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Then it becomes your path
1 Jun 2010
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Of course, there are a lot of women who are a victim of their culture, and they cannot break out. They’re not allowed to study. They’re not allowed to choose their own partners. They’re not allowed to go out and live their own lives. For me, all equality is about a world that both men and women can choose the way they want to live their lives.”

Margreet de Boer.  Founder and owner of Projects on Women's Right; former member of the city council of Amsterdam West; member of the Dutch Senate (elected in 2011); eleven years as lawyer with Legal Aid for Women; currently working in partnership with Rights4Change, which works to advance human rights and gender justice by supporting individual, institutional, and organization human rights initiatives. Interviewed June 2010.

Then it becomes your path

When I started, it was ’89 and domestic violence was not really a topic. It was just something that happened.

I did my work as a women’s lawyer at a women’s law firm and I did a lot of family law, legal aid for victims. And also sexual violence, I did a lot of cases. Eleven years. ’89 to 2001.

Well, a lot of people were always amazed that I work with victims of sexual violence. These are women who were abused by their own fathers when they were young and things like that. Only, I didn’t find it very hard because most of those women came to me at the moment that they thought, “I want to do something about it.” They were in an empowering stage of life.

Some women came to me not that long after the fact. They were often referred to me by the police. A lot of them between 25 and 30 years of age were abused in their youth by their fathers or step-fathers or uncles and they wanted to do something about it. It didn’t always work out the way we wanted to, and the stories were terrible, but I didn’t find that very difficult.

What I found difficult were the family law cases about visiting rights of children. These were people who had been married and who are in the divorce proceedings and just making life miserable for each other. Your own client is calling on Friday afternoon to say, “Can you please call my husband to say he can’t come fetch the children because my son has a little headache.” Bullshit things.

When she really has a point, it’s easy to fight for her, but when it’s just complaining about nothing, come on and get a life.

I think I’m most interested in victim’s rights. Then, how you can make use of rights to empower victims, so they don’t stay victims but are in control again. Right then, when it’s clear that there has been abuse, then I find it’s easier to stick with your client and represent her than when it’s all vague and when it’s just them making life miserable for each other.

When I was first a lawyer, domestic violence was not an issue at all. It was not called domestic violence. It was abuse of women. There were some women lawyers who addressed it in individual cases, but most of the research was on sexual violence.

Then, in 2001, there was a broad project of the government, very broad, with NGOs, with institutions, prosecutors, police, everyone, to formulate goals on combating domestic violence. Then, it was called domestic violence. It became really an issue.

With this project, domestic violence was also made gender neutral. In publications on it and everything that was said about it, the gender aspects of domestic violence were almost not addressed. It was not spoken of that it had something to do with difference in power or difference in gender roles.

To make it gender neutral contributed very much to putting it high on the agenda but on the other hand, we lost the gender awareness about the problem. The fact that it affects more women than men, it is seen as a coincidence. Suddenly, it was domestic violence and not violence against women. Most of the women’s groups welcomed that the issue was high on the agenda. Only after a few years, they realized it’s not about women anymore. Where were they?

I’ve been busy with that quite a lot, trying to bring the gender back in the discussion, to make that visible, to question it. That’s very difficult. On the one hand, you don’t want to stereotype people and situations, so you don’t want to say, “Women are victims and men are perpetrators.” On the other hand, you have to realize that women are more affected than men. To address an issue, you have to find a balance between addressing the situation as it is and working toward a situation where gender is not framing the situation.

It’s also very difficult because you want it to be inclusive. You want to have special measures for same sex couples or if there are women who are abusing their husbands. You have to have special programs for abused husbands. You have to be aware that it’s not always the woman who’s the victim, and there are a lot of situations where there is mutual violence and where gender is not issue at all. You can’t say it’s always about gender. But if gender neutral is the starting point, you neglect that the situation in the real world is not yet as far as that.

I have lots of discussion with the Ministry of Justice on making the approach on domestic violence more gender sensitive and they keep asking, “What’s the solution?” I think the only thing you can say is, “Ask yourself this question all the time: What are the effects for women in real life?” There’s no one solution for it.

On the request of the Minister of Justice, I did a gender analysis on the domestic violence approach of the Ministry. I was in the Ministry a month ago to talk about it and some of them are getting the point. Sometimes I have the impression that they don’t really want changes. They’re just working on the issues because they have to. You have the feeling that you have to keep pushing and pulling and moving them around and nothing happens.

I think the big resistance is that when you’re working for women’s issues, people think you’re against men. Then, with domestic violence and family law, there are some noisy father groups. Fathers for Justice and groups like that, they get a lot of attention. What they do is take one story of a father who cannot see his children and just tell a part of that story and then, after generalizing it, fathers are the ones that are oppressed or not heard. It’s a way of presenting things that makes it very difficult to discuss.

