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I better start being one of those voices
1 Jun 2010
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“The problems women facing globally are not as dissimilar as you might think. There are only different shades of gray, you might say. It’s very easy to understand each other, even when you're a group of Chinese, Albanian, Peruvian together in a room. You still understand each other immediately because the basic problem you’re looking at is very similar.” 

Loeky Droesen. The interview was held in 2010, while Loeky Droesen was working as a senior programme officer of women’s human rights at the Aim for human rights. At the beginning of 2011, Aim for human rights had to close it’s doors due to a lack of funding. Loeky has remained active in women’s rights and currently works as an independent consultant in Human rights, Gender and Evaluation. She collaborates with Rights for Change, an organization that wants to continue the work on Human rights Impact Assessment. The Human Rights Assessment Instrument on Domestic Violence (DOVA) was published in 2011 and organizations are using the instrument to analyze Domestic Violence issues in their own countries. The picture with this portrait shows her with an Egyptian goddess Sekhmet who was originally the warrior goddess as well as goddess of healing in Upper Egypt. She is depicted as a lioness, the fiercest hunter known to the Egyptians.

I better start being one of those voices

Caring for human rights started in my home. My father was active in the peace movement during the Cold War, so I was used to thinking about what I can do outside of my career, to be where my passion is. In law school, I studied human rights and became interested in women’s issues. 

My passion grew over time. For instance, in the year after the genocide, my father worked for the Rwanda tribunal prosecution team and I went to visit him. I was in Rwanda and the police researchers were staying in the same hotel as my father. We were sitting around the pool, and they were actually saying, “Well, we already have 800,000 murders to look at so why should we also investigate the sexual crimes?” I remember thinking at the time, “That’s strange. If you’re one of those victims, you also want justice.” 

Also, I realized, they were all men. They don’t necessarily have the same sensibility or understanding of why it’s also crucial for healing that sexual violence is addressed and not swept under the carpet and treated as not as relevant as murder. 

It’s uncomfortable for most men to talk about it sexual violence. It’s not comfortable for women particularly but even more uncomfortable for men because they’re often the same gender as the perpetrators. They don’t like thinking about that. In that moment, you realize that if the women weren’t speaking out, nobody would pay attention to the violence. So I better start being one of those voices.

That led me to read up about the topic and to get myself invited to a training program of the women’s caucus. I wanted to become part of the group of people that addressed these issues. Through the training, I linked up with the international women’s rights movement around the International Criminal Court. I was very involved in their lobby in my spare time and that led to my getting to know a lot of NGOs and understand the work.

 I also learned that the work makes a difference. If women hadn’t advocated for gender experts to join the staff of the International Tribunals of the the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the sexual crimes wouldn’t have been charged. There were two women judges in the initial phase of the Yugoslavia tribunal who sent the prosecutors back saying, “I can tell from the stories that sexual violence also happened, but you haven’t charged that. Why not?”  Without those particular individuals, that attention wouldn’t have been there. 

Part of the work of the gender caucus and women initiatives later on was also to get a quota for women judges and to set rules about the  background of the judges on the court so there would be enough people with sensibility on the topic—whether they are men or women. That doesn’t matter but it is important to make sure that the knowledge is there that’s needed to look at sexual violence cases.

That’s one of the successes of that work. Besides getting gender crimes into the statute, they set the quota and lobbied around the election of judges to get the right people in. The movement also does more behind the scenes with other UN bodies. If you know there’s a good candidate up, you sort of push for that person over the candidate who might not have a sense about women’s issues. You can have a lot of impact at that level as an individual person in that job. Like the United Nations special rapporteurs on different issues, they really have an impact. It’s worth putting some effort into getting the right people on the spot. 

It’s worth pushing a bit and during the lobby for for the International Criminal Court, the influence was really direct. We proposed draft language, and it often ended up in the treaty. If the women’s lobby hadn’t been there, that information wouldn’t have been in the treaty. That makes you realize, ok, we better be there. 

