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U.N. rights panel calls on Japan to address high levels of violence against children

Kyodo, Reuters

A U.N. panel expressed concern Thursday about “the high level of violence, sexual abuse and exploitation of children” in Japan, in the wake of the death of a 10-year-old girl in Chiba Prefecture due to alleged mistreatment.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the government to “prioritize the elimination of all forms of violence against children,” including by putting in place effective reporting mechanisms for victims.

Concerns have been rekindled here over child abuse cases after Mia Kurihara died in January at her home due to alleged mistreatment by her parents, including food and sleep deprivation. Early investigations uncovered how a child welfare center, her school and local authorities failed to respond promptly to the girl’s repeated pleas for help.

In its concluding report, the U.N. committee urged the government to “speed up the establishment of child-friendly reporting, complaint and referral mechanisms for child victims of abuse, including in schools, and sexual exploitation, supported by staff trained on the specific needs of child victims.”

The Chiba tragedy has led the government to consider further steps to prevent similar incidents. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convened a meeting of ministers Friday to discuss strengthening cooperation between related organizations and creating a new rule to share information on possible victims.

“I would like (the ministers) to make all-out efforts to eradicate child abuse with a strong determination to take every possible measure, giving top priority to protecting the lives of children,” Abe said at the meeting.

“We failed to respond to the SOS calls that the girl had courageously sent (to authorities). We, as the government, take this seriously,” he also said during a recent Diet session.

Kirsten Sandberg, a member of the U.N. committee, said, “We recommend a 24/7 help line that children can call as well as online possibilities for children to report incidents.

“But this is not enough, because at the other end of the help line there should be somebody who reacts,” added Sandberg, who pointed out that Kurihara’s fate demonstrated a crucial lack of responsibility among the adults involved.

“There should be a legal punishment if adults do not react,” Sandberg added, before concluding that “there also needs to be a general change of attitude so that all adults coming into contact with children understand they have responsibilities.”

The National Police Agency announced Thursday that suspected abuse reported to child welfare authorities reached a record-high of 80,104 cases in 2018, an increase of 22.4 percent from a year earlier.

Among last year’s reported cases, 57,326 children suffered from psychological abuse and 14,821 from physical maltreatment, while 7,699 children were reported as being neglected and 258 suffered sexual abuse.

The rights watchdog also urged Japanese authorities to look into the root causes of rising adolescent suicide rates, which are currently at a 30-year high. A total of 250 children took their own lives in the year to last March, authorities said, while overall suicide numbers are in steady decline.

It also criticized Japan for having lowered the minimum age for criminal punishment from 16 to 14 years, and said children are often removed from families and placed in institutions without court orders for being “likely to commit a crime.”

Masato Otaka, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Foreign Policy Bureau, told the panel that Japanese children face challenges such as bullying, abuse, sexual exploitation and poverty, and that Japan aims to establish a robust social system in which all generations can enjoy peace of mind. In July, the government promised emergency steps to boost the number of child welfare workers by 60 percent within five years.

The U.N. committee reviews the public policies toward children of each member state every five years, and then issues recommendations to improve children’s well-being. Japan had its scoreboard reviewed in mid-January.