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Quake Empowers Japanese Women

Devastating as the Tohoku earthquake was it gave the local women of the remote region an opportunity to come into their own and take on leadership roles in an essentially patriarchal country.

“Women in Tohoku were viewed as helpless in comparison to their counterparts in the big cities,” says Prof Akiko Nakajima, specialist in gender-based architecture at the Wayo Women’s University, Chiba. “The disaster has broken this myth,” she said.

Tohoku consists of the six prefectures of Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata – all of them battered by the Mar. 11, 2011 earthquake and the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that followed.

The women of Tohoku, a region with a harsh climate, have traditionally pitched in to help out with the heavy work of farming and fishing, most of it now destroyed by radioactive contamination.

“With more time away from their gruelling work schedules, rural women are speaking out, seeking new jobs to support their families and taking leadership in recovery,” Nakajima told IPS.

Nakajima pointed to women’s groups in Tohoku and Tokyo lobbying for gender-based recovery and rallying to join anti-nuclear campaigns after the disastrous nuclear accident.

Fearing for the safety of their children, Tohoku’s women joined others in demanding their evacuation and the shutdown of all nuclear plants in Japan.

A landmark in their protests was the October-November sit-downs in front of government offices in Tokyo that Ayako Oga, a female activist in Fukushima, described as “women demanding development that puts protecting human lives at the forefront.”

An outcome of the protests is a government concession to treat gender as a separate category in official disaster recovery documents.

“Till Tohoku happened, Japan’s disaster protection and mitigation policies had failed to mention women as a separate sector with specific needs,” says Akiko Domoto, governor of the Chiba prefecture, a suburb of Tokyo.

“The change, treating gender separately in many official platforms on disasters, lays the foundation for us to forge ahead with even more concrete support for women survivors,” she said.

Domoto, one of Japan’s first female governors, is known for her work in promoting women’s rights and health activism.

A key initiative in the growing momentum for gender equality in disaster management is the recording of women’s voices from affected areas.

“There has been a lot of lesson learning as far as I am concerned,” said Fumie Abe, 45, whose home in Minami Sanriku was swept away by the tsunami. “My daily life is no longer what it was before and I am now a stronger person.”

Abe was a member of a group of ten women who had gathered for a community meeting to share their disaster experiences and voice their opinions towards recovery.

The data collected by women’s groups indicated, for instance, that they suffered heavily from lack of privacy and security in shelters and also faced gender discrimination in gaining financial aid and livelihoods.

Kyoko Sato, who lost all she owned to the tsunami, now supports her family by working as a part-time manicurist in a city located more than a 100 miles away.

“Life is now unbelievably different. Despite worrying about the future, women are learning to speak out,” she said.

The recording session, supported by financial aid from Japanese gender activist groups, helped rural women gain computer skills and use digital communication to document and publicise their findings.

Nakajima traces part of the success to Japan passing an equal employment opportunity law in 1986 that fostered an increase in the number of working women and sensitised the public to the need for female empowerment.

An important development following the passage of the law – that allowed Japan to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – was the establishment of gender equality centres across Japan.

Yoko Sakurai, head of the Disaster and Women Centre in Yokohama,   says the Tohoku disaster catalysed recognition of the special needs of women through the gender equality centres.

She told IPS that she is now lobbying for a new regulation that would make gender equality offices across the country central to all disaster protection activities.

“Gender equality offices play a big part in providing special support for women during disasters. The next step is to put this work on the official agenda,” Sakurai said. (END/IPS/AP/IP/EN/CG/HD/CS/WO/HE/NR/TS/SK/RDR/12)

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