I have a passion for the law and for looking at law as a route for change, an instrument of change. I’m interested in how law assists in change and in society. Some people love drafting contacts. I’ve never been that kind of a lawyer at all. My interest is about how law shapes society and how it can lead to improvement.

In my law school, there were a few people that really inspired me. A couple of them I still come across in my work now. But I think my main source of inspiration came from the training program that I did with the women’s caucus on gender justice. It was a big network of international organizations and NGO’s lobbying for the International Criminal Court statute to reflect gender crimes because it was very much an overlooked issue. They were a really international group, and most of the people I met in the traininge are still working on the issues. 

Actually, one of them now is the special rapporteur on violence against women in the UN. Also, right now there’s the big crisis in Kyrgyzstan and one of our colleagues is from Kyrgyzstan. She’s reaching out to all of us who have knowledge on documenting gender-based violence to set up a program for monitoring gender based violence in the crisis there. There are emails going back and forth: how can we set this up? who’s going to pay for it? Let’s all get together and make it happen. 

Some of the participants have really made big strides in the system. They’re very inspirational and some of them became very close friends, and they inspire me to keep going as well. Sometimes you don’t see or hear from somebody for five years and then, you can run into eachother in the hallway in a hotel in New York and there is an immediately reconnecting. 

Such a meeting leads to the realization that there are such fantastic women’s human rights workers all around the world that are doing this work in very dangerous situations sometimes and very challenging situations. That gives me a lot of energy to also continue working on this topic. I’m here in my nice office in Utrecht, traveling out to them occasionally, and they’re always in the middle of tough situations, with limited resources and working themselves very hard. In this job, I’m part of that community. 

That’s another thing: it’s really a community. While volunteering in the International Criminal Court movement, I became part of a community of people that are working on these issues. We keep finding each other and strengthening each other and supporting each other. 

Also, the problems women facing globally are not as dissimilar as you might think. There are only different shades of gray, you might say. It’s very easy to understand each other, even when you’re a group of Chinese, Albanian, Peruvian together in a room. You still understand each other immediately because the basic problem you’re looking at is very similar. 

They’re also very fun people to work with. We have lots of fun always when we train or when we have meetings because when you work on quite horrible situations, you have to have lots of fun or else you go crazy.  Like in the International Criminal Court work, we worked on the most gruesome violations of human rights and we needed fun to cope.

Another part of women’s rights organizations is that a lot of the work is done by volunteers, and that’s one of the big challenges. It’s very hard to be very professional without funding and people burn themselves out because they do so much without any support. So that’s why I also feel, you know, I’m in a luxury position. At the time I volunteered on the International Criminal Court issues, I was a lecturer. I could easily swing time off occasionally to go to New York to do lobbying. I could get my boss to support my flight and expenses so it was easier for me to do that kind of work. 

My first volunteer position on womens issues was with an asylum project in the Netherlands, a women’s project after my graduation. It was then that I realized what human rights issues are out there. That was kind of the first trigger of identifying how I can actually do human rights after university. University is about learning the topic, but that’s theoretical. It has nothing to do with the practice.

Through the asylum cases, you come into contact with all the violations that are happening around the world. People flee because they had their rights violated back home. There were women coming to the Netherlands as asylum-seekers, a lot of time without their families, sometimes with kids. The refugee organization in the Netherlands had a program where you could be matched up with one of them and help them out e.g. with their paperwork or take them to the library so they have some contact with Dutch society. You share some knowledge with the woman and sometimes just meet for dinner or dancing. It was more about the human contact with woman in that kind of situation. But, through that, I got more information about the asylum-seeking system in my country, and about the human rights violations.

Then, I was a volunteer with Amnesty International because they had a specific volunteer program, again around asylum. That grew my knowledge and experience with the practice as well. That experience got me more interested in women’s rights issues specifically.

I never plotted my involvement out too much. It just kind of happened and now I’ve met these people that work on gender justice and I care about the topic. Finally, I decided that’s where I want to be in my career, so three years ago, I started working here, at the Aim for Human rights. 

