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Female lawmakers in Japan still disparaged over pregnancy, maternity leave

Takako Suzuki, left, and Hiromi Suzuki, right (Mainichi)

Female lawmakers from the national to local level continue to receive harsh criticism in Japan for becoming pregnant or taking maternity leave -- a fact that may prompt some to ask, "Don't lawmakers have a basic human right to have children?"

    On July 12, independent House of Representatives lawmaker Takako Suzuki, 31, announced on her public blog that she was pregnant with her first child. However, instead of congratulatory remarks, her comments section was flooded with criticism. "Aren't you abandoning your duties (by getting pregnant during your term)?" one person asked. Another complained, "This is why female lawmakers are a problem..."

    "The idea that getting pregnant amounts to abandoning my duties as a lawmaker is completely unacceptable," Suzuki responded in a post on July 14. While she had announced her pregnancy, she had never mentioned anything about completely halting her activities.

    Another female lawmaker to face discrimination was 33-year-old Hiromi Suzuki, a member of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward Assembly. Suzuki took four months maternity leave four years ago and last year, respectively. During her most recent break, insults were scrawled over her posters, and she received messages branding her as a "traitor" and telling her that she "should quit."

    Not only was she plagued by the lack of understanding from her constituency; she also took flak from fellow lawmakers. During her second maternity leave term, when she showed up at a local summer festival, a male lawmaker remarked, "You still can engage in election activities even though you're on leave?"

    Looking back, Suzuki lamented, "Even while I was on leave, I hired staff using money from my own pocket and consulted with ward residents."

    The Labor Standards Act does not extend to politicians, and there is no official system in place for maternity or parental leave based on the law. In 2000, the three-day absence of Liberal Democratic Party House of Councillors lawmaker Seiko Hashimoto from Diet sessions to give birth to her child prompted the Diet to allow maternity leave for its members. According to the executive office of both chambers of the Diet, a total of 12 legislators have made use of the system, being granted up to three months of maternity leave at the longest.

    A maternity leave system is in place for lawmakers belonging to all prefectural assemblies and the municipal assembles of 20 ordinance-designated cities with populations over 500,000. However, according to a Cabinet Office survey in January, a total of 416 municipal assemblies -- account for over 20 percent of the total of 1,741 local legislative bodies -- did not have a maternity leave system. In addition, there were cases where some assemblies recognized pregnancy leave as an "accident" alongside absence due to traffic accidents or other mishaps. There was a trend for the assemblies with fewer female members to lack a system. However, even if a system was in place, the female lawmakers were still harassed.

    It is difficult to compare politicians, whose public raison d'etre is to reflect the will of their constituencies in the government, to other laborers whose maternity and childcare leave is granted as a right. But is it really wise to allow the restriction of a basic human right such as pregnancy and childbirth for lawmakers?

    "(Takako) Suzuki was attacked for 'abandoning her duties' when she announced her pregnancy, but it's not a problem when male lawmakers who are fathers 'abandon their childcare duties' when they go out drinking at night," points out Sophia University professor of politics Mari Miura. "By criticizing female lawmakers, voters are tying the noose around their own necks. An assembly without diversity can't accomplish work-style reform."

    Journalist Renge Jibu, an expert in the social advancement of women, calls for support for female lawmakers both in their careers and their personal life.

    "The social climate in Japan expects an excessive amount of commitment from those engaged in public service," she said.

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