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JAPAN: In Solidarity Against Female Genital Mutilation

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Apr 4 2006 (IPS) - When Hiroko Hashizume, 66, first heard of female genital mutilation (FGM) in some Muslim countries in Africa, she was deeply shocked and, later, overwhelmed by a desire to do something to stop the cruel custom.

”I had never heard of FGM and could not believe that young girls were forced to undergo this practice. Even though Africa is far away from Japan, I felt a deep solidarity with African female victims of FGM and wanted to contribute and help activists,” said Hashizume who was, till recently, a volunteer at Women’s Action Against FGM (WAAF), a grassroots organisation.

Hashizume’s is a remarkable story in Japan, where the issue of women’s reproductive health rights has remained simmering on the back burner.

Said Yumiko Yanagisawa, who founded the organisation in 1996: ”FGM is an issue that is shocking for the Japanese who do not have a tradition that resembles this practice. Yet there is a lot of support when women here find out because they believe in the need for women to be able to make their choices and want more support towards this.”

Yanagisawa is well known in Japan as a translator and feminist author and also for her long advocacy of equal reproductive rights in Japan.

The recent increase of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases among young women have started a debate on the lack of sex education in schools, pitching feminists against conservative politicians who argue against ‘gender-free’ activities, or the concept of being neutral to sexual differences.

”Japanese women share similar social positions to women in Africa. On both sides, women are considered second-class citizens and cannot make their own decisions concerning their bodies,” she explained.

Indeed, for Hashizume, a tall, dignified-looking woman, joining the fight against FGM was a means of expressing her deep conviction that individuals, irrespective of gender, must be able to protect their bodies by themselves.

”How can I stand by and watch healthy African women be mutilated in the name of tradition?” she asks.

FGM, sometimes referred to as female circumcision, is a cultural practice in parts of Africa that involves cutting a woman’s genitals, usually before puberty. The ritual can be psychologically, as well as physically, damaging.

The World Health Organization estimates that 100-140 million women and girls have suffered FGM throughout the world and that, each year, a further two million girls are at risk of being forced to undergo the ritualistic practice.

WAAF is run by a staff of volunteer female activists and has 150 members. For a relatively small organisation it has made significant strides in raising awareness about FGM in Japanese society, through seminars and workshops to which African women activists are invited and given platforms to speak.

But the highlight of WAAF activities remains the extension of financial grants to African women’s organisations that are fighting FGM.

Although WAAF events in Tokyo are generally patronized by women, recently, a sprinkling of men have begun to attend and show interest in supporting the activities.

A significant development, according to Yanagisawa, is the new leadership of the organisation under a young activist, Miki Nagashima, 28, whose earlier work with refugees has suggested to her the idea of giving asylum to women fleeing FGM.

”During my work with refugees in Japan I met an African woman who was fleeing from FGM in her country. She could not claim refugee status because there is such low consciousness about the situation in Japan – I hope to change this,” she explained.

Nagashima, a research assistant at Waseda University, joined the group three years ago when she was looking for new direction in her work, helping refugees at the Japan office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nagashima, whose own parents had no knowledge of FGM until their daughter took up the issue, works tirelessly, gathering new information about FGM by visiting countries in Africa and speaking about her experiences across Japan.

She told IPS that her new thrust was in seeking support from men in a bid to raise awareness on FGM as a universal social issue.

”Japan has its own sexual abuse issues against female children and there is also rampant domestic violence against women that is only now being recognised as a social problem. This is why it is important to discuss FGM in this context – as a cross-national social issue that needs to be solved by society,” she explained.

Activists says the right approach is to bring FGM closer to the Japanese – even though Yanagisawa explains that care needs to be taken not to be too explicit in Japan’s conservative society, where discussion of sexual matters continues to be taboo.

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