Ex-rape victim draws on own ordeal to fight for women’s rights

Kyodo News International, Inc.

FEATURE:

Ex-rape victim draws on own ordeal in pushing women’s rights

TOKYO, Nov. 7 Kyodo

The presence of U.S. forces in Okinawa over the years has come to mean different things to different people in the local community: for some a sense of security or status symbol, for others a source of discomfort and trouble.

For Betsy Kawamura, it is a constant reminder of her ordeal in the winter of 1974 — two years after Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese rule from U.S. occupation — that transformed her into a strong campaigner against all forms of violence against women.

”My mission in life is to stop violence against women” and empower them to regain their self-esteem and reassure them there is help for them, Kawamura said.

Traveling between London and Oslo to create awareness of Okinawa issues, Kawamura, 43, now finds herself actively involved in a number of sexual violence and other human rights issues as she has overcome the childhood trauma of being sexually molested at the age of 12.

She recounted how a Caucasian man who was in his late 40s or 50s and wore civilian clothes stopped her outside a bookstore in her neighborhood in the city of Koza, now called Okinawa City, near the U.S. Kadena Air Base.

Although she could not explicitly identify him as an American serviceman, she believes it highly likely he was since many of the Americans were directly or indirectly part of the U.S. military in those years during the Vietnam War.

Okinawa was often a training ground for military personnel who were sent to Vietnam, she said.

Lured by his smooth talk and fearful of disobeying an older man as a ”strong male authority figure,” she agreed to go for a ride in his car, which she later realized was a ”very, very big mistake.”

She said she did not fight back and was unaware of what was going on, saying there was no education about sexual violence at her school.

The sexual molestation then continued for several days, as the man drove her off to some remote areas in Okinawa, sometimes waiting for her to come out of her house en route to school. He also told her openly about his sexual abuse of young girls, including his own daughter.

Kawamura’s ordeal ended when she and her family left Okinawa after the man had paid her $5 during their last encounter.

”I had felt disgustingly dirty and vehemently violated. For several days I would wash my hands endlessly, over and over at school and at home,” she said, adding she could not tell her parents at the time.

Born a second-generation Japanese-American, Kawamura did not hide her disappointment when she finally told her parents nearly 10 years later and her parents just told her to forget it and discouraged her from speaking up about her experience due to the cultural and social stigmas attached to it.

”I hope parents will realize that not letting their children talk about these issues is a form of denial and neglect on their part…It is wrong of parents to deny their children the right to heal properly,” she said.

Though she managed to acquire an MBA in the United States and worked as a consultant in the pharmaceutical industry, she later suffered a breakdown leading her to be hospitalized temporarily in a psychiatric ward after losing the ability to read in her earlier 30s. She also considered several times committing suicide in subsequent years.

She later realized her condition stemmed from blaming herself for her ordeal and finally found comfort from a counselor and friends who had experienced similar things and could assure her the experience was not her fault.

Since then, Kawamura has spoken up in public on behalf of sexually violated women, especially those in Okinawa and the Asia-Pacific region.

”I had decided to ‘come out’ and use my name. I have even built a forum called ‘Speak Up for Women’ where I would really like to have Far East Asian women come out to talk about their ordeals. I really think that people need to put a ‘face’ and a human person behind a personal disaster,” she said, urging fellow victims to stand up and prevent such crimes.

According to Kawamura, the group’s activities range from grass-roots level social work to approaching government and military representatives to create awareness of this problem for change and resolution.

The key to this, she said, is to open proper investigations into cases, making the perpetrators accountable regardless of when the crime was committed.

Kawamura said her anger at the U.S. military ”stems from the fact that proper accountability and acknowledgement have not seemed to take place in many instances” citing a report of postwar U.S. military crimes against women in Okinawa covering 1945 to 1997.

Drawn up by several persons including reputed Okinawa activist Suzuyo Takazato, the report lists several cases of sexual crimes committed by the U.S. military in Japan over the years, notably the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen which caused a huge public outcry in Okinawa and resulted in many changes in the handling of U.S. military crimes.

Although things in Okinawa have improved since 1995, more still needs to be done for such rape victims.

She is aware of last year’s NATO and U.S. military command decree of Zero Tolerance of prostitution and sexual trafficking and hopes to work together with them to improve the plight of women worldwide.

”Silence just perpetuates the cycle of violence,” she said, urging victims to speak up and make perpetrators accountable for their crimes.

For further information on her activities, contact Betsy Kawamura at bkawamura10@hotmail.com.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Kyodo News International, Inc.

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