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Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009

Women still largely absent from politics

Japan ranks 106th in female participation in national legislature


Staff writer

When it comes to female participation in politics, Japan lags far behind other nations.

If Japan is going to catch up with the countries that boast a high percentage of female politicians, women must create a nationwide movement, according to panelists at a symposium advocating more women in politics.

"It's something that has to be fought for and refashioned by each generation," Kari Hirth, an official at the Norwegian Embassy in Tokyo, said at a symposium held Saturday in the capital sponsored by the Tokyo-based Alliance of Feminist Representatives.

She said it would be good for Japan and Norway to learn about gender equality from each other.

"However, I also firmly believe that social change has to be homegrown. Something that works in Norway does not necessarily work in Japan, and vice versa," Hirth said.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Geneva-based organization that fosters communication between legislatures around the world, Japan was ranked 106th among 189 countries as of November in terms of the percentage of female lawmakers in the House of Representatives.

Japan has 45 female Lower House members, or just 9.4 percent of the entire chamber, although the figure rises to 18.2 percent in the Upper House.

The low figures prompted the U.N. Human Rights Committee to release a statement Oct. 30 saying Japan's political parties should step up efforts to have "equitable representation of women and men in the National Diet."

The symposium featured representatives from various nations, including Rwanda and Norway, which both have statutory quotas to secure a certain percentage of female participants in politics.

Rwanda's Constitution, created in 2003, states that woman must account for at least 30 percent of decision-making bodies, including the parliament.

Rwanda was ranked first by the IPU in terms of the percentage of female politicians in its lower chamber, with 56.3 percent.

Alice Karekezi, an international lawyer and cofounder of the Center for Conflict Management at the National University of Rwanda, said one reason for the high percentage of women in Rwandan politics is that they played a key role in rebuilding the nation after the 1994 genocide.

Another factor is that women's organizations worked strategically and brought females of different ethnicities together, enabling them to become a strong lobby group, she said.

In the case of Norway, which was ranked 11th by the IPU, female participation in national politics stood at 36.1 percent and nine out of the 19 current Cabinet ministers are women.

In Norway, which in 1979 became the first nation to introduce a statutory quota system to secure female participation, women are also deeply involved in business and about 70 percent of women from 16 to 74 have a job.

In South Korea, the percentage of female politicians stood at 13.7 percent in 2008, a sharp increase from only 3 percent in 1996.

The increase is due to a law enacted in 2000 that requests each party to make efforts to ensure that women make up at least 30 percent of its proportional representative candidates.

The law was revised in 2005 and the quota was increased to 50 percent.

Ryoko Akamatsu, a former education minister and an advocate for women's rights, acknowledged that compared with these countries, Japan has been slow to achieve greater political involvement for women.

But she said Japan has been gradually progressing and mentioned the need for women to be more vocal about the issue.

"More women should speak up and say that it's important to have more female political participation," Akamatsu said.

"We have to continue to advocate that having more women in the decision-making positions would lead to a fair society."



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