If in our search for successful women we were to name a country, our minds would quickly focus on Europe or North America. Rarely do we think of Japan when it comes to actively pushing for more space in advocating for women issues.
We’d think of Samurais, temples and shrines. We’d remember how Japanese cleaned the dressing room after a World Cup match last year and people were so fascinated that the images went viral on social media.
Another thing about Japan that would come to mind is the life expectancy; they are in the top three at 85.7 years.
But last weekend was the joint Women 20 (W20) and World Assembly for Women (WAW!). An international gathering held in Tokyo to realise “a society where women shine”, both in Japan and abroad, WAW! highlights Japan’s contribution to gender equality and women’s participation in political, economic and social fields.
In attendance were women from around the world, with the keynote address delivered by Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. Other global leaders at the conference included Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Gabriela Michetti, the Vice-President of Argentina; Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado, Vice-President and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Panama; and the Foreign Affairs ministers for Bulgaria, Honduras, Dominica and Canada.
WAW! was coined by Rui Matsukawa, the director of the Gender Mainstreaming Division in Japan, who is also a Member of the House of Councillors, National Diet (Parliament). It gathers some of the world’s most powerful women to push for more women representation.
But why in Japan?
Before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, “there was not much conversation around women issues,” responds Matsukawa. “During his tenure, he has been pushing women’s issues to the forefront.”
Matsukawa said 90 per cent of PM Abe’s speech to the 2013 UN General Assembly was dedicated to women. During his six years in power, so far, the Japanese society has changed.
Companies now consider the promotion of women. Japanese women in the labour market have increased to more than 70 per cent. More women have taken positions of directorship and above across the sectors, including business and government. Statistics show 2.8 million women entered the labour market during Abe’s tenure.
Although the population of Japan is shown to be dwindling, the government is taking measures to curb the decline by starting daycare programmes and encouraging parents to take parental leave. And when a parent is on leave, whether a father or a mother, they are paid up to 80 per cent of their salary. It is actually 67 per cent of their pay that is catered for in the salary but, due to tax deductions it becomes 80 per cent.
In fact, the government encourages both parents to take leave together — for as long as two months.
Even with such initiatives, five per cent of men were recorded to have taken parental leave after the birth of a child, mostly three-to-five days because of the stigma associated with a man living work temporarily to bond with his child.
These factors have brought about other challenges. Although women are advancing much more in their careers, they still find balancing their work life and family life a struggle. Many young women are opting not to start families, and if they do, they take a break from work for a number of years to raise their children and only resume after the children are older.
Cases such as medical examination boards manipulating results of female candidates or stopping them from joining medical school force many women who have families to resign from work for a period of time to take care of their children, hence initiatives such as WAW! that recognise particular societal trends.
“We have to be very strong at framing this as a question for framing economic growth for men and women,” stated Arancha Gonzalez, the executive director of the International Trade Centre. “If Japan were to close the (gender) gap, the economy would grow by $13,000 a year, in Turkey $9,000 and Argentina 46,000. It is a win-win economic factor.”
Yousufzai said: “Nearly one billion girls lack the skill they need to join the workforce. That could add $30 trillion to the economy.” She urged G20 countries to invest more in young women.
It does not matter which country you come from — developing or developed, Europe or Africa — but the challenges that women face are similar around the world, and it is assuring to hear the different solutions countries are pushing forward.
Ms Wako-Ojiwa is the executive director, Siasa Place. @NerimaW