How women responded in face of the disaster – their proposal for reconstruction

Responding to the emergency situations immediately after the earthquakes and the tsunami and different phases of reconstruction process, women’s groups in Japan swiftly moved to ensure that the relief operations and the following processes in the disaster affected areas were gender responsive. It was based on the past experiences in disaster such as the Kobe earthquake occurred 17 years ago. Niwa Masayo reviewed the action taken by the Center for Education and Support for Women in Japan ( since the Great East Japan Earthquake last March and the barriers encountered by the women survivors of the disaster.


Within a month after, 50 sets of pills were delivered to the local medics through individual connections in the affected areas. The information was given to women through the 24 hour hotline service.  The distribution of the ‘informational and awareness raising cards’ with the hotline numbers was initiated by the post-disaster emergency support project ( 60,000 cards were distributed in various ways: directly delivered to the survivors with relief materials; placed at the evacuation centers; given to the women with colorful panties as gifts, etc.  This was done as priority based on the experience in post-earthquake Kobe, when the rape cases were hidden and few rape survivors were able to call for help.

Quickly starting up the women’s network

Rise Together: Women’s Network for East Japan Disaster ( was launched following up the emergency project in May 2011 by women’s groups, gender experts and feminist scholars supported b the Centre. It aims to respond to the needs of women in refuges; assist their reconstruction efforts; and ensure gender responsive policies and measures with human rights based approach.  The network has proposed the guidelines for gender responsive disaster readiness planning to the central and local governments. The proposal includes among others: women consist more than 30% in the central and local disaster prevention councils (the Japanese government has pledged that women will make up minimum 30% in any decision making by 2020); wider and diverse groups of populations represent in the policy making on prevention and reconstruction; full disclosure and quick release of accurate information on the nuclear accidents be included in the emergency guidelines at central and local levels.

In post-disaster situation, it is obvious that the problems the society has in normal times appear as obstacles for the relief operation and reconstruction efforts, such as traditional gender role and discrimination based on sex, gender, nationality, ethnicity, age, etc.”

Traditional gender role persists

It was observed that the communities which had less awareness on and practices for gender equality brought up the traditional gender role in the shelters. In some shelters coordinated by women organized the same number of men and women as committee and were able to solve the problems in the shelters. However, women were not listened at all in the shelters which were managed by the leaders of fisheries cooperatives or local communities who are traditionally men. Women were expected to cook, clean and care, which was done unpaid, while men went out for work such as clearing the debris and got paid. “Having some role may encourage them in their post disaster communities, but those gendered role does not fit in all women in diverse conditions”, said Masayo. It was identified that women had less access to job opportunities in the post disaster situation.  Another obstacle for women to rebuild their lives economically independent was the traditional household system based on which the compensations and public financial aid were computed and disbursed.

Minority groups remain disadvantaged

More than 30 thousands foreign nationals lived in the affected areas. Some were the 2nd or 3rd generations, the married to the Japanese, others were migrant workers and students. There were 1,900 Filipinos registered in the affected two prefectures, Miyagi and Iwate and most of them were women married in farming or fishing communities. There were also Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese and Thai. Communication and preparation of official documents were among the major problems faced by the women who lost her husband who used to be the only one to talk with her in the family. Many local government offices in the affected areas were destroyed and unable to provide necessary assistance to them.

The response from the government did not reach out quickly to those who remained in the community while self-help and support groups struggled and provided various support in the communities.The masses were organized in Tagalog in different communities in a couple of months, which eased the Filipino women’s anxiety.

It was most difficult to obtain the information on the situation of each of them due to lack of disaggregated data. Other minority populations including sexual minority and differently abled people were left behind from the public support and had to help by themselves.

“It is the opportunity, not to reconstruct the society as it was, but to question the persistent gender role, disclose the discrimination against the minorities in the society and create the one responsive to the diverse conditions each of us are in. Ensuring decent job for all is one of the most important in this process”, said Masayo.


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