NETHERLANDS: ‘Anti-rights movements are gaining ground, challenging progress towards gender equality’

EvaLiaColomboCIVICUS speaks with Eva Lia Colombo, Project Leader Climate & Gender at WO=MEN Dutch Gender Platform, about the state of the feminist movement in the Netherlands amid the rise of the far right and the cancellation of a feminist march on 10 March.

WO=MEN is the preeminent Dutch platform striving for worldwide gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. It monitors policy, shares knowledge, joins forces and connects and mobilises people.

Why was the 10 March Feminist March cancelled?

To give some context, on the morning of the Feminist March, there was a separate protest. In Amsterdam, people protested against the visit of the Israeli president, who was invited to open the National Holocaust Museum. This led to clashes with the police during the morning march. The Feminist March foundation, which has organised the Feminist March for several years, first postponed the march that day and then later announced its closure as an organisation. This left us without much information. It mentioned on its website that it cancelled the demonstration due to safety concerns after conflicts with the police earlier that day.

Looking ahead, I am unsure about next year’s plans for International Women’s Day. While we may not be officially affiliated with the Feminist March organisation, we joined them each year together with various members of our platform. However, I want to emphasise that the Feminist March is just one of many activities organised by the women’s rights and gender equality movement around International Women’s Day. Our movement remains strong and I think there will always be demonstrations and marches, whether one foundation leads it or there are multiple organisations and initiatives.

What recent achievements has the Dutch feminist movement made? What have been its biggest challenges? 

There are many achievements at the national level, such as the removal of the mandatory five-day period before abortions. This was a requirement to wait five days to reflect on the decision, but that’s no longer compulsory. Additionally, the #MeToo movement in the Netherlands raised awareness about gender equality and inappropriate sexual behaviour. This led to the appointment of a female Commissioner in April 2022 to research and raise awareness about these issues in society.

We are more focused on international policies. One significant achievement I would like to highlight is the implementation of a feminist foreign policy by the Dutch government in 2022. This policy aims to strengthen the rights and positions of women and girls in various international policies, including asylum, climate, defence, development cooperation, migration, peace, security and trade.

The policy is based on four principles: rights, representation, resources and a reality check. It focuses on protecting women’s rights, involving women in policymaking, providing funds for women’s organisations and analysing policies for potential negative impacts on women and girls. It is not just about women but includes other excluded groups and has an intersectional approach. We've published a magazine with evidence-based stories to support this policy.

Dutch civil society has advocated for this policy and WO=MEN has been instrumental in this, by consolidating and coordinating advocacy messages and facilitating consultation sessions among partners and members for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and members of parliament. The government also involved civil society in developing tools to implement the policy.

As a project lead on climate and gender, I also observed how the Netherlands actively promoted inclusiveness and gender equality during the COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates last year and gave visible attention to the link between gender and climate in public social media statements.

Unfortunately, this has not yet led to the integration of gender in many negotiating topics, partly due to the huge pushback on gender from conservative countries. A lot of work needs to be done yet, but these are the small achievements we should celebrate.

In the Netherlands, despite the country being seen as a pioneer in gender equality, anti-rights movements are gaining ground, posing challenges to progress, particularly regarding political participation and issues like abortion. In light of these challenges, it is crucial to continue working toward permanent changes and foster a better understanding of feminism within broader society for systemic change and inclusivity. There is a need for greater gender equality in decision-making  positions to structurally address social norms that perpetuate inequalities.

How do you think conditions for activism, and specifically for feminist activism, will change under a new government resulting from the November election?

I believe that if we end up with a far-right  coalition, it will likely lead to increased polarisation, a shrinking space for civil society and challenges in making progress on gender equality and women’s rights.

One concerning trend already emerging in the Netherlands is the discussion around the right to protest. Amnesty International’s 2022 report highlighted this issue, and recent debates in parliament underscore its importance. For instance, following protests against the visit by the Israeli president, there were calls for a review of the right to protest. This debate was fuelled by claims that protests disrupted official ceremonies, leading to heightened scrutiny of the right to dissent.

Another issue gaining traction in political discourse is the right of organisations to hold the government accountable in the courts. This debate emerged following a legal victory by the organisation Urgenda, which compelled the government to take action on climate change. Conservative parties have questioned the legitimacy of such organisations and their ability to represent public interests, signalling a concerning trend that undermines democratic principles.

These developments are troubling because they erode trust in democracy and the rule of law. The notion that organisations and citizens can challenge government actions through legal means is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Yet there is a growing sentiment that some groups, particularly those critical of the government, should not have the right to hold it accountable.

Additionally, there’s a bureaucratic burden placed on civil society organisations, with increased demands for transparency and accountability in the allocation of funds. This administrative burden detracts from our ability to focus on our core work and raises concerns about ongoing financial support for our initiatives.

We strongly believe in a diverse platform within the feminist movement, which  is resilient and united in the face of these challenges. We are committed to ensuring that gender equality remains a central focus in both policy and practice.

How does WO=MEN connect with the regional and global feminist movements?

We are a platform consisting of members from various Dutch civil society organisations, all working towards women’s rights and gender equality. Our members include gender and women organisations, trade unions, diaspora organisations, international development and peace groups and humanitarian agencies, among others. Our role is to connect these diverse groups, ensuring they work together effectively rather than lobbying independently on separate issues. We facilitate connections between different fields, such as sustainable peace, climate justice  inclusive trade and sustainable support for women human rights defenders.

Our members directly engage with women and girls globally through local partners, translating their concerns into lobbying efforts at the national, European and United Nations (UN) levels. For example, some focus on UN climate negotiations while others work on the Commission on the Status of Women.

We also work on  specific topics. One focuses on advocating for sustainable support for women’s rights activists worldwide, lobbying for funding and protection for excluded groups. We prioritise those facing shrinking space or threats in their regions. We also work within international feminist consortiums, like Count Me In! and Our Voice Our Futures, which focuses on strengthening feminist social movements by supporting structurally excluded women and girls.

We also take part in marches, give lectures, write articles and engage on social media to raise awareness. We strive to amplify the voices of excluded women and girls from the global south in all our activities.

Civic space in the Netherlands is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with WO=MEN through its website or Facebook page, and follow @genderplatform on Twitter and Instagram.



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