By Yumhee Park
Program Assistant for the Health and Reproductive Rights Department, National Women’s Law Center
Which of these is not like the other?
Amelia Earhart, aviator.
Virginia Woolf, novelist.
Frida Kahlo, artist.
Kim Gun-ja, comfort woman.
While the first three women have been recognized for their achievements, oftentimes, women like Kim Gun-ja are left to fade as sad stories of women who have been subject to patriarchal violence. But why should their story and voice be any less important and recognized while we celebrate Women’s History Month? March marks Women’s History Month and the theme is a celebration of women of character, courage, and commitment. Many times, we are eager to recognize those who have achieved major milestones for women, but leave reports or stories of survivors of indescribable violence to find their place in posts dedicated to sympathies. Women survivors of violence deserve recognition and their heartbreaking stories should serve as a reminder that these are crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, instead of being recognized, some such victims are being systematically forgotten.
I remember being in my early teens when I first learned about how Korean, Chinese, and other Asian women were used as “comfort women” during World War II for the Japanese army. I was in my mother’s childhood home when my mom and aunts first taught me the terrible atrocities the Japanese army inflicted on these women. No names were mentioned; these women were rendered nameless, faceless, and invisible by their aggressors. The story of Kim Gun-ja is one just recently reported. She lives in a nursing home created for South Korean women who were forced into prostitution. The reporter writes about a picture she has taken (a gift from a local company) with a wedding dress and flowers that holds more bitterness than fondness for what might have been her life. Her life may not hold shining milestones for womankind, yet her story is an important one to tell. Her struggles are important to recognize for the future of womankind.
Too often, though, stories like hers are just passing ones, saturated with bitterness and anger — women continue to be left nameless and faceless, the way their aggressors meant for them to be. With only 55 South Korean women left as registered former sex slaves from the war, their voices will soon fade into a sad part of South Korean history, with not much global recognition of them as courageous women who had to endure such long periods of trauma. Kim laments and asks, “Once the victims are gone, who will step in and fight for us?”
Instead of respect and apologies, women like Kim Gun-ja are met with deplorable remarks from Japanese politicians. In 2013, Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka said, “In the circumstances in which bullets are flying like rain and wind, the soldiers are running around at the risk of losing their lives . . . If you want them to have a rest in such a situation, a comfort women system is necessary. Anyone can understand that.” Then, earlier this year, a Japanese government spokesman stated that there was a need to re-examine the Kono statement, an apology from Japan acknowledging that it’s Imperial military had indirect involvement in sexual slavery during World War II, to reevaluate the background and evidence of statements made by comfort women. Finally, Gawker came under fire for making a tasteless joke comparing a dating website to Imperial Japan and their use of comfort women, which fueled a new hashtag #GawkingAtRapeCulture. All these responses indeed fuel rape culture and serve to belittle the experiences of these women while keeping them invisible and voiceless.
As March comes to a close, I would like to celebrate and recognize the comfort women of World War II. The countless girls who have endured gang rapes in India. And all victims of sexual assault for their hardship and their courage to continue on and their commitment to their lives. These women are examples of pure strength within terrible circumstances and deserve praise as well as compensation and apologies for all the trauma endured. This Women’s History Month, let us not only celebrate the famously influential women throughout history, but also the invisible survivors, such as Kim Gun-ja, and remember to continue persevering for a world that may one day be free of senseless violence.
Yumhee Park is part of the Health & Reproductive Rights department at the National Women’s Law Center. Follow her stream of thoughts on feminism, Korean American identities and DC life on Twitter: @parkyhee.