11 March 2014

Three Years After Fukushima: Women's Issues

Three years ago today, a tsunami resulted in a catastrophic failure at the Fukushima-Daichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.

I am not surprised to learn that the consequences of that catastrophe are still unfolding.  I am also not surprised to see that the Japanese government is still downplaying the effects of the failure.  After all, the Soviet government did the same thing after Chernobyl, just as American authorities kept a lid on the negative publicity about Three Mile Island.  If nothing else, we should have learned that in such emergencies, it doesn't matter whether the country is democratic or authoritarian, capitalistic or communist (or something in between).  Any country that develops a nuclear power and/or weapons program also develops a class of people whose careers and lifestyles depend on it, not to mention a military complex surrounding it.

What also does not shock me is that Fukushima disproportionately affects women.   We (Yes, I include myself.) are more vulnerable to breast and thyroid cancers caused by radiation.  And, for most non-trans women, there is also the risk of ovarian cancer.  However, the perils we face from radiation are not limited to our physical health.

Every woman who has given birth since the disaster has to wonder what she passed in utero to her child. Even though 28 years have passed since Chernobyl--and the area was evacuated--there are still many cases of birth defects and congenital diseases as well as pre- and ante-natal deaths. Even though the authorities were able to move people away (and many left on their own accord), nobody could stop the flow of radiation through groundwater, wind and other means. At Fukushima, of course, contaminants are also riding Pacific tides and inside fish in the ocean. Last month, higher-than-normal levels of radioactive isotopes were found in Pacific Ocean water on the coast of British Colombia, Canada. Scientists expect those isotopes to spill onto the beaches of California, Oregon and Washington State next month. One has to wonder what that could mean for the health of women and their babies from Alaska to Baja.

Also, in the area around Fukushima, many women--some of them single mothers--were farmers. They have lost their livelihoods and means of supporting their children; three years later, they are still living in concrete prefab dorms. And those who were married and not farming were not immune to suffering and loss: As often happens in the wake of catastrophes (Think of Hurricane Katrina, as an example.), hospitals and crisis centers are overwhelmed by the numbers of women who are beaten, raped or otherwise abused by husbands and boyfriends (and, in some cases, male blood relatives) who lapse into depression as well as alcohol and drug abuse. And, of course, some of the women also become depressed or start drinking too much, or fall into other kinds of addictive and compulsive behavior.

Perhaps, then, it is no suprise that we, women, have long been far more opposed than men are to nuclear power and weapons. After all, as with many manmade disasters, women have to bear a disproportionate share of the fallout. (No pun intended.) As with other disasters, women "become responsible for all of the work, while dealing with physical illness and raise their young alone", according to Maria Vitigliano of the Green Cross's social and medical outreach program. "When the economy is oppressed, the children grow up and leave them alone", she concludes.

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