines ratified the Convention in 1981, along with its Optional Protocol in 2003, the CEDAW Committee was able to decide on this issue in March 2023.

The CEDAW Committee’s decision confirmed that the Philippines has failed to fulfill its obligations under the CEDAW Convention. In addition, it found that the state has taken actions in favor of male wartime veterans, who have received a number of government benefits, whereas it has neither acknowledged nor addressed the situation of female victims and survivors of the wartime sexual slavery system. The committee thus recognized the discriminatory nature of this lack of support for female survivors of wartime conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Finally, the CEDAW Committee recommended a comprehensive set of reparation measures.

Context

Since 2004, CenterLaw has represented 70 women of the Malaya Lolas, a survivors' organization composed of hostages previously held by the Imperial Japanese Army in sexual slavery. Of these, 28 women filed the communication in 2019, and by the time the CEDAW Committee reached its decision, only 24 were still alive. Since the 1990s, the Malaya Lolas have been persistently calling on the Philippine government to support their claims for acknowledgment and reparations against Japan. In April 2010, the Philippine Supreme Court turned down the claimants’ appeal and, in August 2014, rejected CenterLaw’s and ECCHR's additional petitions.

After having exhausted all domestic remedies, ECCHR and CenterLaw brought the Malaya Lolas’ case to UN level by presenting an individual complaint to the UN Special Rapporteurs on Violence Against Women and on Contemporary Forms of Slavery in November 2016. Throughout the years, the Philippine government has consistently maintained that reparations have been paid by Japan according to the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and the 1956 Reparations Agreement between the two states, without addressing the particular situation of the Malaya Lolas.

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  • Center for International Law (CenterLaw)

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Definition

Individual complaints

Individuals complaints allow persons or groups to enforce their rights.

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Insight

War crimes

Attacks directed against civilians; torture of detainees; sexual slavery – when committed within the context of armed conflict, these and other grave crimes amount to war crimes as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. While the system of international criminal justice makes it possible to prosecute war crimes, in many cases those responsible are not held to account.

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