Every year on International Women’s Day, we reflect on gender inequality and its effects on girls and young women. Garance Reus-Deelder, director of Plan International, says: “Women, young and old, continue to be stigmatized, attacked, discriminated against and harassed online because they are women and dare to speak out.”
Who is Garance Reus-Deelder?
†An optimist who cares a lot, a quote from Madeleine Albright, is a description that suits me. I am optimistic and energetic in life, but at the same time I care a lot about the world. Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s statement fits perfectly with this: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world; in fact, it’s the only thing he has† In other words: if we don’t act ourselves, nothing will ever change. As director of Plan International, I want to bring about that change by fighting for children’s rights and promoting equality for girls and young women.’
Eliminating gender inequality is fundamental to Plan International. Have you ever had to deal with that yourself?
‘Did you know that the Netherlands is ranked 31st in the Global Gender Gap Index, only one place above Mozambique? In our country, therefore, there is still a lot of gender inequality, intentional or not, visible and invisible. I was asked myself, when we had our first child, “will you still work full time?” Is that question ever asked of a man? New! Or all those times when a man explained to me what he is like, the so-called man explaining† If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to adapt, but to say something about it. The moments of discomfort you create then make people think and are the prelude to change.’
How do you apply that knowledge and experience to your leadership style?
‘For me, leadership is about the challenge of dealing with norms and values and constantly questioning the status quo. Sometimes with a smile, but sometimes also with force. It is about taking care of yourself, your teammates and the good use of talents. Or are those feminine values? From my point of view, it is sensible leadership with which I want to change social gender norms.’
Did you have a role model in it?
‘Sure! Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya is my heroine. She was a celebrity in the human rights world and she was assassinated in 2006 because she, as a woman, made her voice heard. Today, women are still attacked or marginalized because they are women and dare to speak out.’
Why is it more difficult for a woman to be a leader?
‘That starts with acknowledging that girls are not lacking in leadership ambitions, but think that women have to work harder to be recognised. It’s not that strange when you see female leaders being attacked for their femininity. For example, Sigrid Kaag, who had the most terrible things thrown at her both online and offline, or Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, who was ignored twice as two men stared blankly. This has repercussions for girls and young women around the world. At a certain moment they think “I’ll keep my mouth shut”. We want to break that mechanism at Plan International by supporting young women and giving them a platform. The girls of today are the strong women of tomorrow.’
Do you see the promotion of gender equality as a women’s struggle? Or is there also a task for men?
‘There is definitely a task for men and it is important to start a conversation with girls and boys about equal opportunities and rights from an early age. Engaging children is an essential part of our programs. Gender inequality is a problem for all of us. Men should actively help, for example by confronting each other about their behaviour.’
How do unequal power relations affect girls and young women?
‘In many countries where we work, girls and women cannot decide about their own future. They don’t go to school, they don’t have access to contraceptive methods, to information about sexuality. While these are preconditions for gender equality. Adding to that is the climate crisis, food and water shortages leading to more school dropouts, forced marriages and sexual exploitation. Without equality, but also without climate action, poverty will continue and women will continue to be disadvantaged.’
How does Plan International want to address this inequality?
“One of our programs, in ten countries in Africa and the Middle East, is she leads† That name indicates exactly what we want to achieve with it: the meaningful and effective participation of girls and young women on many different fronts. Empower women to participate in decision-making, so that they can express their opinion. If we can change that in a meaningful way, then we have a chance to achieve gender equality.’
The road to gender equality still seems long. Is there a step forward?
‘A big milestone, for example, is the introduction of a law in the Dominican Republic that criminalizes child marriage. Plan International has lobbied for this for a long time. That gives so much energy and is an inspiration to other women. Not only that, we can collect all the learning points and apply them in other countries. Another step forward, which we have taken thanks to the pandemic, is the application of digital media. Girls and young women can connect with each other online and organize better. At the same time, we must work to improve equitable access to digital media and counter online harassment. If we overcome those barriers, it is a powerful tool and we will take the next step towards gender equality.’
Does International Women’s Day have an extra charge this year?
“My thoughts are of course with Ukraine. For vulnerable citizens. Among the women and children fleeing or in bomb shelters and among the men called to fight. Gender equality should always be a topic of conversation, especially in times like these. Girls and women bear the brunt of crises and are often excluded from negotiations. I don’t care if we call it sensible or feminine leadership. Such leadership makes the world a little more peaceful, I am convinced of that.’