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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 December 2005, 09:29 GMT
Japan backs gender equality plan
By Leo Lewis
BBC News, Tokyo

Japanese mother in ceremonial costume
The government hopes to tempt mothers back to work
Japanese Prime Minister Junichuro Koizumi's cabinet has approved a gender equality plan that aims to put more women in leadership positions.

It gave the green light to a series of measures to improve employment conditions for women and encourage their return to work after maternity.

The changes, known as the female re-challenge plan, have been pushed through by the prime minister himself.

They come in response to Japan's plunging birth rate.

Japan's population contracted in 2005 for the first time since records began more than a century ago, and politicians are alarmed by the absence of women from the shrinking workforce.

Over two-thirds of Japanese women do not return to work after childbirth.

Only 11% of management positions nationwide were held by women as of 2004 - but that is up from 8.3% in 2001.

The plan approved on Tuesday aims to redress the perceived failures of an equal opportunities law enacted 20 years ago.

New measures include:

  • granting flexible hours and training programmes to women who return to work after maternity

  • using vacant retail space for childcare centres

  • providing financial support for women entrepreneurs.

The plan aims to push girls towards science and technology studies from an earlier stage, and the cabinet has set itself the target of filling a third of all leadership positions with female managers by the year 2020.

There remain signs though that Japan's progress towards equality may be slow, with conservatives warning that Mr Koizumi's plan may be an attack on traditional values.

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