On 8 March 2023, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) issued recommendations for the Philippines concerning the ongoing discrimination experienced by the Malaya Lolas (“Free Grandmothers”), a group of 24 women in the Philippines who are survivors of wartime sexual slavery committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in the Philippines during the Second World War.
The decision is a result of a communication under the CEDAW Optional Protocol filed in 2019 by ECCHR and the Center for International Law (CenterLaw) in the Philippines on behalf of the Malaya Lolas. While it is clear that the Japanese state is directly responsible for the commission of these crimes, this legal intervention focused on the obligations that the Philippine state bears under the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to provide access to justice and remedies for the Malaya Lolas and other women survivors of sexual slavery. The communication argued that the Philippines – by failing to support the claims of the Malaya Lolas against Japan and by the lack of governmental action to provide reparations – has not fulfilled these obligations.
In its landmark decision, the committee recognized that the Philippines has failed to address the system of wartime sexual slavery and its consequences for the survivors, the majority of whom are female. This includes the absence of governmental action and programs by the Philippine Commission on Women, as well as neglecting to protect and maintain the memorial site of the “Bahay na Pula” (Red House) where the women were held hostage in 1945. In contrast, the committee found that the state has taken actions in favor of mostly male wartime veterans, who have received a number of government benefits. The committee thus recognizes the discriminatory nature of this lack of support for female survivors of wartime conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV).
In consequence, the CEDAW Committee recommended that the state provide full reparation to the Malaya Lolas. This includes: (i) an acknowledgement of and official apology for the discrimination and damages they have suffered; (ii) restitution, rehabilitation and satisfaction measures aimed at restoring their dignity and reputation and at providing financial compensation corresponding to the damage and gravity of the violations suffered.
The committee also made general recommendations to the Philippines in favor of all victims of war crimes – while explicitly including female survivors of CRSV – that do not discriminate based on the gender of the victims and survivors. Noting that the Malaya Lolas is just one group out of several in the Philippines that is striving to receive recognition and reparations, the committee also recommended the establishment of a fund for compensation and reparations, which all women survivors of the wartime sexual slavery can access, in order “to ensure the restoration of their dignity, value and personal liberty.” In addition, other symbolic and educational measures were recommended, such as the conversion of the Red House into a memorial site and the inclusion of the history of the survivors of wartime sexual slavery in curricula at all educational levels.
The relentless and decades-long struggle of the Malaya Lolas and other survivors in the Philippines has at long last born fruit. We call upon the Philippine state to urgently implement all of the committee’s recommendations, given the advanced age of the women, and to adopt all legal and policy measures at its disposal to ensure that any other female victims of CRSV have access to adequate redress measures under the standards set by this decision.
The decision sets an important standard for reparation and compensation in favor of victims and survivors of CRSV worldwide, regardless of when the violations against them were committed. In particular, this decision can help further the struggle of survivors’ organizations across other countries in Asia, such as South Korea, where the Imperial Japanese Army also imposed its system of sexual slavery. More broadly, the CEDAW Committee has now clarified the extent of states’ obligations to provide reparations in a non-discriminatory manner to all those affected, as opposed to particular affected groups – such as male soldiers. All measures for reparation, compensation, restitution, rehabilitation and guarantees of non-recurrence of these violations must take into consideration the particular impacts that CRSV, as one of the gravest forms of gender-based violence, has on the lives and dignity of its victims/survivors and their communities.