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1009th Wednesday Demonstration at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. February 15, 2012.
Flickr / joonyoung kim
Girls & Women

South Korean and Taiwanese Protesters Mark First-Ever 'Comfort Women' Day

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Global Goals call for an end to all violence against women and girls. Protesters in South Korea and Taiwan are condemning the human rights violations in Japan’s use of “comfort women.” Take action here to support survivors of human trafficking.

People in South Korea and Taiwan led protests in remembrance of the “comfort women” of World War II, the thousands of women enslaved in Japan’s wartime brothels, on Tuesday.

The event marked the unveiling of a monument honoring comfort women in Seoul and, more broadly, a now annual “Memorial Day for Japanese Forces’ Comfort Women Victims,” according to Reuters.

During the demonstrations, people gathered in front of the Japanese embassy in Taipei for a sit-in organized by a local group. Fifty activists were dressed in all black with white masks. Reuters reports that protesters held photos of “comfort women” and of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reading "apologize." Rallies are also anticipated in Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

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The history of comfort women has long been a point of contention between Japan and other countries.

Between 1932 and 1945, an estimated 200,000 girls and young women from across Southeast Asia were kidnapped by the Imperial Japanese Army and forced into sexual slavery. Victims, the majority Korean and Chinese, were taken to “comfort stations,” where they were forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers. In many of the reported incidents, these girls and young women were brutally raped by their captors.

For decades following the war, the suffering of “comfort women” went undocumented and Japanese government officials denied the existence of “comfort stations.” It’s estimated that 90% of “comfort women” did not survive the war, and the few survivors are now in their 80s and 90s. Many died from sexually transmitted diseases, physical disabilities, or died by suicide. There are only 35 Korean “comfort women” alive today.

The date of Aug. 14 holds significance. Kim Hak-sun, the first victim to speak publicly, shared her story on this date in 1991. Breaking 50 years of silence, she testified about her experiences as a sexual slave. Soon after, survivors across Asia also began to speak up.

Since 1992, protesters have come together outside of the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday.

The history of “comfort women” has caused diplomatic fissures between South Korea and Japan. In a 2015 deal, said to be the "final and irreversible" conclusion to the issue, Japan apologized to the victims and established a fund with 1 billion yen ($9.03 million) to support the survivors. In the past, monuments in Seoul honoring the victims have incited protests in Tokyo. New monuments, unveiled in South Korea and Taiwan, are likely to fuel further contention.

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed that the issue involves the human rights of all women and pledged to make their suffering known through continuing commemorative efforts.

While World War II “comfort stations” are no longer in operation, sexual enslavement and human trafficking persist across the globe. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 24.9 million victims are trapped in modern-day slavery, and 4.8 million of these individuals are victims of sexual exploitation.