Fukushima women re-build their lives

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By Yuki Matsuoka

KOBE, 8 March 2013 - UNISDR Chief, Margareta Wahlström, met with active women leaders in Fukushima city last month on a visit to Fukushima Prefecture in the lead-up to the second memorial day of the Great East Japan Earthquake on Monday, March 11.

The women who had been engaged in agri-business in the Abukuma region established "Ka-tyan no Chikara Project (Power of Mothers Project)" in October 2011, seven months after the earthquake.. Abukuma region in Fukushima Prefecture is now a restricted area due to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Residents had to evacuate from their home towns such as Namie and Iitate and are currently living in temporary housing in Fukushima city.

The Ka-tyan no Chikara project has five objectives: contributing to the recovery of Abukuma Region; building a network among women from the region; creating employment; demonstrating the safety of products from the project to help fight rumors about the safety of Fukushima products, as well as building and sustaining communities including the evacuees and residents.

Ms. Tomiko Watanabe, the head of the project, is 58-years-old. Prior to the earthquake, her livelihood came from agriculture, particularly the processing of local potatoes in Iitate. Based on her previous agri-business experience, she initiated the project and encouraged others to join.

"At the beginning when I went to talk to the people to ask them to join the project, most of them were quite disappointed by the situation and were hesitant about starting something new. But now through the activities in the business project such as making lunch boxes and baking sweets to sell to the local people, their smiles have come back".

She added: "We would like to use materials for our products from Fukushima as much as possible. Therefore, every day we measure the radiation level of our products to demonstrate the safety of our products. For this purpose, our kitchen factory has the equipment to measure the radiation level."

This project contributes to local job creation by employing evacuees and is being supported for three-years by Fukushima Prefecture, Fukushima University, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Ms. Tokuko Takahashi also comes from Iitate, and she is a 74-year-old expert in producing pickles who is now teaching others how to produce them. Ms. Kimie Ishii from Namie town, who worked for the town hall for 42 years, joined the project after her retirement. They both mention the importance of working together which contributes to their mental well-being as well. The keyword for their project is "YUI" which is Japanese for bond or linkage among people. This is the most important element these women are fostering through the project.

Speaking with the women, Ms. Wahlström was impressed by their vitality. "Nearly two years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake. The recovery progress, as well as challenges, can be observed at various levels. Throughout the process, the most important thing is to revitalize their lives, as these active women have demonstrated. Supporting the disaster-affected people to re-build their lives and foster ownership by regaining motivation and purpose in life is crucial," she said.

The UNISDR Chief also visited a community center "ODAGAI SAMA Center" located in Kooriyama city in Fukushima Prefecture. She spoke with several elderly people from Tomioka-cho (one of the towns affected by the nuclear radiation) living as a community on an evacuation site within Kooriyama city. Their anxiety was centered on uncertainty about whether or not they will ever return to their home towns. They told her that the community centre is much appreciated, as it plays an important role in communication and fostering mutual support.

After visiting the disaster affected area, Ms. Wahlström shared her observations with Mr. Keiji Furuya, Minister of Disaster Management and Building National Resilience, in Tokyo. She stated that "It is important for the international community to listen to the voices of those who continue to live with the consequences of this disaster and not to overlook the on-going challenges they continue to face".

Mr. Furuya expressed his appreciation of her frequent visits to Japan and committed to work closely with UNISDR towards 2015 when the Government of Japan will host the 3rd United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan.