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2021 Excellence in Audio Digital Storytelling, Use of Audio Storytelling finalist

The Last Surviving Former ‘Sex Slaves’ of Wartime Philippines

About the Project

“The Last Surviving Former ‘Sex Slaves’ of Wartime Philippines” is a gripping account of the women persecuted in a 75-year old atrocity, presented across two platforms: NPR’s “Goats and Soda,” an on-line article published 4 Dec. 2020, and NPR’s Radio Documentary that aired on “Weekend Edition,” 29 Nov. 2020.

Of the several dozen survivors known to be alive, correspondent Julie McCarthy, photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer, and producer Ella Mage identified 27 Filipinas who’d been forced into Japan’s WWII system of sexual slavery. Some were incapacitated by illness, but at least 15 survivors provided powerful accounts of sexual violence at the hands of Japanese Imperial soldiers.

“When we arrived to the Red House, I was pushed so hard that I was knocked consciousness so I don’t recall what happened to me…but even today, I feel the pain in my body,” said Lola Maria Lalu Quilantang, 83, who was 9 years old when her village of Mapaniqui in Pampanga, Philippines, was attacked by the Japanese during World War II.

“If I could prevent the sun from setting, I would [have],” 89-year old Narcisa Claveria recalled, “because whenever night fell, they would start raping us.” The subject of the radio feature, Claveria was just 12 when Japanese soldiers captured her. In her one family, three generations of women had been sexually exploited by the occupying Japanese troops.

The exploitation of the so-called “Comfort Women” of Korea has long been the subject of news coverage. To mark the 75’th anniversary of end of WWII, NPR chose the lesser known story of their counterparts in the Philippines.

In the decades since WWII, some of the surviving women struggled to recall details of their experience. Privacy, trauma, and old age discouraged others from talking. The leading advocacy group for survivors tightly restricted access to them.

NPR’s team, however, won the trust of the women. Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Mage persuaded survivors to tell their stories, and painstakingly reconstructed events. In Ms. Diaz Meyer’s arresting portraits we see the women revisiting the very sites where they’d been violated.

Lola Januaria Galang Garcia, one of the last living “comfort women” of the Philippines, is frail and suffers from dementia, cared for by her family in the village of Mapaniqui in Pampanga, Philippines, on May 19, 2019. On November 23, 1944, more than 100 girls and women, including Garcia and her mother, were taken to the Bahay Na Pula, also known as the Red House, and were systematically raped by the Japanese Imperial Army.

This in-depth work was reported, written, and edited over the course of approximately 18 months, during which time Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Mage also covered the upheaval of the pandemic. The coronavirus hugely complicated the project– putting sources out of reach as government offices, universities, and think tanks closed, slowing the reporting and rigorous fact checking the story demanded. Sources themselves were recovering from COVID-19.

Together, the on-line report and the radio documentary provide an understanding of the complex history of the “Comfort Women,” why Japan and the Philippines have marginalized survivors, and how women emerged late-in-life with a steely resolve to right a historic wrong. Survivors in their 80s and 90s remarkably persist in their campaign for reparations and recognition, becoming global icons of sexualized violence against women in war. Their single-minded determination to speak out inspires us.

It is likely to be the last chance to hear directly from many of the survivors. (Four died in the course of reporting). And their long-neglected stories touched a chord. More than 373,000 readers viewed the report on-line, making it among NPR’s top 40 most read articles of 2020.

NPR’s on-line and audio presentations are the definitive treatment on the subject by an international news organization. It’s brought the atrocity into sharper focus, and gives the victims a voice.