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Disabled Japanese women headed to Geneva to testify on mistreatment before U.N. Committee

Kumiko Fujiwara of Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, is one among many Japanese women with disabilities who will go to Geneva for a session of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) -- which is set to begin Feb. 15 -- in order to denounce the mistreatment of women with disabilities in Japan and demand better living conditions for women like her.

    Fujiwara, now 51, lost sight in her left eye at age 34 due to complications from type 1 diabetes. After she began to lose the ability to see in her right eye as well, her mother stopped constantly urging her to "have babies." When she was 40, and just about to give up having children, she found out that she was pregnant.

    On her first visit to an obstetrician, however, the doctor tried to discourage her from going through with the pregnancy -- saying things like, "Are you going to be able to care for this child with your disability?" and "There's a chance your child will be born with a disability." When Fujiwara explained that she was adamant about having the child, the doctor told her, "Let's let this one go, and you can try for another baby once you've been able to arrange the right environment for it."

    Her husband was delighted with her pregnancy, and with his support, she ultimately stuck to her guns and gave birth to a girl. "The baby was fluffy and soft, like a rice dumpling," Fujiwara recalls. "She had such small and adorable hands and feet." Her daughter is now 10, and is beloved by everyone, including Fujiwara's and her husband's parents, who both pitch in since Fujiwara and her husband work. Fujiwara says her daughter takes ballet lessons, and is obsessed with the anime "Yokai Watch."

    Fujiwara is far from being the only disabled Japanese woman who feels society's lack of understanding. The Tokyo-based DPI Women's Network Japan, of which Fujiwara is a member, has heard desperate testimonies relating to sex, pregnancy and childbirth from disabled women around the country.

    Fujiwara has also experienced being helped by a man while she was trying to walk down a set of stairs. He held her by the hip, and while she doesn't know whether he had any ulterior motives, she says that people touch her in places that they wouldn't with non-disabled women "because they assume that disabled people are sexless."

    A working group of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was held in Switzerland in July 2015, where topics regarding disabled women were decided upon regarding which the Japanese government would be required to issue a report.

    Fujiwara testified at a working group hearing as a member of the DPI Women's Network Japan, where she commented, "Downplaying sexuality and criticizing the pregnancy and childbirth of disabled women is tantamount to not treating them as human beings."

    The committee announced its questions and demands for the Japanese government the following month. These included the provision of compensation for women who were sterilized under the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Act, and an investigation into the state of sexual violence against disabled women.

    "Don't just dismiss us with your prejudices that people with disabilities lack abilities, and that discrimination is therefore unavoidable," says Fujiwara, who will go to Geneva this month when the Japanese government gives its report to CEDAW, in order to again demand that the rights of disabled women be protected.

    Women with disabilities were subject to forced sterilization and abortions under the Eugenic Protection Law that went into effect in 1948, and records exist for about 16,500 such women. With the 1996 Maternal Health Protection Law, the provision in the earlier law was eliminated. According to a survey conducted in 2011 by DPI Women's Network Japan of 87 disabled women across the country, however, many of those surveyed claimed that their gender or sexuality had been treated as if it did not exist.

    A woman in her 40s with cerebral palsy said that a family member who disliked having to care for her when she was menstruating suggested that she have her uterus removed, saying, "You don't need your period, do you?"

    A physically handicapped woman in her 30s additionally said that she was asked at her gynecologist's office, "How do you have sex in a state like this?"

    Many women said their disabilities were raised as reasons against getting married. Among those surveyed, 35 percent reported cases of sexual abuse, including assault and touching of the breasts while being cared for.

    In June 2015, a woman in her 60s living in Miyagi Prefecture sought help from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) to investigate her forced sterilization -- undertaken without her knowledge -- as a human rights violation. While the Japanese Constitution stipulates respect for individuals, her attorney Koji Niisato says, "This is an issue that most involves respect for the individual -- and yet, those around her carried out the procedure with good intentions. This makes it clear how deeply rooted the problem is."

    In 1998, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) advised the Japanese government to compensate those who were subject to the Eugenic Protection Law. However, the government has yet to provide such compensation to disabled women.

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