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Published : 2014-07-22 21:13
Updated : 2014-07-22 21:13

The plight of World War II Korean sex slaves, known euphemistically as “comfort women,” is a tragic aspect of Japan’s relationship with South Korea, but expat volunteers at a museum preserving their legacy say the issue has international relevance.

“It’s not just a Korea and Japan issue, but a human rights issue,” Madhu Narayan tells visitors to the House of Sharing, a combined residence and museum for former comfort women in Gyeonggi Province.

“We tend to think (sexual slavery) only ever occurred 60 years ago, but it continues to happen to a lot of women in many places. And the House of Sharing represents one part of that story.”

The house is currently home to seven surviving comfort women, who prefer to be addressed by the endearing Korean term “halmoni,” or grandmother. Narayan originally hails from India and first heard their story while attending graduate school in the U.S. She came to Korea with her husband earlier this year, and decided to volunteer at the House of Sharing after attending a tour in April.

“The stories that are told on these tours, it’s hard not to be moved by them and it’s hard not to want to do something when you hear them.” 
House of Sharing volunteer Madhu Narayan gives an introductory lecture to a tour group. (Olga Kobylinska)

Narayan now collects a monthly busload of visitors from Gangbyeon Station for a five-hour English-language tour of the House of Sharing. The tour visits an outdoor memorial space and a museum built using private donations. Inside, visitors can view written and photographic evidence of the atrocities, as well as artwork, a replica comfort station and the harrowing testimonials of survivors. They are also given a chance to meet the resident halmoni in person.

The House of Sharing’s International Outreach Program comprises seven to 10 members, including both native English and Korean speakers. Volunteers run tours, assist with translation work and help publicize the center to the international community. They also help out with the halmoni’s campaign for official recognition by the Japanese government, and sometimes attend weekly Wednesday demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy.

“I think the kind of people who do get involved are the kind who are already interested in human rights, or have read about these issues before coming to Korea and feel so moved by the plight of these women that they want to give their own time,” says Narayan.

Volunteers to lead tour groups should commit about five to six hours a month. Most volunteers stay for three to six months, although there’s no limit on how long they can offer their time.

The halmoni themselves welcome international visitors as an opportunity to inform the public about their suffering and continued efforts to seek justice. Forty percent of the 10,000 annual visitors come from Japan, but according to Narayan, the halmoni remain open-minded about Japanese groups despite their controversial status in that country.

“They do recognize that if the current generation of Japanese people understood what happened to them, they would be outraged by what happened to these women,” Narayan says.

Although there are now fewer than 60 living comfort women registered with the Korean government, the work of the House of Sharing and the International Outreach Team will continue into the future. Narayan believes that the house’s work will remain relevant for as long as sexual slavery and abuse exist in the world.

“I’ve had a lot of male visitors who say to me, ‘As a man I can’t comprehend what these women went through, but I have a greater appreciation for how women get abused in certain circumstances and the battles women in general have to make on a daily basis,’” Narayan says.

“I think that’s the best part about volunteering. You use the skills and resources at your disposal to make people aware of important issues.”

For more information on volunteering opportunities and tours at the House of Sharing, visit www.nanum.org/eng or email nanum365@gmail.com.

By Nicholas Gowland (ngowland@heraldcorp.com)

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