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Foster Parents in New Role as Population Slumps
TOKYO, Apr 13 (IPS) - A government plan to boost Japan's fledgling foster parent system as a means of stemming the population slide has revived the social debate on abortion and sex education for teenagers.
Starting this month, the ministry for health, welfare and labour will increase financial support for new foster parents, a step that is expected to encourage families to relieve the growing number of children in welfare centres and help stem the population decline.
Birth rates in Japan have dropped to 1.29 per woman making population growth a leading national issue.
''By increasing (the number of) foster parents we will be providing neglected children with a much needed home -- we also hope the success of this plan will extend the message that children can be nurtured by society to encourage more births,'' said Norikazu Hozumi, who is in charge of foster care at the ministry.
According to Hozumi, the government's aim is to increase the number of foster parents by 15 percent. On offer is an allowance of more than 300 US dollars per month per foster family plus the cost of hiring of new counselors as well as the availability of daily support services at each welfare facility run by local government.
''Foster parenting is a concept that has not taken root in Japanese society mainly because of cultural constraints. A plan to renew the system and link it to reducing abortions in a bid to increase the population is not acceptable,'' says Dr Kunio Kitamura, director of the Japan Family Planning Association.
Official statistics indicate there are currently 3,222 foster parents, which is Far from being adequate to meet the needs of more than 32,700 children now living in state-run homes.
Adoption remains a low-key option in Japan where blood ties are highly valued. "Foster parents", explained Kyoko Kitazawa, an expert on reproduction, "is attractive for officials who are looking for ways and means to prop up birth rates.''
Kitazawa, an author and activist, manages her own reproduction and sex education research institute. She advocates teaching children about sex to raise awareness of reproductive rights.
Foster parents in Japan, who have struggled alone till now, welcome the new trend pointing out, however, the importance of official support for successful parenting.
''When I became a foster parent 20 years ago, there was no official support in any form and I had to work hard to make ends meet. The new trend can be beneficial if the government supports parenting as a goal rather than focus on increasing the national population,'' explained Yuko Sakamoto, who looks after three children..
This April, Fukushima prefecture, located in northern Japan, became the first local assembly in the country to start a programme to encourage women seeking abortions to apply for foster care for their unborn babies.
Said vice-governor, Akira Kawate last month: ''We are offering women who are thinking about abortion an option and we hope as many as possible decide to have their babies. Society will raise them.''
The prefecture has newly employed family consultants and also set up services working with medical staff to provide support for women who decide not to terminate their pregnancies.
''The foster parent system is a creative way of encouraging people to raise children as it does not involve outright adoption. The system can involve short-term parenting care for mothers and fathers who need help for short periods before they are ready to take back their children,'' said a prefectural official who asked not to be named.
Fukushima's well-intentioned plans have raised a sharp debate in Japan where abortion is legal up to three months of pregnancy. National abortion rates are high among teenagers at 13 per 1000. Reproductive activists say sex education, that includes contraception choices, is a better way to reduce abortion rates than encouraging more women to give birth.
Kitamura is a leading critic of Fukushima's move to counsel women into having more babies.
''Foster parents should never be considered a substitute. The idea that foster parents can help increase the population by encouraging women to give birth and getting others to look after the children works against the right of a woman to make her own decision,'' he said.
Kazumi Irikoma, a nurse working in high schools in Iwate prefecture, agrees.
She recalls the years when she worked as a school nurse and had to console teenagers who would run to her desperately seeking help when they found out they were pregnant.
In 2002, determined to help young women, she launched in Miyako ‘Hapii' , a programme that focuses on peer counseling to raise awareness on sex in a bid to curtail the high abortion rates.
''When I realised that teenagers hardly had any knowledge on protecting themselves from getting pregnant or sexual diseases, I started Hapii. It was difficult at the beginning to start such sex education programmes, but people are much more open to the idea now,'' she explained.
More than 34,000 abortions are performed in Japan annually, the second highest number in the world after India. (END/2006)