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Ex-New Zealand PM Clark says women must continue fight for gender equality: interview

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark answers questions in an interview with The Mainichi on May 21, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark stressed in a recent interview with The Mainichi that women need to continue to fight for gender equality, adding that zero tolerance policies at workplaces are vital to curb sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Clark, who was the premier from 1999 to 2008 and then headed the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as the first woman for eight years until 2017, said the high level of gender equality in her home country was achieved in part because "women have fought for it and have been fighting ever since the late 19th century" when New Zealand became the first country in the world where women gained the right to vote in 1893.

"The European society in New Zealand was a new society. It came from an old world to a new one and we were creating a new society so it didn't bring a lot of baggage with it," explained Clark. But Japan, she observed, "is a very old culture with traditions."

New Zealand was ranked ninth on the 144-country Global Gender Gap Index for 2017 compiled by the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum. Japan is 114th on the same index. Clark was the second woman prime minister in the country. The third and the youngest, Jacinda Ardern, 37, assumed the position in October last year and is expected to take maternity leave soon.

In Japan, the "#MeToo" movement of fighting sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination is making some inroads, albeit slowly, although politicians and bureaucrats face public criticism for remarks or actions that are perceived as discriminatory against women.

Former Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda resigned in April for sexually harassing a TV reporter, while his superior, Finance Minister Taro Aso, drew fire by defending his subordinate. "There are many opinions among the public, including that Fukuda was entrapped and now he is being accused," Aso, 77, told a parliamentary committee in mid-May. Journalist Shiori Ito alleges that she was raped by a former Washington bureau chief for major Japanese TV network Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) in 2015, although the man denies the allegation.

Clark said that sexual harassment of women in the workplace and in the public sphere has been going on in many countries, including Japan and New Zealand. "Even in the last election campaign in New Zealand (in 2017), the young woman leader of the opposition, who is now the prime minister (Ardern), was asked a totally inappropriate question which would not be asked of a male," Clark said.

Ardern, the labor party leader in August of last year, was asked in a local TV program whether there was a possibility that the potential prime minister might take maternity leave as voters had a right to know. She replied, "It is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace."

Clark said changing workplace culture is vital in fighting sexual and other forms of harassment and gender discrimination. "We need public and private sector workplaces to lead on us to say zero tolerance of harassment and bullying, (and implement) gender sensitivity in the way in which we recruit ... promote, mentor and support."

Sending a message from the top is important, the former prime minister emphasized. "These things shouldn't be dismissed as inconsequential. Through your human resources policies in companies and public service you can make it very clear how you expect people to be treated." She added that making clear that violations will receive sanctions such as expulsion, demotion or salary reduction is vital too. "We won't tolerate, we will take action," is the kind of stance management must take, according to Clark.

(By Hiroaki Wada, Staff Writer)

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