Running out of time

published 10 January 2016

our women in their eighties traveled from Mapanique, Tarlac to a restaurant on Maria Orosa Street in Manila on Wednesday, Jan. 6. The journey was punishing but they needed to relay their message to some members of the press, and consequently to the Philippine government and the people. 
They had been informed that the governments of Japan and South Korea had announced a landmark agreement the week before, where the Japanese prime minister would apologize for the atrocities done to South Korean comfort women victims of systematic sexual slavery by the Japanese soldiers during World War II. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Japanese government would pay an equivalent of $8 million to the surviving women.
“Building on such experience, the Government of Japan will now take measures to heal psychological wounds of all former comfort women through its budget. To be more specific, it has been decided that the Government of the Republic of Korea establish a foundation for the purpose of providing support for the former comfort women, that its funds be contributed by the Government of Japan as a one-time contribution through its budget, and that projects for recovering the honor and dignity and healing the psychological wounds of all former comfort women be carried out under the cooperation between the Government of Japan and the Government of the ROK,” the agreement in part reads.
The deal was arrived at after painstaking talks between the two governments.
But South Korea is not the only country with comfort women. Filipino women and girls also became victims of rape during the war. Since 1992, when Maria Rosa Luna Henson came forward, Filipino comfort women had sought to seek justice for the ordeal they endured decades before. They held press conferences, filed cases in Japanese courts, demanded reparation and apology and even marched on the streets. 
The four women from Tarlac—Adelina Culala, Isabelita Vinuya, Emilia Mangilit and Candelaria Soliman—are part of the original 90 women (collectively called the Malaya Lolas) who filed, in 2004, a suit before the Supreme Court saying that top government leaders at that time committed grave abuse of discretion by not espousing their claims for official apology and other forms of reparation from Japan. 
Alas, the high court ruled in April 2010 that the Lolas’ petition had no merit because “from a domestic law perspective, the Executive Department has the exclusive prerogative to determine whether to espouse petitioners’ claims against Japan.” The court also said that the Philippines is “not under any international obligation to espouse the petitioners’ claims.”
The outrage that should have followed this decision was clouded by the plagiarism scandal that came with it. The ponente of the decision, Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, was said to have borrowed liberally, without attribution, from various legal scholars and even made it appear that their words supported the decision. The Court eventually blamed a computer program and said the justice acted in good faith.
In August 2014, the Supreme Court denied the motion for recommendation of the Malaya Lolas.  
Of the 90 original petitioners, 32 remain alive today.  
Lola Candelaria recalls that when they first filed the case in 2004, she and her fellow petitioners could still take jeepneys as they moved around. Now, no more. 
She and her husband live in a farming community in Mapanique with four of their six children. “My youngest child cannot find work because of an accident,” she said, “and the eldest is suffering from diabetes.” Every now and then, the other children pop in to see how they are doing and bring them food.
“We have no other source of income,” the 85-year-old said. It is a good thing she tends to her plants and makes sure she does some walking exercises to keep herself active. Her husband takes on whatever odd jobs he could find at his age. They have no pension; she has to scrounge around for the P500 they spend monthly for their maintenance medication.
Lola Candelaria was 14 when the Japanese came to their town, killed all the men and the boys and imprisoned the women and the girls in a big house they now refer to as “Bahay na Pula.” They were held overnight and raped by the soldiers, who set them free the following day.
According to her, she was only able to tell her family about her ordeal when the news broke out in the media. At that time, her children were already adults, already able to comprehend that she, like the other women in the town, were victims. “Nobody wanted it to happen,” she said. “We were lucky they did not kill us.”
When the Supreme Court denied their appeal, things seemed bleak for the lolas. But when they heard about the agreement between Japan and South Korea, they felt a spark of hope that perhaps their grievances could be addressed, as well. After all, what is the difference between the comfort women of South Korea and the comfort women of the Philippines when they all suffered indignities of war and had to spend the rest of their lives haunted by this burden?
The difference could lie on which government was more supportive of the plight of its women.
Lawyer Harry Roque, who represented the Malaya Lolas in their case before the Supreme Court, said that the worst thing the Court did to the women was to rob them of 10 full years—from the time the case was filed to when the appeal was dismissed with finality. 
Ten years is a long time especially for the women who are at the twilight of their lives. Had the case been resolved earlier, the women could have gone to international courts. But no, they needed to exhaust all domestic remedies first. 
The recent Japan-Korea agreement is not perfect. In South Korea, some sectors protest that there was inadequate consultation among the comfort women during the negotiations with Japan. Still, it is a beginning, and it is a milestone—proof that something could be done if government officials acknowledge their responsibility to champion the cause of their aggrieved citizens. 
Is there reason for hope? Could the same be done here? 
The lawyers say they have been prompted to move again, this time invoking international agreements. There could be remedies, if only the government did its job. So they would try to make as much noise to get the government to do its job. It’s a tall order, given the distraction that is the 2016 elections.
Roque called the attention of the lolas. “We have an injunction,” he announced. “Bawal mamatay. May laban pa tayo [You are prohibited to die. The fight is still long]. If we disobey, we will be cited for contempt.”