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Reality of sexual abuse during COVID-19 state of emergency beginning to emerge in Japan

TOKYO -- The woman on the other end of the phone began to cry as soon as the call was connected. From her voice, it sounded like she was still in her teens. When the consultation worker asked her what was wrong, she merely uttered, "I'm afraid of the night."

    The phone call came in the middle of the night to "Ninshin SOS Shinjuku," a counseling center for pregnancy problems that started when the coronavirus began to spread in Japan last spring. The call was from a female student who had been sexually abused by a family member.

    The counseling center received five reported cases of sexual violence by close relatives between April and June of last year. All five victims were junior and senior high school students, and the perpetrators were their stepfather, mother's boyfriend, or older brother. Until then, there had been only one or two consultations a year about sexual abuse at home, and there had never been such a concentration of cases in so short a period of time.

    In April and May of last year, schools and libraries were closed, and commuter trains were almost empty after a nationwide coronavirus state of emergency was declared. In the midst of this period, some teenage girls were being sexually abused by their families, according to the findings of several support groups.

    Hatsumi Sato, director of Ninshin SOS Shinjuku, talks about consultation cases in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, in February 2021. (Mainichi/Noriko Yamamoto)

    Why was this happening under a state of emergency? According to Hatsumi Sato, 68, director of Ninshin SOS Shinjuku, the reason may have been that the children, who had no classes or club activities, and their parents, who had their work shifts reduced, were both home for long hours.

    Some of the damage was done by older brothers, who had no place to vent their energy and turned their sexual interest to their younger sisters. All five victims had sex, and one of them was pregnant.

    "In the case of sexual abuse, the victim does not know what is going to be done to them and is unable to reject it. They blame themselves for not being able to resist and fall into self-loathing," said Sato, stressing the seriousness of the damage.

    Unlike sexual violence committed by strangers, domestic sexual abuse is difficult to report to others. In many cases in these families, the mothers have lost their powers of judgment and resistance due to poverty and exposure to violence, and are often unable to help their daughters. According to Sato, even when the victims gathered up the courage to confide in their mothers, one of them was told, "It's fine because you will be treated well (by the perpetrator)."

    Sexual violence by close relatives was also an agenda topic at a training session for staff at child consultation centers, held in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, in February 2021. (Mainichi/Noriko Yamamoto)

    Various studies have been conducted on unwanted pregnancies and sexual abuse amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the facts have been revealed piecemeal.

    In June last year, the nonprofit organization Bond Project sent a questionnaire to about 9,600 people who had registered as friends on its LINE account. Of the 950 people who responded, 9% "had an unwanted pregnancy" or "had concerns that they might have had one." Most of the respondents listed boyfriends or people they have a paid arrangement with as their sexual partners, but 1%, or 11 respondents, chose "father, older brother, younger brother, or other relatives." These included one elementary school student, one junior high school student, three high school students, and three vocational school or university students.

    In addition, among the child abuse cases reported by the police to child consultation centers last year, 295 were sexual abuse cases, the highest number ever. The number of cases of sexual abuse increased by 11.7% from the previous year, the largest rise in the past five years.

    According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's research team, which examined the impact of self-restraint due to the coronavirus pandemic on pregnancy, six organizations, including pregnancy counseling offices in various regions, received a total of 518 consultations from people under the age of 18 regarding unexpected pregnancies and unwanted sexual intercourse between March and May of last year.

    The number increased by 35% from 384 cases in the same period in 2019. As for the background to the rise, the research team pointed out the influence of media reports and publicity on the consultation centers, as well as the closure of school nurse's offices.

    "Sexual abuse is often made secret by the perpetrator. The sexual violence that had been going on for a long time may have progressed to sexual intercourse due to prolonged self-restraint, and children who are worried about pregnancy may have come to seek advice," said Kyoko Tanebe, 56, an obstetrician and gynecologist who is a member of the research team and a member of the Cabinet Office's expert committee on violence against women.

    Kyoko Tanebe, a member of the research team of the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is seen in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, in May 2021. (Mainichi/Noriko Yamamoto)

    So how can we protect young women?

    In many cases, sexual abuse "cannot be told to the parents." For this reason, Tanebe recommends that "the school nurse's office should be open even when the school is closed." She also wants school officials to know how to deal with victims who are in confusion and despair.

    "Many children worry that their mother will feel sad when she finds out about the abuse, or that their father will be arrested and the family will not be able to live. If you take a course on the initial response to sexual abuse, you can learn how to respect the human rights of the victim while looking at punishment against the perpetrator," said Tanebe.

    In order to achieve this goal, those involved in this field are all talking about the importance of sex education and the revision of the Penal Code.

    In Japan, junior high schools do not teach about sexual intercourse or contraception. Nevertheless, the Penal Code sets the "age of consent for sexual intercourse" at 13 years old, when a person is considered capable of consenting to sexual intercourse.

    For example, in the case of sexual abuse of a 13-year-old junior high school student, if the abuser is the father or foster father, he would be charged with the crime of "sexual intercourse by a person having custody of a person under 18," since he is forcing the victim into a relationship from a position of control. However, if the perpetrator is the mother's boyfriend, who is not a custodian, the crime of "forcible sexual intercourse" is not applicable if the victim does not understand what sexual intercourse is and is unable to resist, and the sexual act is performed without assault or threats.

    Tanebe said angrily, "Even though junior high school students are not given the opportunity to learn about the mechanism of pregnancy, they are considered capable of consenting to sexual intercourse, and the perpetrator cannot be charged with a crime. Who, exactly, are the laws in Japan protecting?"

    (Japanese original by Noriko Yamamoto, Tokyo Regional News Department)

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