On the afternoon of June 20, I had the privilege of interviewing Munakata Emiko-san, president of the non-profit Equal Net Sendai. Established in 2003, Equal Net Sendai's official mission is to promote a gender equal society through seminars, consulting, network building, research, and lobbying. In its early years Equal Net Sendai held activities as diverse as photography exhibits of Palestinian women to lectures helping parents talk to their children about sex to seminars empowering newly independent young people adjust to single living. However, after the 3/11 triple disaster these activities took on a much sharper focus. Today, Equal Net Sendai focuses the bulk of its resources on disaster prevention education and training women to be active leaders in disaster prevention and recovery initiatives.
Raising awareness of gender-disparity issues in times of disaster
Three years before the Great Tohoku Earthquake Equal Net Sendai was already efforts to draw attention to the problems generated by gender inequality during and after natural disasters. In 2008 they conducted a large-scale survey in Sendai on the needs of women in times of disaster. What explains the fortunate timing of the survey? 2008 marked 30 years since the 1978 Miyagi earthquake, a magnitude 7.7 seismic event killing 28 and injuring 1,325. Similar scale earthquakes occur cyclically in the Tohoku region about once every 40 years, and Equal Net Sendai wanted to maximize the health and safety of women during and after the next disaster.
Munakata-san explained that she had also been troubled by the disproportionate suffering of women after the 1997 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which killed over 5,000, injured more than 35,000, and displaced more than 250,000 people in the Kobe region. Evacuation centers did not consider women's safety or hygiene or offer them support in their efforts to care for children and aging parents. After the disaster women many women engaged in non-regular employment lost their jobs as firms looked to cut costs, and many women in both non-regular and regular employment were forced to quit in order to fulfill their caretaking responsibilities. Munakata-san saw these problems in large part as resulting from dearth of women in public decision-making forums.
Although Equal Net Sendai used this survey data to generate six concrete policy recommendations, they were mostly ignored by male-dominated government leadership. The 3/11 disaster, however, exposed further problems of gender inequality. As Munakata-san engaged in relief efforts at evacuation centers she saw that women were entirely unable to escape the male gaze - there was no space to sleep, change, or even breastfeed in private. Many women didn't have access to feminine hygiene products. While men took leadership roles and engaged in decision making, women were relegated to support roles such as cooking and cleaning. Moving out of evacuation centers into temporary housing created new problems: single women were highly vulnerable to assault and women who had previously suffered from domestic violence were now obliged to move into temporary housing with their abusive husbands. Munakata-san was most troubled at how women's voices were ignored and dismissed by (inevitably male) decision makers. Equal Net Sendai ran support groups and counseling programs for these women but were unable to fix the underlying problem of male chauvinism.
Training women to be disaster risk reduction leaders
In 2013, two years after the disaster, Equal Net Sendai launched a female disaster prevention leader training course in order to increase women's involvement in regional decision making. Munakata-san sees women as critical in discussions of disaster prevention and recovery as they are the sex most connected to vulnerable populations. In this series of five workshops local women, mostly housewives, study the relationship between disaster prevention and gender equality, local disaster prevention plans, issues of domestic violence and child abuse, caring for those with disabilities, and designing evacuation centers. After women complete the course Equal Net Sendai helps facilitate their participation in local governance and disaster prevention efforts. So far 300 women throughout the Tohoku region have received training and are respected throughout Japan for their knowledge and commitment. Munakata-san hopes that these leaders will pass along what they have learned to other women and foster a tradition female leadership in local communities.
Recognition of gender-dimensions in the 2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction
In addition to their leadership training activities, in September and October of 2011 Equal Net Sendai conducted in-depth interviews with forty women affected by the great East Japan Earthquake which they published in September 2013. These interviews were invaluable because they convey female voices whose perspectives are largely absent from official reports.
Equal Net Sendai achieved a major milestone in 2015 with the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. In response to the activates of Munakata-san and other activists, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction recognizes the importance of gender-dimensions in disaster risk reduction and calls for inclusiveness and engagement of all of society. The Sendai Framework called for "a gender, age, disability and cultural perspective in all policies and practices; and the promotion of women and youth leadership; in this context, special attention should be paid to the improvement of organized voluntary work of citizens."
Furthermore, Sendai Framework emphasized that "women and their participation are critical to effectively managing disaster risk and designing, resourcing and implementing gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction policies, plans and programmes; and adequate capacity building measures need to be taken to empower women for preparedness as well as build their capacity for alternate livelihood means in post-disaster situations." This framework was adopted by 187 states as a guide to disaster risk reduction planning and programming for the next 15 years.
From women's self-determination to disaster risk reduction
How did Munakata-san end up as a globally influential advocate for women in disaster risk reduction? Before establishing Equal Net Sendai Munakata-san was a member of a small feminist group called "Group I" which promoted women's self-determination in matters of physical and mental health. Munakata-san explained that women in her generation were not educated about sex and many suffered unwanted pregnancies and social stigmatization. "Group I" was formed in order to educate women about their own bodies and empower them to care for their physical and mental health. "Group I" eventually converged with other small feminist groups to form Equal Net Sendai.
Although training women to play a more active role in disaster prevention is an admirable and necessary undertaking, to be perfectly honest I was skeptical that Equal Net Sendai's exclusive focus on the issue the most effective way was to promote gender equality and solve women's issues. I have never experienced a major natural disaster, so the indignities suffered by women described by Munakata-san did not personally resonate with me. On the other hand, I have time and time again witnessed the tragedy of denying women the knowledge and resources they need to care for their physical and mental health, in both Japan and the United States. I admit I was slightly disappointed that activities promoting women's rights to self-determination had been dropped from Equal Net Sendai's agenda.
Munakata-san explained that although she would like to eventually expand programming beyond disaster prevention she will continue to make it her primary focus as long as it takes to make a difference. She believes that solving problems of gender inequality in disaster prevention and recovery will help advance gender equality in general, as men are much more likely to take issues of gender equality seriously when they are framed in a disaster-prevention context. After the disaster, many men, stuck with the responsibilities of caring for an incredibly diverse group of vulnerable people, recognized the serious negative consequences of excluding women in leadership making. Although it is far from a comprehensive solution to the myriad of problems facing women, it is a critical step in the long road toward building a more equal, humane society.
About the Author
Hello! My name is Terasa Younker and I am a graduate student at Harvard University． This summer I will be working as an intern in the Disaster Prevention & Education Section of the Kahoku Shimpo． As a second‐year student in the Regional Studies ‐ East Asia program I study gender， material culture and consumption， social stratification and popular culture， globalization and cultural diffusion in contemporary Japanese society． I received my undergraduate education at New York University （’10）， where I studied East Asian language， literature， art history， philosophy， history， and film theory． My study abroad experience includes Columbia University in Beijing， Princeton University in Ishikawa， and the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies．
After graduating from NYU， I spent a year as a translator， a year studying advanced Japanese at the Inter‐University Center for Japanese Study in Yokohama， and three years as an account manager at Rakuten， a Japanese firm in Tokyo． At Rakuten， I was a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Sales group and worked with hotels in central Tokyo as well as the Tokyo Islands．
Although I lived in Japan for a total of five years I never had the opportunity to visit Tohoku． I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to explore of an area of Japan not well known in the United States and hope to promote understanding of the region upon my return．