Thursday, February 25, 2010

Briefing for the CSW by Aukje de Vries

Preparations for the meeting of the CSW are taking place in many countries and The Netherlands are no exception. My older women’s group, which is a member of the Dutch Women’s Council is invited to a meeting in which members of the Dutch Delegation to the CSW will inform the NGOs about their input into the official meeting and side events.

Our country is a member of the European Union (EU) and since Spain has the Presidency of the EU during the first half of 2010, Spain will speak on behalf of the EU. It is not always easy to reach consensus in Europe and we are told that Malta may want to present its own views. Sexual and reproductive health seems to be a contentious issue.

In the Dutch government the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sciences (OCW) is responsible for emancipation and therefore has the lead in the preparations for the CSW. They coordinate the input from other Ministries.

Several members of the delegation tell us what they want to bring forward in New York.

Reconciliation of work and family life is an important issue. One of our national policy aims is that women are economically independent. Many Dutch women work part time, which means that their husbands are the main breadwinners. It is considered a step forward that many more women than before are active on the labor market, but with part time jobs they are usually not economically independent. There will be more redundancy due to the economic crisis and families with two breadwinners will be less vulnerable.

The Ministry of Health is trying to combat circumcision of women (some migrant girls are prone to being subjected to it, but it is forbidden) and will focus on this. Another issue that the Dutch representatives want to press is that the UN women’s entity be established soon.

Women’s issues will also be dealt with in ECOSOC (the UN’s Economic and Social Council), and we are also informed about the activities that will take place in the ECOSOC context.

Apart from the official meetings there will be many side events during the CSW. We are told there may be as many as close to 200. The Netherlands will take part in at least three: one on unwanted pregnancy, one on lesbian, bisexual and transgender women and one on financing women’s organizations.

It is a tradition in The Netherlands that the government subsidizes NGOs of various kinds, although, since 1961when I started to work in the NGO sector, I have seen many changes. At present the government is considerably less generous than it used to be in the sixties. I am glad to hear that the official delegation speaks out in favor of continuing to support NGOs.

The Dutch Women’s organizations have prepared a paper with 12 recommendations and their content is the next item on the agenda. The members of the government delegation are ready to support most of them.

These recommendations include one about governments supporting women’s organizations focusing specifically on women’s rights and empowerment. The women’s organizations are in favor of a different attitude towards women: too often they are considered as victims. They ought to be considered as actors, as agents of change. This does not only hold for developed countries but more specifically for developing countries. Gender is a priority in Dutch development policies. Women’s rights should be protected, especially in (post) conflict areas.

At the end of the meeting we heard good news from the Ministry: next year there will be a representative of the NGOs included in the Dutch delegation. This decision represents an official recognition of women’s organizations.

Question: Are NGOs in your country subsidized by the government? Do you think it is a good idea to subsidize them?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Housing by Aukje de Vries

I live in a neighbourhood where most houses were built in the nineteen twenties and thirties, but occasionally new houses or apartments are built. The latest project consists of apartments on the grounds of the nearby hospital. Until recently there was a home there for retired deaconesses, who had worked for the hospital. It was a friendly looking building and it had a small chapel with a green cupola. But as the deaconesses died, one after the other, the home was taken down. The hospital wanted to make more money on its grounds so it had these apartments built. On Saturday there is an open house and we can view one of them. Esther and I go there. Not because we want to rent it, but just because we like to see it. We are not disappointed. It is a spacious 3 bedroom apartment. It is furnished and has an open kitchen with the newest gadgets. The houses on the opposite side of the street are not too close and in the back the view of the hospital and its parking is reasonable. I think I could be happy living there, but it is a good thing we are contented with the house where we live, because these apartments are completely unaffordable for us.

Newly built apartments and condo’s are generally very expensive, as I also hear from friends in other cities. My seniors’ organization is actively trying to influence policy makers to build more suitable housing for seniors. Many older people live in larger houses than they need; they want to move to a smaller house or apartment but can’t find such housing is at affordable prices.

A few years ago, when I realized I had to start remodeling and refurbishing the house where I had lived for 30 years, I looked for an apartment, slightly smaller than the house I have now and where it would be easier to stay, in case I became dependent. But I didn’t find anything suitable and affordable.

In the end I decided to start remodeling my present house. Having made investments in it, I might as well stay here as long as I can. Another consideration keeps me here: I have a neighbor, Esther, who has become a very good friend over the years. Further down the street there are two other friends my age (Liz and Jacqui) who also live alone. We see each other from time to time over a cup of tea. We have the implicit understanding that we can call on each other when we need help. Their presence certainly has influenced my decision to stay in the house where I have lived so long.