We are a three person-team within the organization and Aim for Human rights as a specialty, we develop human rights impact assessment instruments. These instruments are a method by which you can assist people in doing human rights research.

Basically, what we found is, ok, human rights lawyers know the human rights standards and people in the world know that human rights exists. How do you actually match what happens in every day practice with those human rights standards? It’s a big step to take and so far that work has been done mostly by human rights lawyers. However, that analysis can be done by a greater number of people if you give them some guidance and an instrument to measure that by. 

What we developed initially in 2006 is basically a handbook or a guide that gives you all the questions that you have to answer to do a human rights assessment on a particular topic. For instance, one topic is the health rights of women. We also found that using this kind of methodology really requires some assistance. So we give a lot of trainings. Now, that guide is available in a number of languages and it’s out there for anyone who wants to use it.

The main goal of the instrument is that people can actually use human rights for change. Because a lot of the time, if you’re a shelter in South Africa, you see the practices of your country are violating the rights of some of the people but then what can you do against that? You can say, this is wrong, but sometimes they don’t even realize the link to the human rights obligation because they don’t know the details. Our instruments help you make that assessment.

We developed six steps for the good development of each human rights impact assessment. You start with a needs assessment. Generally we do that in the form of interviews with potential users. You really start to map out if there is any use for an instrument, according to potential users, or do they already have other ways of getting the same results? You try to make an inventory of the potential need for such an instrument. That’s the first phase. 

The second phase is getting together a co-developer group, a group that reflects the potential users. For instance, for the instrument on human rights and domestic violence we are currently developing, we have ten organizations from Africa, America, Asia, Europe, altogether, each with different focuses. Some of them are shelter organizations, some are more human rights-oriented organizations. They bring their own expertise to the process. Then you have a first meeting with them to set the parameters of the instrument.

Then, there’s a drafting stage, a testing stage, a finalization stage and a roll out stage, as we call it. Once the draft, the whole thing, is done, you try to get it to as many people’s attention as you possibly can. That comes with the trainings, training of trainers, translations and all that kind of activity. Although quite self-explanatory, it takes some guidance to use the instrument.

The instrument is also very practical. The users collect evidence and link it up to the human rights standards, so that they actually know the human rights violations involved, and then they can lobby and advocate for change. The instruments help people to advocate for change in their own setting. You just give them tools to make it easier. 

The instruments have been used already across many, many countries and in many situations. The other thing that is quite specific about these instruments is that you start with identifying a particular problem. It’s not an overall scan of human rights but it’s zoning in on one particular problem and then linking that to the human rights standards. A lot of human rights work that is done makes global assessments or big assessments of a country, which is great and also necessary, but that leads to another kind of lobbying. 

Everybody we train or talk to says, “We now can make the link between the practice, the policies of my country, and human rights standards.” It helps shape their thinking and their understanding of how those things are linked together. It makes it actually possible for them to use human rights standards, rather than just say, “ok, yeah, there should be human rights" and that’s about it. 

That’s a huge change in working with human rights and that’s one of the things I really enjoy about the work. You can really see it changes the mindset of the users and gives them capacity to work in more professional way than they would have done before with human rights standards. 

What we really do is bring human rights knowledge to people who wouldn’t necessarily otherwise be able to use those standards. We’re bridging the gap between the more or less academic field of human rights knowledge and actually translating it to something practical. 

I came in specifically to begin working on the domestic violence instrument, and I’m co-collaborating on the other instruments and trainings. My main responsibility is this human rights impact assessment on domestic violence, which we are developing together with ten international organizations from all around the world. That should be finalized by the end of this year.

It’s a lengthy process to generate these instruments. In general, it takes about two years to get the idea, assess if there’s really a need for this, and get a group together to collaborate on the development of the instrument. 