In my experience, most women’s groups discuss the issue in a decent way. They’re doing it on the general level and on the policy level and using stories only as illustrations. It’s very difficult to discuss with someone who does it the other way around. When you challenge the general situation, they go back to the individual case and want to discuss on that level.

The father’s groups manage to have a big influence. They are heard. I find it very difficult because I find gender issues important. I don’t want to say that fathers should have no rights because I do want very much for fathers to have their rights and to take the responsibility as well. Also, if I don’t know a case very well, I don’t want to say, you are an abusive father. That just isn’t right.

Together with someone else, I’ve also a plan on the shelf to do research on the relationship of domestic violence and family law, especially visiting rights. When it comes to child abuse, the judges are rather clear that that can block the visiting rights, but when it comes to partner abuse, then it’s not clear at all. Some judges say, “Well, it has nothing to do with the children. There can be visiting rights right away.” Others take into account that the violence will have some impact on the children.

Also we have the child protection unit, and in difficult cases, they give advice to the judge. That advice is very important because the judges follow that advice. There, you see also a change. They say, “To have contact with both your parents is in the interest of the child.” They say, “Child abuse is a reason to block visiting rights or to give access only under supervision.” But children witness the violence. Now, they’re taking that into account. The discussion is that maybe the children are not witnessing only the violence but the fear of the mother. Is that something you have to take into account?

After my work with Legal Aid for Women, I started to work on international law. I started working at an institute for women’s rights, which was subsidized by the government, and there we also did projects and research and analyses of juris prudence. We wrote letters of advice to the government and things like that. But in 2004, the financing stopped.

Then, I thought what do I do after that?  I decided to try to go on my own and to find financing on a project basis, not as an institute, but from project-to-project. It also means that what projects I do depends on where the finances are. Project on Women’s Rights is my own business, so it’s not a foundation, and I founded it five-six years ago.

You see, it becomes more and more difficult to get any funding for emancipation projects or women’s rights projects. The situation in the Netherlands was always that funding by the government was an important part of an NGO’s income. Then, the national government said, “Funding is the responsibility of the local governments.” The problem is that between local governments, it differs a lot if they are doing anything. I think for the women’s groups and the NGO world, financing is a big challenge.

Charity is also really different in the Netherlands than in other countries. For people in the Netherlands, charity is something for the third world and not for organizations in your own country. That’s a very difficult thing. You see, the government is closing the tap on funding for organizations and there is no real charity network.

At the moment, well, besides that, I’m active in local politics. I’m a member of the city council of Amsterdam West. I do what we call the care and well-being. I’m also active nationally in the gender working group of the green left party. With the working group, we discuss and check the gender balance. If there are elections, we assess platforms and see if there are issues that should be in it or out of it and we write amendments to that.

The Project on Women’s Rights movement is not very high at the moment, but I've been doing some research and writing some brochures. I wrote a brochure on victim’s rights, the legal aspects of domestic violence, especially for victims and for social workers. My experience as a lawyer was that social workers don’t know the legal consequences of the advices they give to victims. For example, if they say, “Grab your children and go away,” that can have consequences in the right to the house. It’s very important that social workers know about the reprecussions before they give the advice.

I wrote a brochure on that and I do trainings for social workers. I also do some projects abroad. I’ve been to Georgia, I’ve been to the Ukraine to talk about gender, gender legislation, and I did some work on CEDAW, the women’s convention. I was one of the authors on the previous shadow report on the Netherlands. We collected all the NGO input and wrote the report. With Project on Women’s Rights, I’m participating as an expert in the CEDAW network. The shadow report on CEDAW was really big. 

I also did a project on the re-victimization of victims in criminal proceedings. It was a research project for the Ministry of Justice, and I did it together with my colleague. The focus of the project was on how the actors within the criminal proceeding cope with victims. Is re-victimization something they take into account? We mainly talked to police, prosecutors, lawyers, judges. We just asked if the position of the victim is something they take into account when they make decisions in the proceedings. We also talked to four victims, which was more for illustration than real research because the numbers were so small.

We found several things. At the police, especially when we are talking about sexual offenses but also domestic violence, they have instructions how to deal with victims. They do actually take into account the position of the victim.

With the prosecutors, they are not always. They are saying, “We are not the representatives of the victims.” Well, who else is? No one else is. They are very much focused on finding the truth. That’s what a lot of them say, “Well, that’s our focus point. We have to find out the truth.”

For the judges, we talked to a lot of investigation judges. Some of them are really worried about the well-being of the victims and some of them also have the idea, “The truth is the most important thing and the victim is a tool to help us find the truth.” For judges, there are no guidelines, how they should do it. Every judge has his or her own rules. That also means that the victim never knows what to expect.

We did also a literature study. We found that not knowing what to expect is one of the main causes of secondary victimization. You have no control. That was one of the main things: Make clear what victims can expect. That’s why it’s going well with the police because police have made it clear for victims. First, you have an orientating appointment where they explain to you what’s going to happen. They also explain, “When you come for the real interview, we will be harsh on you but it’s because we have to know that the story will stick in court.” If you explain that beforehand, victims don’t mind in the interview that it’s very detailed and that they ask you, how can that be possible? They know what to expect. There’s not much harm done.

