Subtle aid for women facing abuse in disaster-hit areas

With material needs met, 'new kind of hell' plaguing female survivors, NPO says

by Rob Gilhooly

Special To The Japan Times

At a glance, it appears to be nothing more than a hand massage. In a corner of a shelter for survivors of the March disasters in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, members of the NPO Miyagi-Jonet are trying to provide some respite for stressed-out female survivors.

Only, unbeknownst to the residents, one of those members is a lawyer specializing in women’s issues, including sexual assault and domestic violence.

“Just a sympathetic ear and sensitive touch can elicit some heartrending revelations,” says Yuko Kusano, cofounder of Miyagi-Jonet (an abbreviation of a more extended title meaning Miyagi Women’s Rehabilitation Support Network).

“Many women say that no sooner had they begun to recover from the grief of loss and sense of guilt at surviving the traumatic events of March than they are subjected to a new kind of terror, a different kind of hell,” she says.

That hell includes numerous instances of sexual abuse, harassment and even rape, she says.

One Miyagi Prefecture woman in her 20s, who lost her home and family in the tsunami, has been forced to move to several different shelters after being subjected to sexual harassment, physical and mental abuse and stalking, Kusano says.

“Some shelter residents apparently even broke into the bathroom while she was bathing. She moved to other shelters, but sadly her torture continued.”

Traumatized, the woman eventually was forced to move away from her hometown of Ishinomaki to Kyoto.

A woman in her 30s, meanwhile, was physically abused by her husband while staying at a shelter also in Ishinomaki.

The couple eventually secured temporary housing where, away from the communal shelter environment, the abuse worsened. The woman begged local authorities to let her back into a shelter, Kusano says.

“Like many women in shelters and temporary accommodations, she feared for her life,” she says, adding that with the assistance of a Jonet lawyer, the woman was able to start divorce proceedings. “Without help, their predicament is not going to improve.”

Miyagi-Jonet was established in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the brainchild of Kusano and Setsuko Yahata, two members of an existing Sendai-based NPO run by doctors, nurses and other health specialists for victims of domestic violence.

The two colleagues felt that many women would be in need of specialist help following the disasters, which left some 20,000 people dead or missing and tens of thousands more without homes.

With basic survival of primary importance during those cold weeks following the catastrophe, they rallied around for emergency supplies of specific use for women, says Kusano.

Kusano and Yahata delivered the assembled goods themselves, using their own vehicles to drive through the disaster zone, occasionally puncturing tires or slipping into rubble-covered ditches.

“Many of the people we visited had nothing, not even clothes. With time, however, we knew material support would become of secondary importance.”

After nearly two months supplying shelters throughout Miyagi Prefecture — during which the NPO attracted the support of women’s groups in Japan, Italy, Germany and the U.K., not to mention such global corporate heavyweights as Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and Shiseido — Kusano began to implement a program focusing on mental support for female survivors.

To assist in their hand massage “salon,” she enlisted the services of lawyers and health specialists — some of whom travel to Miyagi from as far away as Sapporo, Tokyo and even Fukuoka — to create a discreet corner in shelters and temporary housing estates where women in distress can vent their concerns.

“At first there is nothing to suggest we are anything more than a bunch of masseuses, and even the lawyers dress in everyday clothing,” Kusano says.

What’s more, the NPO’s pamphlet introduces Miyagi-Jonet as little more than a social group offering tea and chats for women. To include more detailed information could incite more serious violence should the pamphlet be seen by an abusive spouse, Kusano says.

“Our objective is to give them our help-line number and to ensure they understand that we are there for consultation,” Kusano says. “If someone wishes to talk further, they know how to reach us. Often that’s not necessary — if you look, or listen carefully, it’s not difficult to tell a woman in distress.”

The majority of issues reported by women who open up to Jonet volunteers involve abuse at the hands of spouses, she says. While less frequent, incidents of sexual abuse and even rape are also on the rise, she adds.

And despite all the best efforts of Jonet, whose members have increased to around 16 since May, Kusano believes the number of women needing help will grow, especially during the fast-approaching colder months.

“As the days shorten, time spent indoors will increase and moods will darken,” says Kusano, a native of Ishinomaki whose family, some of whom were residents of now-evacuated towns near the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, was hugely affected by the events in March.

“Survivors are being moved into temporary housing — which has been a kind of dream for many stuck in communal arrangements. No sooner will they have settled into their new dwellings than the reality of their situation — homelessness, joblessness, lack of future security, and so on — will sink in once more.”

Incidents of violence against women in the disaster areas have reportedly increased over the past six months. In July a man in his 30s was arrested for beating and stabbing a woman at a shelter in Kesennuma, while in mid-August a 50-year-old man was arrested after severely beating his partner at their temporary home in Ishinomaki. The 46-year-old victim died shortly after being admitted to a hospital.

In an attempt to prevent such violence, police conduct daily visits to residents in shelters and temporary housing estates.

Kusano believes such measures alone are not sufficient to put a stop to abuse against women, many of whom are unable or unwilling to talk about their problems.

“The current system of providing financial support for survivors is that the money is paid to the head of the household, which is usually the husband,” she says. “Many women subjected to domestic violence cannot think of separation or divorce — at least not until they receive some financial security of their own.”

To this end, the next phase of the Jonet project is to try and create jobs for women in the tsunami-hit areas of Miyagi Prefecture.

Now, most people have secured absolute essentials and the problem needing the most attention going forward will be mental care, says Kusano, who has been involved in NGO and volunteer work since she was an elementary school student.

“One way of ensuring better mental health is finding work for people to do,” she says.

While there has been some effort at the government level to provide work in the affected areas, this has largely centered around clearing debris — heavy labor most suited to men, Kusano says.

“We hope to help provide the necessary tools for women to realize they can act independently, to make them more street-smart and less dependent on their spouses. This way we can help tackle the issues of abuse, but also provide a much needed fillip for disaster-affected communities.”

For more information visit Miyagi Jonet’s website (in Japanese) miyagi-jonet.blogspot.com