We do this development with potential users because it needs to be a practical instrument that works for potential users. We need them to be with us in developing the instrument. So they’re there. The groups get together to give feedback on the use of the draft instrument. They’re launching the instrument to a broader NGO community. They’re raising awareness that this instrument exists and showing how it can benefit the work that people are doing. 

With these instruments that we develop, we also very much try to incorporate a holistic view because there tends to be an overspecialization. You have people working on HIV/AIDs, you have people working on domestic violence, you have people working on women in conflict, and there’s a hundred of other topics. Sex workers are their own group, anti-traffickers are their own groups. There’s a lot to be gained by bringing those different worlds together. I think maybe that’s my biggest passion, to try to see the cross-cutting of themes and bring unusual suspects together for collaboration. Together, they can actually achieve more in the end. 

But it’s very hard because people have too much work anyway. For instance, I’m also now on the board of the Dutch gender platform called Wo=men, (women equal men), and we’re always trying to keep gender on the political agenda. We encourage sharing between all of the organizations in the Netherlands that work on gender in international development cooperation. Again, it’s that challenge of people that work a lot and don’t have time to meet their colleagues and strengthen each other’s work. It’s a challenge to bring people together so that’s where we try to merge unusual suspects. 

The work is also personally challenging. For example, we collaborate with sex workers organizations. The first couple times, to me, I really had to think long and hard about what I actually think about sex work and where I fall on the issue. So it brings you into contact with worlds you don’t know necessarily in your everyday life. 

Basically, what I learned is that even though I still think it’s not a wonderful job to have, I think that the main thing is to give the sex worker as much power over their own life as they possibly can have. That’s why I want it to be legal. The empowered sex workers are also the people that can help try and push back on trafficking. As a person, I have a hard time with it and with the concept that women’s bodies are still for sale and this is seen as totally acceptable, but yeah, sometimes life is not pretty. 

But I’ve met great sex workers, and they convinced me that the best way to make the life of sex workers as good as it possibly can be is to empower them and to make sure that they have their human rights. It's to ensure they’re not being chased around, ostracized and all of that. You can see there are projects in India and Africa where the women have managed to create a union and then they can negotiate their terms, so then they’re much less vulnerable, they earn more, they’re safer, they can protect themselves better from HIV/AIDs, disease, or violence. So that’s worth it. If they’re going to do the job, let’s please do it in as safe conditions as possible. I still find it complicated, sometimes, on a personal level.

But I’m also a very strong believer in the strength of the women, so I don’t frame sex workers only in a victim’s role and treat them like they’re people who didn’t make any choices and they’re just weak. Yeah, sometimes they are, but basically they have a lot more strength than you and I have because they have to survive all this stuff. I mean, you have the anti-prostitution movement in the US, which is really strong and linked to the anti-trafficking work, like “liberating the women” type of thing. A lot of the times that actually doesn’t work. That’s another problem with it. It’s like abstinence, yay, now we won’t get HIV/AIDs because we preach abstinence. It doesn’t work. I don’t want to do something that doesn’t work. 

You have to have a really hard realistic look at the real world and not just say, oh, we don’t like trafficking, so we’ll liberate some women from time to time and half of them end straight back up in another trafficking situation. In a lot of countries, the government is doing these liberating sex workers from the bordello-type raids, which actually doesn’t work. So let’s look at something that really does work. 

Currently, there also a big conference in Prague where they launched the issues of human rights in the discussion of anti-trafficking measures. This debate has been really developed at the request of groups impacted by anti-trafficking measures, such as sex workers, such as irregular migrants, labor organizations, and anti-trafficking workers. 

Here, we are also the host of the Dutch CEDAW network so we host the secretariat. Together, we have created the shadow report. For the last two years, colleagues and I have attended the United Nation Commission on the status of women meetings in New York, part of the UN structure, and because of the shadow report, we’ve been to the CEDAW committee in Geneva. Those moments where you meet up with other colleagues from around the world are really important to find out where their struggle lies, what the important topics are, and to find out what people are doing, to stay on top of the current developments.

