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"Teenagers Can't Do Anything"?
Disaster Reconstruction from the Perspective of Child Advocacy

Yoshie Abe
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

1. The roles played by children after the earthquake

In the bleak aftermath of the earthquake, children were our hope. Many people were comforted and saved by the smiling faces of children. We adults also witnessed teenagers think and act on their own initiative and support people staying in evacuation centers and temporary housing. We saw high school students who had lost their parents help serving meals, middle school students who were earthquake victims themselves carry the elderly to safety on their backs, and children carry heavy water containers and supplies with their small frames. Parents commented on how "the middle-school and high-school students allowed [them] to take the first step forward in rebuilding [their] lives by playing with the younger children" when the nursery schools and kindergartens had not yet reopened. There were also many middle-school and high-school students from areas that had escaped major damage who participated in volunteer activities like sorting supplies, cleaning up mud, and providing learning assistance.

Now that nearly two years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, however, we have almost forgotten the roles these children played. To prevent this from happening, a "Project to Record the Contributions Made by Middle-School and High-School Students after the Earthquake" is being sponsored by Save the Children Japan and implemented by the Sanaburi Foundation. The goal of the project is to keep a "record" (kiroku) of the many contributions made by middle-school and high-school students after the earthquake, rather than leaving them as memories (kioku) that may be forgotten, and to report and share this information throughout the wider society.

When the project put out a call, aimed primarily at the six Tohoku prefectures, for stories about the things "high-school and middle-school students did for others" and the "actions [adults] saw high-school and middle-school students take" after the earthquake, it received a total of 205 submissions-156 submissions from middle-school and high-school students and 49 submissions from adults-from October 11, 2012 to January 7, 2013. I am currently conducting interviews with several groups of middle-school and high-school students who submitted their stories and compiling these interviews into a booklet that should be finished by the beginning of April.

2. Perceptions that rob teenagers of their role in society

So what kinds of images do we associate with teenagers?

When they appear in newspapers, television and other media, middle-school and high-school students are associated with "behavioral problems," such as bullying, school violence and juvenile crime. We see reports of middle-school and high-school students who apply make-up in trains, hang out in public places, ride bicycles the wrong way, hog the sidewalk and display other bad manners. For a brief period following the March 11 earthquake, however, there was a big shift in this coverage. The media started putting out almost daily reports on middle-school and high-school students who were assisting with the operation of evacuation centers and helping the adults. Many adults were inspired when they saw and heard these reports.

Did middle-school and high-school students change after the earthquake? There were definitely major changes in their lives and surroundings. But it seems that the greatest change was in the adults who report and consume information. Those of us who are involved in child advocacy know that middle-school and high-school students are capable of thinking and acting on their own, regardless of whether they live in a disaster area or not. But what about the majority of adults?

At the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children (UNGASS) held in New York in 2002, 400 delegates under the age of 18 delivered a message called "A World Fit for Us." The delegates to the Special Session, which included street children, children who were victims of child labor and abuse, and HIV/AIDS orphans, asserted that "the children of the world are misunderstood." The meaning of this statement can be summed up in the following sentence: "We are not the sources of problems; we are the resources that are needed to solve them." Many adults tend to view middle-school and high-school students as the sources of problems. But wouldn't it be terrible if this perception is robbing young people of the opportunity to play a role in society?

Herein lies another important reason for recording the contributions made by middle-school and high-school students after the earthquake. Teenagers are not the sources of problems, but are in fact capable of performing a major role in disaster recovery. Now that the process of recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake is moving forward, it's time to make and share a record of their contributions.

3. Children's voices on disaster reconstruction

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 1989, is a commitment made by countries to "act in the best interests of the child." Ratified by the Japanese government in 1994, the Convention boasts a total of 193 contracting states, making it the most-ratified human rights treaty in the world and the "yardstick" that is applied when any measures affecting children are implemented. The Convention treats children under the age of 18 not merely as objects of protection, but also as subjects capable of exercising their rights. But how does this apply to disaster reconstruction?

In General Comment No. 12, "The right of the child to be heard" (CRC/C/GC/12), adopted in 2009, section "10. In emergency situations" notes that the right of the child to be heard "does not cease" in emergency situations and that "there is a growing body of evidence of the significant contribution that children are able to make in.reconstruction processes following emergencies." The "Project to Record" is part of that body of evidence. And that's not all. Children's participation in reconstruction also contributes to their own recovery. In other words, "children's participation helps them regain control over their lives, contributes to rehabilitation, develops organizational skills and strengthens a sense of identity." It is important, of course, to protect children from harmful situations that could traumatize them. From the perspective of child advocacy studies, however, treating children as agents in the process of reconstruction and supporting their participation are considered just as important as protecting them. Children are not just the "bearers of the future." The voices of children, speaking as subjects who live in the present, are needed in recovery efforts.

"You call us the future, but we are also the present." ("A World Fit for Us," UN Special Session on Children)

◆If you would like a copy of the booklet The Project to Record the Contributions Made by Middle-School and High-School Students after the Earthquake [Shinsai-go ni Chukosei ga Hatashita Yakuwari no Kiroku Purojekuto] that will be published at the beginning of April, please call the Sanaburi Foundation (http://www.sanaburifund.org/en/) at +81-22-748-7283.

Yoshie Abe
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

[Profile]
1975
Born in Beppu, Oita Prefecture
2006
Completed doctoral coursework at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University and withdrew before receiving a degree
2009
Received a Ph.D. in Literature from Waseda University
2011
Became an Assistant Professor of Social Constitution, History and Culture at the School of Culture, Media and Society on the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Abe's areas of specialization include child advocacy studies, child participation theory and child advocacy professionalism.
She is currently conducting investigative research in cooperation with Save the Children Japan and other organizations on the nature of the expertise required for helpers who support children's participation in the reconstruction of cities and towns. Thanks to the children in the Tohoku region, she comes back from each investigation feeling re-energized. And with three children of her own at home, every day is a new adventure.

Her publications include:
Perspectives on Child Advocacy Research [Kodomo Shien-gaku Kenkyu no Shiza] (sole author), Gakubunsha, 2010. Received an Honorable Mention for an Article or Book at the Sixth Annual Association for Children's Environment Awards.
50 Tutorials on Rights to Master with Your Child [Kodomo to Masuta Suru 50 no Kenri Gakushu] (co-author), Godo Shuppan, 2006.
"Chapter 4: Perspectives Offered by Aid for 'Girls'" ["'Onna no Ko' Shien kara Mieta Koto"] in Akiko Murata, ed., Women's Voices on Reconstruction: "3.11" and Gender [Fukko ni Josei-tachi no Koe o: "3.11" to Jenda], Waseda University Press, 2012.