In every large-scale armed conflict, women are victims of sexual violence. In most cases this is kept quiet - by victims, perpetrators and government leaders. The taboo is persistent. Jan Banning and I discovered as much during our quest to find 'comfort women', women forced to perform sexual acts for the Japanese armed forces during World War II. Young girls then, they are old women now. Shame, stigma and feelings of guilt have made them maintain silence about their wartime experiences for decades. The women in these photographs had the courage to share their suppressed past. Regulated sex in military brothels was advocated as an effective means "to boost the spirit of the troops, keep law and order and prevent rape and venereal disease," a 1938 directive of the Japanese Department of War shows. In the occupied territories, the Japanese armed forces instigated the establishment of thousands of military brothels, in which an estimated 50,000 - 200,000 comfort women were forced to serve the three million Japanese troops.
Even after more than six decades, many women still try to keep their wartime history a secret for their family and immediate surroundings. That doesn't always work. In certain places, everyone knows who the "Japanese hand-me-downs" are. Even in their eighties, some women still face abusive sneers. As much as they would like to erase the traces of their wartime history, they drag it along all their lives: The humiliation and pain, their childless existence, the failed marriages.
The women in these photographs nevertheless were willing to break the silence to have their history recorded. They don't want new generations of women to become the victims of sexual violence. And they want to be acknowledged, not only by apologies but also through the financial compensation that advocacy groups have promised them now for years. From such motives, they draw the strength to conquer their shame and look the world in the eyes.
* Comfort Women is a joint project of photographer Jan Banning and journalist Hilde Janssen. In the book, 18 women break the persistent taboo against speaking out on the issue. Showing them in combination with Japanese war posters, the book presents male and female sides of war, and propaganda versus reality.