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Alumni Dispatches: Joan Dawson

Alumni Dispatches: Joan Dawson

Joan Dawson

MPH '97

Sexual Slavery in World War II

"I'm too embarrassed to talk about this," says Kim Koon-Ja, an 81-year-old Korean who, during World War II, was a "comfort woman," a euphemism for sexual slave, for the Japanese. She, like 200,000 other women, mostly from Japan, Korea and China, was forced into prostitution and made to serve ten to thirty soldiers a day, confined to a small "comfort station."

Koon-Ja's story, as relayed to Steve Kuack on Expat Advisory Services, was a typical experience. Orphaned at age 14, she was forced to go to China by the Japanese at the age of 17. There, she was raped and beaten for three years. When the Japanese were defeated, she was freed, physically.

Koon-Ja now lives at the House of Sharing, a place set up by the Korean government in 1992. As a member of Amnesty International in Korea, where I worked as an editor, I went to meet the women at the house, most in their 70s and 80s by now. (Currently there are seven women living there.) We also walked through the museum, the only one in the world dedicated to sexual slavery, and saw the paintings that vividly depict the women's experiences. We got a glimpse of their "shame."

The comfort women also protest in front of the Japanese embassy every Wednesday. Because they are aging, their numbers are dwindling, but they still attend, rain or shine. February 13, 2008, marked their 800th protest. They seek restitution, but most importantly, they seek an official apology from the Japanese government, an apology that will tell the world they were forced against their will and need not live in shame.

Joan Dawson pursues her interests in health, education and human rights through writing and editing, both at home and abroad. She's traveled to nearly 40 countries and has lived in four, including South Korea. She's been published in newspapers and magazines and is currently working on a chapter for a book on interpersonal violence. She serves on the board of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission.

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