Jan ruff-o'herne


Mr DULUK (Waite) (15:29): Today, I rise to honour the life of a courageous and heroic woman who lived in my electorate and who sadly passed away on 20 August 2019 aged 96 years and that is, of course, the life of Ms Jan Ruff-O'Herne AO, Dame Commander of the Order of Saint Sylvester, holder of the ANZAC Peace Prize and Centenary Medal. Jan suffered beyond comprehension and yet lived her life with grace, faith and a fearsome desire for justice.

Jan was born in the then Dutch East Indies and lived happily until 1942 when, during the war, the Japanese Imperial Army brutally occupied the island of Java. Jan, her mother and two sisters were among many women imprisoned in the labour camp at the disused Ambarawa barracks. The women worked under very harsh conditions at this time.

Two years later, in 1944, then aged 21, Jan was separated from her family members when a high-ranking Japanese official lined up all the single women aged over 17. Ten young women were chosen and transported to another location. They thought they may have other jobs on the island and be used for propaganda for the Japanese Imperial Army. Sadly, these women were to face three months of torture at the hands of Japanese soldiers.

The words Comfort Women do not convey the reality of what these women were to the Japanese during the war. They were, indeed, wartime sex slaves. The 10 young women were placed in a colonial house, which became a military brothel. Their photos were taken so the soldiers could choose their women at their will. Jan Ruff-O'Herne was one of these women. She and the other women endured three months of rape and brutality. Jan suffered further brutality by fighting against the soldiers each and every day under this torment. As you can imagine, such trauma was not a topic that could easily be spoken about by that generation of people. When the 10 women returned to camp, the other women suspected what had happened to them, but no-one spoke a word. In fact, it would take 50 years before Jan could take to the world her message of being a wartime sex slave. After the war, Jan married a British serviceman and had two daughters, Eileen and Carol. They migrated to Australia in 1960. Although they owned very little at first, Jan and her family lived a life of faith, joy, creation and innovation.

But for many, many years Jan held a terrible sad secret. It was in 1992 that Jan bravely broke her silence at the International Public Hearing on Japanese War Crimes in Tokyo and told of her experience in that military brothel. Two years later, her memoir 50 Years of Silence was published, describing the plight of those forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army in World War II. I quote from Jan's book:

During the time in the brothel, [they] abused me and humiliated me. [They] ruined my young life. They had taken everything away from me: my youth, my self-esteem, my dignity, my freedom, my possessions and my family. But there was one thing they could never take away from me. It was my deep faith in God that helped me survive all that I suffered at [their] brutal, savage hands…

Jan continued to speak out about the experience of sex slaves in Japanese war camps and in 2007 appeared before the United States House of Representatives as part of a congressional hearing on Protecting the Human Rights of Comfort Women. She told that hearing:

Many stories have been told about the horrors, brutalities, suffering and starvation of Dutch women in Japanese prison camps. But one story was never told, the most shameful story of the worst human rights abuse committed by the Japanese during World War II: The story of the 'Comfort Women'…I have forgiven the Japanese for what they did to me, but I can never forget. For fifty years, the 'Comfort Women' maintained silence; they lived with a terrible shame, of feeling soiled and dirty. It has taken 50 years for these women's ruined lives to become a human rights issue. I hope that by speaking out, I have been able to make a contribution to world peace and reconciliation, and that human rights violation against women will never happen again.

As I said, that was Jan's contribution to the congressional hearing. Ms Jan Ruff-O'Herne, wife, mother, teacher and faithful parishioner at the Kingswood Catholic parish, our Lady of Dolours, would become a hero for all women and men who have been subjected to wartime sexual slavery. May her legacy live on. My condolences to her family and I would like the house to extend its condolences as well. Vale, Jan Ruff-O'Herne.