The R for Reality Check: feminist realism for the new
BHOS policy paper
In the new Dutch policy paper on Foreign Trade and
Development Cooperation (referred to after this by its Dutch acronym BHOS), the
Cabinet is choosing to ‘Do What The Netherlands Is Good At’. Rightfully so.
Worldwide, the Netherlands is at the forefront of gender equality and women’s
rights. WO=MEN Dutch Gender Platform is pleased that these are once again
integrated in the BHOS policy.
The policy paper outlines certain priorities where the
Netherlands has built up expertise and experience in recent years. One of these
is investing in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Others are
Dutch investments in women’s and local leadership, support to women entrepreneurs,
and the protection of women’s human rights defenders online and offline. It is
good to see that these issues are prioritised.
Some of the BHOS policy contents appear to be framed
by a Feminist Foreign Policy, as previously announced last May. As is the
case of Sweden, the Dutch Cabinet is designing the BHOS policy with four Rs in
mind: Rights (protect women’s rights), Resources (funds must also be used for
women), Representation (women must be included in policy-making and
implementation), and Reality Check (no unwanted negative effects for women).
These four Rs give the Cabinet the means to systematically include
gender equality and women’s rights in all BHOS policy. But the reality is that
these means are not yet systematically rolled out. We therefore call on the
Cabinet to up its ambitions and grab the opportunities that now arise with both
The R for Reality Check
Looking at the BHOS policy paper from a feminist perspective, a few
issues jump out.
= A feminist BHOS policy needs a human rights approach
and policy coherence
The Cabinet is opting for a feminist foreign policy ‘because women and
LGBTIQ+- people have the same rights as men, and must have equal
opportunities’. And rightly so. A human rights approach must be at the heart of
a solid feminist BHOS policy.
The Cabinet is addressing this in parts of the policy.
It will put its efforts in the civil space of organisations and the protection
of women’s human rights defenders. However, continuity is lacking. The Cabinet will
work on conflict prevention and long lasting peace but it is not aligned with
existing (financial) commitments about the empowerment and
rights of women and girls in these processes. No reference whatsoever is made
to the fourth National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (NAP 1325-IV)
in which the Cabinet works with civil society partners on inclusive peace and
In addition, the trade and investment policy lacks a human rights
approach. A gender responsive due diligence requirement for companies would be
logical. This would mean that in every step of their due diligence process, companies would need
to consider the potential different effects of their operations on women and
men. In International Corporate Social Responsibility (ICSR) legislation, in
the current criteria for companies that want to use the private
sector tools and that want to join trade missions. Women are now primarily referred
to as added value for the Netherlands’ economic benefit.
The reality is that gender equality and women’s rights will drop off the
agenda if they are merely considered a positive side effect or a tool to reach
other goals. This was evident when the COVID-19 crisis broke out. We also saw
this in the political coups such as in Sudan and Myanmar where women and young
people who went out on the streets demanding change but were then sidelined.
Instead of being an integral part of policy, gender equality became a side
issue: ‘not right now’.
Demonstrate the intention to uphold the four Rs and
include them consistently in all BHOS policy and implementation. Reflect
existing financial and other commitments like the NAP 1325-IV. Work towards a
gender responsive due diligence requirement for companies.Be a daring
donor and invest in sexual and reproductive health and rights. Always use a
coherent human rights approach and avoid using women’s rights merely as an
instrument for other purposes.
= Supporting women leaders in fragile contexts and
crises requires guts and leadership
The Netherlands is supporting local and women’s leadership in fragile
and politically unstable contexts. This is admirable as it takes guts and
leadership. In all their diversity, local women and youth (particularly girls)
leaders and human rights defenders are fighting for an equal share of power,
the right to self-determination, a place at the negotiating table, land rights,
access to emergency support and so on. They are questioning old power
structures and traditions. They work in volatile circumstances and continuously
face resistance. The Cabinet is supporting their work, and rightly so. In the
long term it will help the world become more just and peaceful.
