Staff writer

OSAKA — A leading women’s rights activist recently lashed out at the government for dragging its feet on coming up with effective legislation to end discrimination against women, pointing out that even developing countries have advanced past Japan in this regard.

Dr. Marsha Freeman, director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch, said Tokyo has misinterpreted the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Japan ratified in 1985.

“I could not believe that a country like Japan cannot find legislation to deal with discrimination appropriately,” she told a symposium held here last weekend.

“We are living in an era in which the principle of nondiscrimination is basically expected in most national legal systems,” she said, referring to a court case in which two female workers of Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd. accused their employer and the government of gender discrimination and misinterpretation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law.

Freeman submitted a statement to the Osaka District Court last week with regard to the Sumitomo case, urging the government to enact effective legislation immediately to prohibit gender discrimination.

The two women, who have been employed by the company for more than 30 years, filed a damages suit in 1995 against Sumitomo Electric and the government, claiming they were discriminated against in job promotion and consequently in salary compared with their male colleagues with the same educational and company background.

They said their annual salaries were about 3 million yen lower than their male counterparts as of 1994.

The plaintiffs also claimed the government had violated the convention; the government has argued that the convention does not require immediate elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and allows for gradual achievement of that goal.

Freeman, in the statement, said “the language of the convention requires immediate implementation of the nondiscrimination provision.”

Article 2 of the convention states, “States Parties (nations that have ratified the convention) condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women.”

This demanding language, “without delay,” indicates that a gradual approach is not acceptable under the terms of the convention, she said.

Freeman also said that a culturally based gradualist approach is unacceptable.

“The state party cannot claim that it can move only so far as the culture will allow; it must take measures to move the culture,” she said, adding that lesser measures would violate Article 5(a), which states, “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women.”

The government also claims that it is difficult to take concrete measures to prohibit discrimination in every area, that legislation is only one example of measures that can be taken and that such measures do not always mean laws, nor do they need to be a prohibition.

Freeman, however, said legislation is clearly at the heart of the convention because the requirement of enacting laws is mandatory, not a matter of choice between legislation and other measures.

She pointed to Article 2(b), which requires the adoption of “appropriate legislative and other measures, including sanctions where appropriate, prohibiting all discrimination against woman.”

She said that means states must implement both legislation and other measures to eliminate discrimination.

“What we are talking about is not something intellectually difficult,” she said. “Nobody should be able to say to anybody ever that you cannot have that kind of job because you are a woman.”

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