A Japanese woman who has been speaking up on behalf of pregnant women and young mothers who are harassed at work has been awarded the U.S. International Woman of Courage Award in Washington.
The award is given by the U.S. State Department to recognize the efforts of women who campaign for women's rights and empowerment. Sayaka Osakabe, 37, is one of 10 recipients this year.
Osakabe was quoted by NHK as saying she is encouraged by the award and that she hopes Japanese people will rethink their way of working.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has talked up the role of women in his push to revive a weak economy, pledging they would occupy 30% of all leadership positions by 2020, but Osakabe and others say the reality for regular female workers is bleak.
"Rather than focusing on a small portion of elite women who are top managers, I'd like them to start by dealing with problems affecting women like us at the bottom," Osakabe said.
When Osakabe returned to work after a second miscarriage, one of the first questions her boss asked was whether she was having sex again. After winning a settlement through a labor tribunal last June, Osakabe began speaking up on behalf of pregnant women and young mothers who are harassed at work. Their plight spawned a new term: "matahara," a shortened form of "maternity harassment".
Osakabe's case has pushed bullying over pregnancy at work into the media spotlight, and coincided with the first-ever hearing on maternity harassment in the country's Supreme Court. The case involved a woman demoted during pregnancy. The plaintiff, who is seeking anonymity for fear of a backlash and trouble at her new job, is suing for about 1.7 million yen in compensation plus costs. The court ruled in her favor in October.
Both moves come as more Japanese women are continuing to work after having children, as a downtrend in wages since the late 1990s has made life harder for single-income families. As of 2010, 46% of working women stayed in their jobs after having their first child, up from 32% in 2001, according to the labor ministry.
At the same time, complaints about harassment and discrimination related to pregnancy and childbirth have risen. In the year to March, the government received 2,085 such complaints from female workers, up 18% from six years ago.
Japan's laws guarantee women the right to seek less physically demanding roles during pregnancy. They also guarantee 14 weeks of maternity leave surrounding childbirth and allow for childcare leave, which can be used by either parent until their child's first birthday and can be extended in some cases.
Yet many women find it difficult to take advantage of those policies in the face of traditional expectations for them to focus on housework and child-rearing, as well as their relatively insecure positions in the workforce.
Lawyers say contract workers often fear their employment will not be renewed if they take maternity or childcare leave. Last year, around 56% of women were hired under part-time or temporary contracts, compared with 21% of men working under such arrangements.
Osakabe was one of those contractors, editing a quarterly newsletter. After a first miscarriage, she asked her boss for help to cut back her work load. She said he told her "to put off pregnancy for 2-3 years and focus on work".
While she was taking bed rest during her second pregnancy, her boss visited her at home and encouraged her to resign, saying her absence "caused trouble". Determined to stay, she returned to work, only to suffer another miscarriage.
In an interview with Reuters, she said it was after her second recovery that the boss asked whether she and her husband were having sex. "My boss told me to come over, and asked if I was menstruating again and if we restarted 'baby-making,'" she said.
She later resigned and took her case to a labor tribunal.
Last July, Osakabe formed a support group called "Matahara net" and called for legislation outlining more support for working women.© Japan Today/Thomson Reuters