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New law to support women in Japan sought after 66 years of no legal updates

A bus cafe operated by Colabo, which serves girls between ages 10 and 19, is seen in front of the Shinjuku Ward Office in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, on Feb. 2, 2022. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

TOKYO -- A multipartisan group of legislators aims to submit a new bill to the ongoing Diet session to overhaul a "women's protection project" meant to support women struggling from issues including domestic violence, sexual violence and poverty. Why is a new law needed now?

    On a night in early February, a pink bus was parked in front of the Shinjuku Ward Office. Next to it was a tent made using a pink tarp. Young women visited one after another, and each left with their hands full with big paper bags of food, clothing and other items.

    "Bye! Message me on Line (messaging app)," a smiling Yumeno Nito, the 32-year-old head of organization Colabo, said to young women leaving. About five years ago she began meeting girls aged between 10 and 19 with nowhere to go at her bus cafe in Tokyo's Shinjuku and Shibuya wards. Colabo provides the girls visiting the bus cafe various types of support as required, including finding accommodation, going on hospital visits and helping them apply for public welfare benefits. Colabo also offers advice over social media.

    Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many young women have contacted Colabo for help because they lost their part-time jobs. About 2.5 times more young women -- 1,494 people -- sought advice in fiscal 2020 than in fiscal 2019.

    Yumeno Nito, head of the organization Colabo, which operates a bus cafe for young women to visit, chat, seek advice and receive everyday items they may need, is seen in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on the night of Feb. 2, 2022. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

    Among them are women suffering abuse by family members. Instead of staying home, they go from internet cafes to acquaintances' homes; some even get pulled into sex trafficking. Colabo uses donations and subsidies to operate temporary shelters and mid- to long-term share houses, but doesn't have enough to pay for resident staff.

    Nito points to the lack of public funding. "The more someone needs public assistance, the less likely it is they can access it," she says. "I think that through the women's protection projects, women should receive more protection than they do now, and the private sector should be given financial support."

    The women's protection project is a public assistance system for women facing hardship. Its operation is centered on prefectural women's consultation centers. It temporarily places women in protective custody, or in mid- to long-term women's protection centers, and supports their lives toward independence. It uses the 1956 Anti-Prostitution Act as a basis, and began as an initiative to protect and reform girls at risk of prostitution. Although the interpretation of who is eligible for protection has increasingly broadened over the years to include domestic violence victims and individuals in poverty, those on the front lines providing women support have long criticized the project for lacking a pro-human rights perspective.

    Tamie Kaino, a professor emeritus at Ochanomizu University and expert in women's support, said, "Amid prejudice and disdain for women who engage in prostitution, society has not sufficiently recognized that the system is meant to protect women's human rights. It means budgets and personnel for it have been insufficient."

    According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the utilization rate of women's protective facilities nationwide has fallen year to year, and was just 21.7% in fiscal 2019. At the same time, more and more women are seeking advice on domestic violence and other issues from women's consultation centers. People on the ground say those requiring support can't access facilities they need. Why is that?

    For a women's consultation center to place someone in a women's protective facility, an individual must spend about two weeks at a temporary facility. Because temporary facilities prioritize domestic violence victims' safety, they limit use of smartphones and other items that might reveal the identities and location of people in temporary facilities. Women at them are also restricted from attending work or school, and many facilities cap the age of male children women can bring.

    A fiscal 2017 survey by the welfare ministry found that among women's consultation centers that reported handling cases where women did not end up going into temporary protective facilities, 67.3% of cases involving young women, 44.9% involved women with children, and 40.8% included women with disabilities.

    A multipartisan group meets with the aim of submitting a bill for a new law to support women in need or otherwise facing difficulties, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Feb. 16, 2022. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

    Colabo's Nito says she has tried to place women she cannot take to the shelters Colabo operates in other temporary protection facilities and women's protective facilities, but she feels the bar to entry is high. Many of the women she knows struggle to forge stable interpersonal relationships because of their experiences of abuse or their disabilities' characteristics, leading them to shy from communal living and temporary protective facilities' strict restrictions on their activities. "As a result, the more people need someone to watch over them, the more likely they are to end up living alone in an apartment," Nito says.

    Meanwhile, professor Kaino says, "It is difficult to use the same framework to provide support to domestic violence victims, whose safety must be the utmost priority, and younger women for whom strict restrictions on their activities are mismatched. There is a limit to what's feasible if the women's protection project is merely improved within the Anti-Prostitution Act's framework."

    A welfare ministry expert panel released a mid-term report in 2019 which concluded that in addition to improving how the women's protection project is operated, a new framework replacing the Anti-Prostitution Act is needed.

    A multipartisan lawmakers' meeting on the new law took place in January 2022. In the bill's outline released on Feb. 16, the current women's protection project will be separated from the Anti-Prostitution Act and be grounded in the new law. As the purpose and basic principle, "the realization of a society in which human rights are respected and women can live independently in peace," and "the realization of gender equality" were listed, respectively. In addition to making it the duty of the national government and local governments to support women facing difficulties, private-sector support organizations were also newly positioned as providers of assistance, and a provision for providing subsidies to private organizations was included in the outline.

    But the new outline does not offer detailed improvements to working conditions for women's consultation center staff, 90% of whom are part-time. To understand and care for women who need support, it is important to increase the number of people who handle cases, and the type of facilities and care that are available -- but it is unclear whether that will happen. One person on the front lines says, "Even after the new law is in place, we will need updates that meet needs on the ground."

    (Japanese original by Aya Shiota, Digital News Center)

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