blog post | 24-11-2021 | Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Violence against women and girls is a significant problem. Both in the Netherlands and abroad. Globally, one in three women experience physical or sexual violence. The Netherlands is committed to preventing and combating gender-based violence throughout the world. Youth Ambassador Laura Bas discussed this with Prof. Dr. Renée Römkens, Professor Emeritus at the University of Amsterdam, who specializes in gender-based violence. “If this had been a medical condition, alarm bells would have been going off by now.”
Renée works as a researcher in the field of violence against women. Laura is the Youth Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Gender Equality and Choice, at Foreign Affairs and Choice for Youth and Sexuality. “I myself grew up without a biological father, with a mother who kept working for four days. As a child I already noticed that there was a stigma about it,’ says Laura. “Now, at the age of 25, I notice that not much has changed.” Renée acknowledges this problem. According to her, the gap between science and society is very large in this area: ‘the knowledge that is available does not seem to penetrate’.
More than violence against women
Renée defines gender violence as the violent treatment of people who do not adhere to habitual and traditional behavior that is linked to femininity and masculinity. ‘In practice, it is very often women and girls, because they are the ones who experience most of the violence.’ When the term gender-based violence was launched at the United Nations, the term was synonymous with violence against women. Violence does not only affect women. Men, especially homosexuals, also have to deal with this problem.
Gender-based violence takes many forms, including domestic violence, sexual violence, genital mutilation, human trafficking, child marriage, and economic and psychological violence. It is about more than violence in the strict sense. ‘It’s also about the role of women, from a social and cultural point of view. That is what violence aims at: to keep women in their place, subordinate to men’.
Men also suffer gender-based violence, according to Laura. ‘The difference is that men don’t dare to talk about it, because they have to meet masculine standards. You often see that if a child is bullied and tells this at home, his parents tell him that he has to hit back. These are behaviors with which we maintain this system. I think we can use sex education to teach kids that vulnerability is good and break down these kinds of gender stereotypes.”
In it, images of naked women are shared in groups that sometimes include 50,000 men. The sad thing is that these men are not aware of any harm.
Cyberviolence is another form of gender-based violence that is on the rise: online harassment and threats. This form is primarily aimed at women, but children are also increasingly experiencing it. The forms of violence are expanding. In that sense, there is no reason for optimism, according to Renée. ‘The increase in public debate and the growth of national and international measures against this problem have not translated into a decrease in violence.
The fact that online bullying is a major problem is evident in the Expo groups on Telegram, for example, Laura continues. In it, images of naked women are shared in groups that sometimes include 50,000 men. The sad thing is that these men are not aware of any harm. They think it’s part of it and that it’s the victims’ own fault, because they were naked in the photo.’ However, such photos are submitted in good faith or often under duress. That shows the seriousness of the problem. People are not aware of the consequences.
Renée mentions some shocking figures. “If we look at gender-based violence as a whole, at least half of women will experience one or more forms of it in their lives.” This also applies within the Netherlands and Europe. ‘Domestic violence is the most common form, with at least a third of women worldwide experiencing it. This is an average, because there are also countries where it falls. Sexual violence is also a significant problem. Figures show that between a third and a half of women, depending on the definition, experience this. The term pandemic is appropriate here.’
If this had been a medical condition, alarm bells would have been ringing long ago. After all, it costs us thousands of lives every year. And that is if we only look at the most severe forms. Attention is also being drawn to this from the United Nations. UN chief Guterres called it a shadow pandemic in the context of COVID-19. “Fortunately, our prime minister heard this and emphasized on the international stage that this is a serious problem and should receive more attention.”
There is a debate about who should take on the task of sex education. For example, some people think that it is a parental task. Laura disagrees with that. ‘Parents themselves and other family members do not always have the right knowledge. As a result, they hold certain prejudices. As a government, you also have an obligation to ensure that young people are prepared. You can only regulate that properly by controlling the flow of information.’
For this reason, one of Laura’s spearheads is to advocate for good sexual education, comprehensive sexual education. Ella ‘ella also examines how people relate to each other and how we deal with the desires and limits of ourselves and others. We often wrongly teach boys at a young age that it is tough and masculine to stand up for yourself. Therefore, a good sex education can help against this.’
What role does the government have in this? Renée finds a clear starting point in the Istanbul Convention. This is an important international human rights treaty, which the Netherlands has also signed and advised, aimed at the prevention of gender violence, particularly against women. ‘What is emphasized in this is that the government has significant control over education. The Netherlands can make a profit there. That is what I wholeheartedly support: that it becomes one of the central goals of Dutch education.”
Finally, looking at Laura’s generation, Renée is optimistic about using social media to draw attention to this issue effectively. In her work as a youth ambassador, Laura is very active on social media. ‘I notice that many young people want to make her voice heard. You see that with Greta Thunberg, for example. That’s why I’m so glad we’re having a duet interview. I am convinced that we, as a new generation, can only bring about change if we have the support of the previous generation with all their knowledge.’ Renee agrees. ‘The point is that the next generation will also carry the theme with them and want to do better. So I’m very happy with the passion with which you talk about this.’