Activists have launched a campaign to introduce a United Nations-proclaimed day to remember wartime sex slaves, known as comfort women, and end sexual assaults against women in wartime.
They are targeting the date of Aug. 14, when Kim Hak Sun, a victim of sex slavery under the Japanese military, came forward in Seoul in 1991 under her own name to demand that Japan take responsibility for its actions.
“We hope the hardships the comfort women went through will be a memory for the whole world, although attempts to gloss over Japan’s wartime atrocities still continue,” said Mina Watanabe, co-representative of Japan Action for Resolution of the “Comfort Women” Issue.
Kim’s action has prompted other former comfort women to step forward, while serving as an encouragement to victims of wartime sexual violence around the world, Watanabe said in a recent interview. “We expect the introduction of the U.N. memorial day will bring an end to ongoing sexual violence in the world’s conflict areas and restore the honor of the victims.”
While calling for the cooperation of human rights groups in such countries as Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands, the campaigners are also planning to lobby the United Nations and the authorities of relevant countries in hopes of demonstrating that “the victimized women themselves” are capable of achieving redress, Watanabe said.
As part of the effort to promote their mission, the campaigners organized a symposium in Tokyo on Sunday, at which Anwarul Chowdhury, former undersecretary general and high representative of the United Nations, gave a keynote address.
“Kim Hak Sun is a global symbol of women’s rights,” he told the audience of over 300 people. Kim called for “strong commitments of the international community not only to correct the wrongs of the past but also to prevent those ever happening in future.”
“We should resolve to never forget our brave sisters who broke out of their long silence…I propose that Aug. 14 should be proclaimed as a United Nations Day to pay respect to women subjected to sexual slavery throughout the world,” the former U.N. official said.
Another speaker was Yun Mi Hyang, representative of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
Reflecting on her long experience of supporting the former comfort women, Yun said that people in South Korea considered them disgraced persons at the time Kim Hak Sun came forward, while former comfort women themselves also felt ashamed of their past.
“But her coming out has changed such biased views and stirred an awareness that it is not the victim but the victimizer who should be accused,” she said.
“There are still many people in the world’s conflict areas, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan, who are undergoing similar suffering to those experienced by the former comfort women,” she said. “Our effort, which goes beyond border, race and gender, to create a U.N. day to remember this suffering will help to prevent a recurrence of the atrocities and encourage marginalized women and children in these areas.”
At the symposium, Mari Oka, professor at Kyoto University, said, “Proclamation of the memorial day will make it society’s collective memory so it will be handed down from one generation to the next.”
The issue of wartime sexual slavery has drawn attention again recently, with an influential Japanese politician making a controversial remark that the system was necessary to maintain military discipline, while comfort women memorials have been built in some U.S. cities, stirring the displeasure of the Japanese government, which says the issue should not be brought into the political or diplomatic arenas.
Watanabe said, meanwhile, “We will try to make the public become aware of what really happened to former comfort women during the war by promoting the campaign to designate the U.N. memorial day.”