Rutgers Dialogue 2019: A battle fought on many fronts

The attacks on sexuality. That is the theme of the Johannes Rutgers Dialogue 2019. Which attacks are they? There are actually many of them, interconnected in unexpected and complex ways.

Rutgers’ CEO Ton Coenen kicked off the afternoon’s proceedings with three examples that immediately put today’s theme into perspective. In Uganda, the battle is raging for sexual education in schools. At the UN, this year’s Women Activists’ Summit was impeded by the United States, the Vatican and various Islamic nations. After all, the right to abortion is still disputed in numerous countries. In Kenya, safe abortion is being thwarted by anti-abortion lobbyists, while increasing numbers of opponents are finding a voice even in the Netherlands.

I want to do justice to the complexity of abortion. We need to discuss the matter at length.

A common thread in all these examples is the challenge of making accurate information available. Which voices are heard and how informed are they? Action is crucial and, as a champion of sexual and reproductive rights, the Netherlands can and has to assume a role, Ton admitted.

Not handled with kid gloves

The pressure on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) is related to conservatism and populism, sociologist David Paternotte (Université Libre Brussels) explained. One way out is to avoid binary contradictions and knowledge about who the actors and financiers are. Moreover, it is important to take this opposition seriously.

Journalist Daan Borrel took a closer look at the typical Dutch woman. Does she actually exist? Of course not, although there are certainly people who would have us believe the contrary. And it is therefore a complex issue to describe the effect that the right to abortion has on her life. In all her guises and walks of life. ‘It would appear that everything to do with the womb always has to be handled with kid gloves,’ Daan Borrel said. ‘Abortion is not a matter of right or wrong, but rather a loaded, complex, layered and emotional issue. I want to do justice to that complexity. We need to discuss the matter at length.’

Women are not a branch of industry. We are fifty percent of the world’s population.

Sigrid Kaag, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, has a mission: to emphasise once again the importance of women’s rights. ‘Women are under attack,’ she said, ‘even in Europe. What have we achieved, if you view it from that perspective? Are women’s rights on the decline? A great deal has been achieved in the past 150 years. The Netherlands celebrates the centenary of women’s suffrage this year. Things seem to be going so well, although I would add: we have still not had a female prime minister in the Netherlands.’ Various statistics give reason for optimism. A steady decline in the incidence of unwanted pregnancy and the liberalisation of abortion legislation, for example.’

Fifty percent

For more than a century, women have been fighting for equal rights and opportunities, for sexual freedom and self-determination. All over the world. And successfully, too. The Netherlands still has an exemplary role to play, according to Mrs Kaag. Our country has contributed in many ways, financially and diplomatically, and together with partners such as Rutgers. The Netherlands also advocates policy which has proven so beneficial in our own country on the international front.

There are nevertheless also concerns. Women’s rights are still under pressure. ‘A female journalist or politician comes under attack every thirty seconds on Twitter. I therefore appeal to – no, urge – all of you to commit yourselves fully to the women’s rights agenda. Not reactively, but actively. We need to cooperate more closely, we need to work even faster, we need to scale things up. We have to tackle the counter pressure in a smart way. We are involved in this together. We are not opposing anything or anyone. Rather, we are in favour of something. In favour of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Women are not a sector of industry. We are fifty percent of the world’s population.’

How should we conclude a day like this? With action! We are engaged in dialogue this afternoon. The online tool known as Menti enabled visitors to converse with the speakers, and following the Minister’s speech, three of them mounted a soapbox to point out what civil society can do. Brenda Bartelink (University of Groningen), Joyce Hamilton (COC Netherlands) and Floortje van der Plas (SheDecides) argued in favour of inclusive language, solidarity, alliances and liaison, in favour of wearing bow ties, sharing personal stories (on Instagram or in podcasts) and cooperation.

And spoken word artist Naomi Veldwijk summed the day up, rhythmically and with an abundance of battle metaphors. ‘The message is clear: we all have a role to play. Both today and every day that follows.’