In stark contrast to this boldness and leadership, is its tendency
towards increased risk management. The development cooperation sector is one of
the most heavily controlled sectors in the country. Yet, the Cabinet is pushing
for more elaborate due diligence and increased oversight of project
implementation, as well as for modular programming. This may involve pausing or
ending parts of a programme if a conflict or crisis arises to divert the budget
to other activities.
Any malpractice in the sector must of course be dealt with firmly. But
the reality is that increasing regulatory pressure and the lack of flexible
core funding is making the work and ownership of local women’s rights
organisations impossible. Women and young community leaders and human rights
defenders are already constantly adapting. They are the ones who best know their
context, the dangers and the opportunities. They need to be able to quickly
adapt to societal and political developments in order to do their work
effectively. The lack of flexible core funding, whereby organisations
themselves can decide how to use their funding, the sudden termination of
(some of) the support, and the ignoring of serious risks assessments that they
themselves make, all undermine local ownership and leadership in all areas.
Give real space to women and local leadership. Dare to
invest on the basis of the reality of local women leaders and human rights
defenders in all their diversity. Take risk mitigation measures on the basis of
analyses by local and Dutch civil society. Dare to continue investing in women
and local leadership even when crises or conflicts arise.
= The commitment to digitisation requires recognising
and acknowledging the digital divide
In its foreign trade agenda, the Cabinet expresses strong commitment to
the digital transition. This is a logical and useful objective as it generates
a lot of opportunities. Civil society organisations saw this too during the
COVID-19 pandemic. They were able to stay in touch with local partners through
online platforms and apps, important information could be shared, and services
could continue. Online platforms are also often the life blood of women human
rights defenders. Retaining access to these platforms is critical. So it is
only right that the Cabinet also commits to the online protection of defenders.
At the same time, the reality is that women and girls themselves are the
ones with insufficient access to digital resources. Fewer
women and girls have their own mobile telephones, laptops, subscriptions,
internet connections or access to WiFi than men and boys. Fewer women and girls
are sufficiently trained to use digital resources than men and boys. This mostly
applies to women and girls in rural areas and to women with auditory and/or
visual disabilities. Simply supporting digitisation without considering these
differences between women, girls, men and boys in all their diversity can
increase gender inequality. Furthermore, it is crucial that greater attention
is paid to privacy rights, especially those of people in vulnerable positions,
during the digital transition.
Invest in equal access to and knowledge of digital
resources as a precondition for the digital transition.
= Take the intersection between gender and factors such
as age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental or physical disabilities,
religion and socio-economic class into account.
In the BHOS policy paper, the Cabinet expresses its intention that women
and LGBTIQ+- people have the same rights and opportunities as men. The reality
is that apart from gender, factors such as age, ethnicity, sexual orientation,
mental or physical disabilities, religion and socio-economic class make a
significant difference in people’s rights and opportunities.
Girls who are human rights defenders in Colombia and Kenya are not
recognised by governments as political actors. So they are not heard in the UN spaces
dealing with human rights abuses. Indigenous women who fight to keep their land
and natural resources face the same issue. As do local women farmers who are
often disproportionately affected by climate change and biodiversity loss. They
are not heard by the relevant policy-makers because of their ethnicity or socio
economic status. Women workers in the informal sector who earn their money as
sex workers, cleaners or market sellers fell by the wayside in COVID-19
measures. People with disabilities, including a relatively high proportion of
women and elderly people, have less access to emergency aid as a matter of
course. Transgender people face severe discrimination in refugee camps.
When designing and implementing policy, always consider
the intersection of gender and other factors that impact people’s equal rights
WO=MEN encourages the Cabinet and invites the Minister to carry out the
realistic feminism opportunities mentioned above with our members and partners.
About WO=MEN WO=MEN Dutch
Gender Platform is the Dutch network of women’s rights, diaspora and development
cooperation organisations, entrepreneurs, soldiers, academics and activists who
work for gender equality and women’s rights worldwide. WO=MEN is the biggest
network in Europe in this area. For more information see www.wo-men.nl