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Remembering Nelia Sancho and Lola Rosa Henson

Thirty years ago this week, it was on September 18, 1992 when Lola Rosa Henson first appeared in public after she heeded Nelia Sancho’s call over a radio station encouraging Filipina women who had been abused by wartime Japanese troops to come forward.

This became the catalyst for the comfort women movement in the Philippines. The Lila Pilipina was then formed.

On August 18, 1997, Lola Rosa succumbed to a heart attack and died without receiving the justice she had long fought for. It has been almost eight decades since the war ended on August 15, 1945, and yet the Japanese government refuses to recognize its official accountability to the victims of sex slavery. 

Sancho is now reunited in heaven with Lola Rosa. She died on September 1, 2022, two days after her 71st birthday.

As a reporter in the 1990s while finishing my legal studies at UP Diliman, I met Lola Rosa and Sancho while covering an Asian sex slaves forum. The victims, euphemistically called “comfort women,” were brave enough to tell the world about this inhuman practice of the Japanese during the war.

About 200,000 women from Korea, China, Burma, New Guinea, and the Philippines were held in captivity and many thousands more were raped as part of one of the largest operations of sexual violence in modern history.

The girls who were abducted, trafficked or brought to the Japanese military camps had their own dreams and visions for the future. All these were shattered. The victims spent their lives in misery, having endured physical injuries, pain and disability, and mental and emotional suffering.

The last time I saw both of them together was during Lila Pilipina’s 1996 Christmas party.

Wearing a Filipina dress, Lola Rosa danced and sang with other lolas, unmindful of her deteriorating health due to a stroke she suffered after her 50-year-old daughter Rosalinda died.

I saw Sancho for the last time in January 2020 when I visited the life-sized statue of two women standing on their property located along Caticlan Jetty Port Road where Boracay-bound tourists board passenger boats.

Despite her Queen of the Pacific title, Sancho did not pursue modeling or a showbiz career like what most beauty titleholders would usually do. She was popularly described as “beauty queen turned women’s rights activist” due to her involvement with several progressive organizations that advocate women empowerment.

Sancho also played an active part in an international solidarity conference that called for the resolution of Japan’s wartime past.

The Women’s Tribunal that sat in Tokyo, Japan from December 8 to 12, 2000 deliberated on the criminal liability of high-ranking Japanese military and political officials, as well as the Japanese state’s responsibility for military rape and sexual slavery.

Sancho also organized the Lola Kampaneras, which is a local support group composed of comfort women based in the Panay Island (Capiz, Aklan, Antique, Iloilo).

During our last conversation beside the Lola Statue in Aklan, I asked her how will she describe the Lola campaign. I recorded a video of her answer: “It is my hope that by speaking up and providing support systems to them, the ‘Lolas’ will be recognized and honored and not put into shame as rape victims, as victims of sexual slavery always find themselves in a situation of being shamed. It is not they who should be shamed but the perpetrators—Japanese military, rapists, perpetrators of all other situations who take advantage of women and children.”

The remaining comfort woman “Lola” statue previously erected in Sancho’s property in Caticlan, Aklan has found a new home in Pandan, Antique. 

The two-meter high “Lola” statue was installed in December 2017 along Baywalk, Roxas Boulevard in Manila. Four months after its installation, the Lola statue was dismantled by the DPWH on April 27, 2018, allegedly for a drainage improvement project, but seen as submission to protests from Japan.

It was later declared missing in August 2019 when the artist, Jonas Roces, failed to deliver the statue for its reinstallation at the Baclaran Church.

From the more than 200 survivors in the late 1990s, less than 50 Filipina sexual slavery victims are still alive.

Sancho lamented that the Lolas are dying and “we didn’t want the issue to die with them.”

Sancho’s death, along with those other Lolas, highlights a sense of urgency for the Lolas to receive a formal unequivocal public apology and just compensation from Japan, as well as accurate historical inclusion while their voices can still be heard.

Justice has not yet been given to these women. Sancho’s fight continues up to this day.

Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.

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