The lesson I learned, because I’ve been around for a while, I see that it really pays off to consistently keep pushing for a certain point. Like with the International Criminal Court, the lobbying started at least ten years before the statute came about. For me, that was the eye-opener, that at the international level sometimes you can achieve more than at the national level. Then, you can use the international level standards at the national level. So basically what we do now is bringing those international levels back down again to the national level for practical use, for change.

The same thing happened for violence against women, which wasn’t a topic that was discussed in a lot of countries ten, fifteen years ago. It was taboo. The lobby at the international level and setting standards and getting general assembly resolutions and all that kind of stuff, was, in a sense, kind of boring. You have to talk about commas and fight with diplomats and stuff like that. But it really helps once those standards are set because you can rely on them again at a national level, and it empowers local organizations. 

For instance, in most African countries, you have now at least legislation against domestic violence. Whether it’s implemented is another thing but local NGOs can go to the government and say, you promised the UN you would work on this and we should get legislation. It’s a slow process but the two feed into each other: national and international. 

There are fashions, also. Especially for donors, that’s another big challenge. If a donor fashion changes then you can’t do the work that you think is important because there’s no money. Now there’s a big movement, which is also important, to involve men in gender equality work. That’s where a lot of money is going. 

The main problem that we see is that there are long-established women’s rights organizations that have the knowledge, that have the skills, the capacity to work on women’s rights improvement in their own local setting. They also have men on the staff because it is also a good career opportunity and it attracts smart graduates from all kinds of backgrounds. 

The problem is that now there are more and more organizations emerging in their countries run by men, staffed by men only, funded by western donors, saying, “We’re working on gender equality.” Some of those organizations are fine and are doing good work. Some are actually not so great, and their agenda tends to shift away from what the women’s movement thinks is important. 

Women’s NGO’s are questioning, “Well, if they’re so passionate about it, why aren’t they working with us within our organization?” I’ve also seen some of the people that are recognized as really important leaders in the men’s movement speak several times and they’re treated kind of like Rock Gods. “Oh! This man cares about women!” Yeah ok. I think you should celebrate the women who’ve been working themselves ragged for 30 years or more and not this guy that’s been doing it for two years. 

But it’s important to stay on top of it and, for instance, in Wo=men, we have a working group on this topic. We want to make sure that this new movement doesn’t become separate and that it’s really firmly grounded in what women’s rights organizations think are the issues and that they don’t hijack the agenda. 

Another topic we work on with Wo=men, we raise a lot of development money. There’s research on where the money for women’s rights comes from (done by AWID) and it has found that almost half of all the money worldwide going into women’s rights issues comes from the Netherlands from a variety of donors. That’s another issue we really try to stay on top of, that the money doesn’t go somewhere else. Because if it goes somewhere else, it means a lot of work worldwide isn’t going to be done. You realize, without that money, your partners in the South would be disappearing. 

I just love the work. It’s not hard to stay motivated. I love all the people I meet and it gets me traveling to fun places. People get very tired, especially when women are really, really in secondary position in their society. They get very tired thinking, we’ve been working for ten years and it’s not moving anywhere. 

Then, you can say from a Western perspective, well, compare my grandmother to me. It has been worth the hard slug that women in my society have put into this. That’s also a perspective that you can bring and that is also a motivation. If on every day, you get ten emails of the most horrible suffering, it can deflate you from time to time. But it’s worth it. If we don’t do it, then that force gets lost and then it gets worse.

For example, there’s lots of gender-based violence, which you know people know about in the country, but it needs to be brought to light and researched and people need support, people who have suffered through that. Reconciliation processes need to be put in place soon. So, you reach out to people from a country where that’s already happened and where they have that knowledge.

There are so many people working a lot and even though it’s slow, things are changing. Just the fact that in many countries, there now is legislation and if those countries become more stable and the government becomes more functional, those legislations will be implemented. 

