The disappearing ‘lolas’ of Mapanique
There were originally 96 members when they formed the Malaya Lolas, an association of Filipino women who suffered mass rape and other forms of horrendous crimes committed by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.
As chairperson of the Center for International Law (CenterLaw), I joined our young lawyers and staff last Tuesday on a trip to Barangay Mapanique in Candaba, Pampanga, to visit the surviving lolas. Our purpose was to give each of them a copy of a United Nations decision that’s favorable to them, explain its contents, and discuss plans to push for the decision’s implementation.
In 1944, the Japanese military descended onto the village of Mapanique on suspicion that it was a guerilla haven. They looted and torched the community, gathered the men and boys, and then tortured and massacred them. One lola personally saw her father being castrated and his penis “stuffed … in his mouth like a cigar.” They herded women and girls and made them march to the “Bahay na Pula,” a Japanese garrison in the nearby town of San Ildefonso, where they were repeatedly raped.
In 1997, the women victims of Mapanique formed the Malaya Lolas with the aim of pushing for the Philippine government to help them obtain reparations and apology from Japan. When their own government refused to help them, then University of the Philippines professor Harry Roque prompted his law students to research and craft a court case in behalf of the lolas. In 2004, the students, with CenterLaw’s assistance, filed a case in the Supreme Court to compel the Philippine government to take up the cudgels for the lolas in their quest for justice against Japan. There were only 70 lolas remaining when the case was filed. In 2010, the Supreme Court denied the petition on the ground that it was the exclusive power of the president to decide on whether or not to support the lolas’ cause. The motion for reconsideration was denied in 2014.
In 2019, CenterLaw lawyers partnered with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights of Germany to bring up the lolas’ case with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (UN Cedaw). The number of surviving lolas had dwindled to 24 by then.
On March 8, 2023, CenterLaw received the UN Cedaw decision finding the Philippine government in violation of its international obligations for discriminating against the Malaya Lolas. It noted that “Philippine war veterans, who are predominantly male, benefit from State-sanctioned special and esteemed treatment, including educational benefits, health care benefits, old age, disability and death pensions, and burial assistance.” In contrast, the Malaya Lolas have been deprived of “dignified treatment, recognition, benefits, or services, or any form of support.”
The UN Cedaw declared that the Philippines should ensure that the Malaya Lolas are given financial reparation, an official apology, and material and moral damages. It also declared that the government should “create a memorial to preserve the site of Bahay na Pula (Red House) … to commemorate the suffering inflicted to the victims.” It further urged the government to include in the “curricula of all academic institutions … the history of Philippine women victims/survivors of wartime sexual slavery.”
When we reached the Mapanique barangay chapel, the lolas were already waiting for us, garbed in their colorful baro’t saya. CenterLaw lawyers Sabrina Dayao, Nicolene Arcaina, and Dustin Coscolluela took turns briefing the lolas of the Cedaw decision and answering their questions. I saw heads bowed and occasional sobs, as the lolas listened. The lolas are now aged between 82 and 96, and their number has further dwindled to 20, with three currently bedridden.
I emphasized to the lolas that even with the Cedaw decision, the battle is only half-won because the Philippine government must still be prompted to implement the directives. Their leader, Maria Quilantang, declared that they will continue the fight even to their last breaths.
Before we left, three lolas volunteered to sing the Malaya Lolas song. It was a 10-minute-long song, sang pasyon-style, and the heart-rending lyrics recounted the atrocities they suffered and the decades they’ve spent fighting for recognition. It is a song that the Philippine government must hear and heed, lest it becomes a voice in our past haunting us unendingly all throughout our history.
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