gender, mainichi shinbun

Disaster-related violence against women, children needs attention, mainichi, 3/13/12

Cases of violence committed against women and children affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis, have slowly emerged through organizations providing support services to such victims. These organizations are collecting information on these assaults, which they believe will be useful, including in developing policies for the management of evacuation centers and deciding what types of home visits by counselors will be helpful to evacuees living in temporary housing.

The Tokyo-based Zenkoku Josei Sodan Kenkyukai — or the National Women’s Consultation Study Group — has been offering counseling to women at various facilities, including evacuation centers in the Tokyo metropolitan area and disaster areas. Masao Yoshizaki, a member of the group who normally offers support to victims of domestic violence, says that she’s heard about and witnessed many acts of violence in her work with victims of the triple disasters.

At one evacuation center in Fukushima Prefecture, for example, three women in their 30s to 60s were sexually assaulted at night. Yoshizaki learned about the cases through a young woman who revealed her own fears that she might also become a victim of an attack. The assaults were an open secret that no one dared address outright.

The offender was believed to be a middle-aged man often found drinking to excess and staying at the same evacuation center, something the other evacuees also knew. When Yoshizaki consulted a municipal government official on a night shift about the assaults, she was told: “We sort of know what’s happened, but since there’s been no screaming and no complaints filed, we can’t interfere with what goes on between a man and a woman.”

Because a woman who was later attacked raised her voice against the perpetrator, the police were called. The middle-aged woman, however, said she was ashamed that she had been sexually assaulted at “such an age,” and refused to file a complaint citing her fear that she would cause her family trouble. The offender subsequently returned from police questioning and continued to live in the same evacuation center.

With no solution in sight, Yoshizaki confronted the perpetrator directly. The man responded spitefully by pulling down his pants and exposing himself.

As for why some women who are attacked do not cry out for help, Yoshizaki speculates that it’s because they want to smooth things over as quickly and with as little commotion as possible because all the parties involved — the victims, perpetrators, police and local city officials — know each other.

Yoshizaki also said she witnessed drunk men getting into a fight at an evacuation center. When she asked about it, a female evacuee answered: “This happens every day.” Subjecting others to the sight and sound of violence itself constitutes a form of abuse; children were present when the fight took place.

Many young girls have said that in addition to men following them into bathrooms or looking into their dressing rooms, they have also been subject to lewd remarks. There was one child who said a male volunteer worker asked her to kiss him.

By summer of last year, many people from areas struck hard by the triple disasters had moved into temporary housing facilities. The aforementioned Zenkoku Josei Sodan Kenkyukai started making home visits, and found that talk of domestic violence began to rise during counseling sessions starting around October. Because going around and offering “women’s counseling services” makes it difficult for some people concerned about neighbors’ inquisitive eyes to consult them, the organization offers “women-only hand massages,” during which they listen to the troubles faced by evacuated women.

There was one time when Yoshizaki arrived at a temporary living facility, only to be greeted by a man’s yelling and loud noise coming from one of the residential units. It appeared that the man was attacking his wife, with the family’s scared children nearby.

Environmental factors that have the potential of leading to violence have increased in the disaster areas. The loss of loved ones and work for some has led to dependence on alcohol and gambling. The small temporary living spaces have proven stressful for couples who are forced to be in the same space all day long, while differences in opinion regarding precautions against radiation contamination and child rearing have strained relationships. Furthermore, living with in-laws out of necessity has created extra stress for many.

According to Yoshizaki, the most common problem is of men who have lost their jobs to the triple disasters taking it upon themselves to decide how the relief donations and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) compensation payments received by the family will be used, without consulting family members. When their wives object, the men fly into a rage and turn violent. Yoshizaki says that withholding money meant to support households is a form of financial domestic violence, but women tend to put up with it, saying: “It can’t be helped,” or receive exhortations from others to “take charge.”

Yoshizaki advises that women secure at least one place they can go to for advice and support. Talking to someone else about one’s problems may serve as the first step in realizing that the “difficulties” one is experiencing may actually be domestic violence.

Surveys on violence against women and children related to the Great East Japan Earthquake have heretofore not been conducted by public agencies.

A network comprising victims and nurses undertaking anti-sexual violence work, Saigaiji no seiboryoku/DV boshi nettowaku (Network to prevent sexual violence and domestic violence during times of disaster), is aware of at least 14 cases of violence against women committed in the 6-month period following the March 11, 2011 tsunami and quake in the most severely affected Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. The information was collected from media reports, information from medical staff in the three prefectures, and cases that network members heard about or saw.

Of the 14 cases, four were rapes or attempted rapes. One involved a women being attacked in her room by a man who had snuck in during a blackout caused by the massive quake, while another, involved a female volunteer worker who was attacked while spending the night at a junior high school. There were an additional four cases of forcible indecency, and two cases of domestic violence.

One of the domestic violence cases took place at a temporary housing facility in the Miyagi Prefecture city of Ishinomaki. An intoxicated man struck his common-law wife in the face, bound her hands and feet, and threw bedding on top of her head, killing her. He was arrested and charged with manslaughter.

“It’s difficult to speak up about domestic violence and sexual assault in ordinary circumstances,” says Jun Yamamoto, who heads the abovementioned network. “Times of disaster tend to silence victims even more. I heard people living in hard-hit disaster areas say things with an air of resignation, like: ‘There’s a deep-rooted patriarchal culture in the Tohoku region, so nothing can be done.’ There’s a need to assess the situation and provide support in a way that is appropriate to the local culture, and to offer violence prevention education.”

Until the end of March, Rise Together for Women in East Japan Disaster (Rise Together), a coalition of organizations that are offering support to women in the disaster areas, is conducting surveys about violence against women. Its mission is to reveal the harm suffered by victims that have heretofore been hidden, and to have that information reflected in disaster prevention and rebuilding plans that national and local governments are now formulating. Reliable data could go a long way in convincing the authorities and the public about the necessity of creating evacuation centers that are safe and comfortable for women, and the support needed when evacuees move into temporary housing facilities away from the watchful eyes of others.

Rise Together is calling for people to share information on disaster-related violence if they themselves are victims, or have heard stories directly from the victims. Contact the organization’s survey team at 03-3830-5285 (Japanese only).

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About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.

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