You often see that if countries become destabilized, it ends up on the backs of women, in whatever form, whether it be violence, whether it be economic deprivation, whether it’s putting them behind veils, taking their jobs away, limiting their educational opportunities. Change just takes a long, long time. In the 1950’s, I would be fired if I got married in the Netherlands. I could still be raped by my husband legally until the 1970’s, so it’s not that long ago that we were facing similar sort of legal barriers, let alone practical barriers. 

I think the most challenging area now is probably in the Islamic world for women’s rights particularly because Islam is being interpreted by many in a very anti-women’s rights focused way. That’s the toughest area to work in, in terms of getting any headway, but still you have great women there doing the work. And there are changes. 

 But it’s not that different for women anywhere. Shades of gray.  Basically, patriarchy is fine and well in any society. It’s less visible in places like the U.S and my own country but you just have to scratch the surface to find the inequality. A lot of Dutch women are not aware of it. They only see the inequality once they come across a particular problem, like when they get divorced and find that the law is more or less against them. If countries are in conflict, then violence against women is at a level that we don’t have here, but your best chance of getting murdered here is still by your partner, if you’re a woman. I mean obviously, you’d much rather be a woman here than in the Congo at the moment but in all countries, patriarchy is tougher than you think, it’s more entrenched than you think and it’s also in your own head. 

Another thing is that domestic violence happens in white and non-white communities in the Netherlands, and rich and poor, it doesn’t matter. A Turkish guy might call it an honor killing but the white guy killing his wife isn't anything different. I don’t give a hoot whether he describes it as honor or if he just kills her because he kills her. To me, that doesn’t matter. It’s still violence against women, but it is perceived differently by society.

There’s also lots of attention on headscarves in the west. A lot of those girls wearing headscarves were very independent, strong, educated women and I don’t care if they wear it, if that’s their interpretation of their religion, as long as they can reach their potential in the way they want to do it. Then, the headscarf is not the issue. The issue is can they freely make the choices in their life or are they prohibited from doing that in some way? 

The tendency is in the West, especially here, is to say we’re fine in gender equality for the white women. The immigrants are the problem. Yeah, no Dutch woman is going to get genital mutilation performed on them, but there are lots of other issues we have as well. There’s a lack of awareness in society, in general. 

Not even many people are shouting about it here because all the organizations that were doing this work, their subsidies have been withdrawn. Now, it’s all volunteer work, so it’s much harder to get a cohesive voice out continuously if you’re just a bunch of volunteers. Rights work in the West has been impacted. 

We have lots of interns here in the organization, and it often feels it’s hard to get your toe in the water when you are interested in women’s rights. But it’s important. Just don’t be shy. Talk to people. They’ll probably be surprised that there’s a person interested. You just contact them, tell them why you want to talk to them and generally they’re quite happy to engage with you. 

It’s about finding somebody who’s doing the work, saying I’m interested, what can I do? I was probably in my mid-twenties when I first said, ok I’m interested, what can I do? And it sort of snowballed. I think if you’re passionate about something, things will come your way. 

It’s more about opening your eyes and having a closer look at the stories out there. I mean, when I was a lecturer, I would look at gender issues in my courses and a lot of the time the women in the group were like, ugh, boring old feminist. Feminist is like a curse word here nowadays. I was like, ok, you’re still in school and you don’t notice that there are barriers, but they are going to pop up as soon as you enter the job market. I’m going to tell you about it anyway. Maybe one or two of them did something with that. 

But that’s up to each individual. It’s very difficult to force people to get interested in any topic. There has to be a direct confrontation with one of the problems, so hitting the glass ceiling or knowing somebody that was a victim of domestic violence or being it yourself, or something like that, before people really get interested. For instance I have lots of friends that I’ve told about this stuff for ages and ages and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, ok, that’s interesting. But it’s not going to be my life,” which is fine too. Not everybody has to do it. 

But at least people need to realize. At least realize the challenges in your own environment and the choices you make, the impact that has. Think about the problems. It’s not nice to think about it, but you should. 

Community Justice Activism Advocacy
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