We also talked to other lawyers, and we used the network I had with other lawyers to invite them to be in a focus group on that. It was orientating research, so we hope there will be some follow-up.

When I look back, now, all this has always been something I was interested in, but where it comes from I really don’t know. I ask myself where it comes from. In high school, I had to write some papers, and I did one on rape. I think I was fourteen or so. It was my own motivated interest. But I wanted to study biology. I was also a member of a nature organization with a lot of camping in nature and bird watching and flowers and determining what each flower was. I really wanted to study biology until I asked myself the question, “What will I be when I’ve done that?” I couldn’t picture it.

Then, I wanted to study law. At that point, I didn’t think it’d be very interesting but I imagined that when you were a lawyer, you could help people. You could mean something. You could make changes. So, I did law. I also studied criminology.

During my studies, I wrote a paper on pornography, and then I did my thesis on sexual harassment at the University. There had been some incidents around that time and what I did was develop a complaint procedure. It was broad but it was mainly meant for the harassment. We developed a proceeding with trust persons, so you could go there and tell your story and discuss what you could do with it. You could choose to file a complaint. If there was a complaint, we made sure there was a good procedure, that it was cleared, and that the board of the University took responsibility. Before that, there was nothing. That research had some impact, I hope.

I think it’s also a part of it that is, well, you’re all in it, doing the work, and then it becomes your path. If you do something then people ask you to do it again. I’m very good at connecting the theory to the practice. I'm good at knowing the theory and thinking about gender issues but also trying to connect it in practice. We all can design the world as we want it to be. How can we make small steps from the world we have now to the world we want it to be?

Also because I’ve been working as a lawyer, I’m aware how laws work out for people. I’m good at analyzing the problems people mention and asking the question, “What does that mean for our policies and our law?” I’m very good at connecting issues and people.

Since I’ve been doing this work, the laws are getting better. The domestic violence approach in the Netherlands in the past ten years was very much focused on the criminal law. Before that, the police wouldn’t even take a complaint, if you went to the police. That has really changed. They take it seriously now, and they’re putting a lot of effort into it.

I also think that criminal law is not the solution. Of course, it must be possible to go and file a complaint and start criminal proceedings but, for most cases, there should be other ways to deal with it and find solutions within family law. Who can stay in the house? Banning orders and preventing stalking and things like that need to be addressed. In most cases, that’s far more important than the criminal case. One thing that has been working well for the past two years is that a perpetrator can be banned from the house by the police for ten days, and it can be extended to four weeks.

Only, I think the biggest problem in legal rights at this moment is that there should be better rights for victims. Now they’re seen as an instrument in the procedures and not someone with rights. Victims should have better and more accessible legal aid. For example, in the banning order procedures, the one who is banned from the house gets free legal aid, and for the victim, that’s not mentioned in the law. Of course it’s a big impact in someone’s privacy to ban him from the house, so I think it’s ok that he gets legal aid.  But if you are the victim, legal aid is not a priority.

I am convinced that legal aid and knowing about your rights is really helpful in determining what you want and empowering yourself. It should be one of the things that all victims get, just one or two hours of free legal aid in that situation. They should be able to talk about their rights, what they want and how they can arrange that.

All women are interested in their rights. I’m doing one project now on preventing honor-related crimes, and I’ve done some workshops for migrant women who don’t know very much about the Dutch legal system. All the women that I talk to, they’re always interested in their rights, and they always see opportunities to use their rights. Well, that gives me hope and convinces me that working on the rights issues is contributing to their interests.

It has some added value to bring the law into the discussion. When you don’t do that, in my experience, it becomes about complaining about the situation and mentioning the government should change it. By bringing the law in it, it’s easier to think what we can change ourselves. How can we use the law to bring changes? In that way, it’s empowering because you’re not just waiting for the government to change things.

I think the problem, especially for migrant women, is the laws are not formulated to help them. The position of migrant women is a big challenge because they meet discrimination within the Netherlands, and they’re stereotyped as victims of their own culture.

They’re first discriminated against because people don’t want to have women wearing headscarves as an employee. The Dutch also stereotype migrant women as low-educated. That hampers them in getting jobs because if the picture is that they’re low educated, they can have a university education, but the picture sticks.

Of course, there are a lot of women who are a victim of their culture, and they cannot break out. They’re not allowed to study. They’re not allowed to choose their own partners. They’re not allowed to go out and live their own lives.

For me, all equality is about a world that both men and women can choose the way they want to live their lives. It’s not set that everybody should work three days and take care of the children two days or work full-time. It should be possible to have diversity and to really choose your life by yourself. The gender roles are not some imprints of how you have to live your life. It’s that there can be a lot of diversity. Equality is that it’s easy to play with the roles or step out of them or choose another role.

Community Justice Activism Advocacy
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