From Margin to Center? Consequences of Dutch Parliamentary Elections for Women’s Rights

The national elections were held recently in The Netherlands. Sanne Meijer from WO=MEN, a WIDE+ platform member, analyses what the recent political shifts say about Dutch policy on women’s rights in development.

The Dutch have spoken again! Last September people in The Netherlands voted for a new House of Representatives (literally translated from Dutch: “Second Chamber”) – for the fifth time in only ten years. Prime Minister Mark Rutte (Liberal Party) handed in his government’s resignation in April after the Party for Freedom’s (PVV) refusal to continue negotiations on austerity measures. The Liberals and Christian Democrats participated in Rutte’s Cabinet, with the PVV as an outside supporter. The question I aim to answer is: what are the political trends regarding women’s rights in development policy?

It has to be said that foreign and development policy were not important issues to be debated about by politicians at the big public debates. They never are, but especially right now there is a negative attitude from the Dutch audience when it comes to government-executed development cooperation. It is a consequence of different factors, such as the backlash from the PVV towards almost everything that is not Dutch, the increasing unemployment rates and the (upcoming) government budget cuts that affect everyone. Furthermore, women’s rights was also not a hot topic up for debate. The only exception was the noise surrounding statements on abortion by the leader of the Christian-orthodox oriented party (SGP). He responsed to Todd Akin, the republican candidate for the US state Missouri who claimed recently that women victims of what he described as “legitimate rape” very rarely get pregnant from rape. The comment from the SGP leader about this, though in my opinion not in agreement with Akin but merely a factual statement, was not taken too positively by the Dutch audience. The last reason for why women’s rights is not a big issue is a mixture of people thinking that women are already emancipated and people not wanting women to emancipate.

During the years of the Rutte Cabinet there has been a lot of debate about development policy. Due to the negative climate towards this subject, budget cuts have taken place. At the same time, it has to be mentioned that The Netherlands is still leading when it comes to supporting development countries financially. Currently, The Netherlands still spends 0.7% of its Gross National Income (GNI) on development cooperation (in contrast to the 0.8% it used to be). Furthermore, there was an increasing need for efficiency, effectiveness, coherence of policy and entrepreneurship. In this political environment, the members of WO=MEN Dutch Gender Platform tried to navigate to ensure that women’s rights would remain on the political agenda. Meetings that members held with MPs and officials proved to be positive: the budget for gender has increased from €37 million in 2010 to €42 million in 2012, and in 2011 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) launched a twin-track gender policy. WO=MEN experienced that a positive and humorous manner of conveying a message works extremely well, as well as showing how effective it is to invest in women (both financially and policy-wise). However, that does not mean everything is well. One example is that out of 20 Ministers and Secretaries of State (from 2010-2012), only 4 were women and the last House of Representatives had a female/male rate of 62/88. After the last elections in the new House of Representatives there are even less women: 59.

The elections have offered WO=MEN opportunities to keep women’s rights on the political agenda. One clear example is the election programmes of the political parties: most parties expressed the need for women’s empowerment in development countries and the crucial role they play. This is a great basis to work from for the upcoming years. Additionally, in July MPs from a broad array of political parties agreed to continue making efforts for equal opportunities for women worldwide with the multi-party initiative “Women: Crucial for Development, Peace and Economic Growth”. At the same time the future remains unclear. Some of the MPs WO=MEN talked to previously, have vanished from the political stage. We need not to assume that the new MPs know about gender and women’s rights and this requires new efforts from WO=MEN. Furthermore, it keeps being important to monitor the twin-track gender policy. The importance of gender in many subjects a.k.a. gender mainstreaming is recognized, but we have to pay particular attention to the gender stand-alone policy of the MFA. Without such a policy gender mainstreaming does not work and MPs have to be reminded of this.

Another challenge is the word ‘gender’ itself. It is still perceived as meaning ‘women’ instead of a social construct in which femininity and masculinity are defined and redefined. Therefore, making visible that involving men is needed in order to further women’s as well as human’s rights keeps being a key issue. Last, it is unsure what the future government’s composition will be. Currently, the Liberal Party and the Labour Party (who won 41 and 38 seats respectively) are negotiating whether it is possible to form a government. Both parties have a positive attitude towards women’s rights but – to say it like the Beach Boys – only God knows what the future looks like.

Sanne Meijer, Policy Officer WO=MEN

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