Raising a Voice for Justice -- Alexis Stratton

“We must record these things that were forced upon us.”  --Kim Hak-soon (1924-1997), former Korean “comfort woman”

While visiting South Korea last summer to conduct research about violence against women, I had the privilege of meeting some amazing survivors of sexual trauma who inspired me both with their stories and their courage to use those stories to speak out against war and sexual violence.

Sexual violence is not limited by continent, country, or region, and the circumstances under which sexual violence occurs can often be linked to various forms of power dynamics and oppressions. No more readily do we see this than in instances of war, during which times women’s bodies often become the battlefields on which the wars are waged, whether through rape as a weapon of war or through forced sexual slavery.  While this horrific phenomenon has become more widely reported recently (for example, after the war in Bosnia or in conflicts throughout Africa), many women who have survived such horrors have often been (and often still are) silenced.

This situation was made clear to me last summer when I met several of the Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. During the war, the Japanese military systematically enslaved women (mostly Koreans, but also those from other colonial territories and even Japan itself) through a variety of tactics, forcing them to work at “comfort stations,” as they were called, at which Japanese soldiers would have sex with the “comfort women.” Many of the women were trafficked through trickery, while others were kidnapped by force. Women at these stations were brutalized, imprisoned, and forced to “service” as many as 50 men a day. The program continued for many years of the war, and after the war was over, the realities of the “comfort station” system were largely ignored, elided, or left unspoken. Yet, the young women who were forced to work at those stations, most of whom were 13 to 30 years old, had to try to pull their lives together after such brutality—a difficult thing, of course.

After many years of silence, in 1991 the first Korean “comfort woman” went public in the Korean media. After that brave move, about 200 others “came out,” and of those, 74 are still living today. This is important for several reasons, but most importantly, because this is not just a thing of the past. These women are still alive, still seeking justice, and have traveled the world to talk about this issue in hopes of preventing it from happening again (and bringing attention to places in which it is occurring). Rape as a weapon—or side effect—of war is unacceptable, and many of these women are spending their remaining days making sure the world knows it.

While not all survivors of sexual trauma can share their stories in this way, I was inspired by these brave women’s ability to do so and their continuing desire to seek justice. And I was proud to stand beside them at their weekly Wednesday protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Change may be slow in coming, but with each step, with each voice raised, it becomes increasingly possible.

For more information on the story of the Korean “comfort women,” please visit the website for The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japanor my travel blog, where I detail my experiences meeting and protesting with these amazing women.

For more information on women and war, keep an eye out for PBS’s new series called “Women, War, and Peace,” airing Tuesday nights at 10:00 p.m. through Nov. 8.