Question: Do you want to move as you get older and if so, what kind of housing are you looking for? Or, if you stay where you are, what keeps you there?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Local Elections by Aukje de Vries

In a few weeks we will have local elections in the Netherlands. In the local setting we have chapters of most national parties but usually there are also parties that focus on local issues. The chapters of the national parties are often rate on the basis of what their party is doing nationally. Although our municipalities, over the last few decades, have accumulated many more responsibilities, citizens seem to be less interested in local than in national elections.

The organizations of older people in The Hague usually organize a debate with representatives from the major parties around important senior issues.

To be honest, I know little about what is going on in local politics in The Hague.

Major issues revolve around road construction, new buildings, urban renovation and the like. As long as they do not take place in my neighbourhood, I am not very interested. Wellbeing and some parts of long-term care are also among the responsibilities of the city. But I have not yet taken the time to find out what exactly the municipality is doing. It is fairly recent that new responsibilities were decentralized to local government. Maybe the debate will enlighten me about local politics. I still don’t know for which party I will vote.

I get there a bit late and the room is packed! Fortunately there are still a few chairs available.

It is not what I had expected. The representatives of the parties are not asked to present their programmes. Instead, the four seniors’ organizations, which are active in The Hague, begin with a presentation. They have noticed that the programmes of the various political parties pay very little attention to older persons. The group gives an overview of what older people want and expect that the parties will take their ideas into account.

After this overview each subject is dealt with separately. One representative elaborates on one of the aforementioned issues, The politicians are asked to respond. It is a lively debateand the audience can ask questions.

Politicians are careful. They don’t make many promises, but the event makes clear to them that they cannot forget older people. Seniors are an important part of their electorate.

From the discussion it emerges that there are two issues that especially seem important to the people in the hall. In this country there are many legally established procedures by which citizens have the right to be heard about issues that affect them. It turns out that many of those present have experiences with aldermen presenting a plan and telling the people: this is the plan and we are going to carry it out, regardless of what you say. People strongly dislike this behavior. There are practical suggestions as well. For instance, there is one lady with a handicap who is on a panel that is supposed to test road safety for handicapped people. She says that her panel ought to be heard before a reconstruction project is begun and after is is completed. The group politicians is to listen more to the citizens.

Many people spoke up about safety in the neighbourhood where they live. One lady told how she was robbed, the moment she tried to enter her house. Obviously there are many more people who feel unsafe where they live.The second outcome is that politicians should do more to ensure safety in living quarters and on the streets. I am impressed how well the event has been prepared. It has been nice to hear some of our prospective town council members. But I still do not know which party to vote for.

Question: How important is the issue of safety near your home for you? Should this be high on the political agenda or do you think some other local issue is more important?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Art for Refugees in Transition : an International Example of Intergenerational Solidarity by Magali Girod

“Putting words onto feelings is difficult. Not everybody needs to or can talk about traumatic experiences,” said Sara Green, a Columbia graduate and former professional dancer, as we started discussing A.R.T. She believes that art in many forms can help people express themselves and rebuild their confidence. That’s how Art for Refugees in Transition (A.R.T.) started in 1999.

When refugees flee the dangers surrounding their homes for safer grounds in a camp, they leave behind all their belongings along with items that remind them of their culture. Children as well as parents and grandparents show fear and hopelessness on their faces in these situations.

Humanitarian organizations give priority to food, water and shelter when refugees arrive in camps. Preserving culture is not a priority when refugees arrive in camps. Nevertheless, rebuilding community in the camps helps when refugees must return to their homes or adapt to a completely new environment.

A.R.T. partnered with the International Rescue Committee in 2003 in two Burmese refugee camps in Thailand where Sara worked to implement A.R.T.’s pilot program. She decided to link generations together through art and culture. When she arrived in the refugee camp, Sara noticed that older persons were isolated and left out. She invited the older refugees to gather and share their stories. More than a hundred responded.

Older Burmese refugees in Thailand gatered to share ideas with Sara Green, A.R.T.’s Executive Director.

Older Burmese women in the refugee camp.

Sara asked the older persons present what they wanted to share. For a few minutes, the room remained quiet and everyone seemed curious about of what would happen next. Suddenly, a 60 year old Burmese women started singing. Burmese people sing traditional songs as they walk through paddies to plant rice. Singing helps them keep going. Many women carried a child or grandchild on their backs as they sang, teaching the words and notes at the same time. Upon their arrival and subsequent life in the refugee camps, this routine disappeared as the refugees stopped singing. Sara understood very quickly that the older Burmese refugees wanted to share their traditional songs and pass them along to younger generations. In response, the A.R.T. program connected younger and older generations. The program succeeded and the whole community became involved in a song festival. A.R.T. succeeded in renewing hope among the refugees living in the camp.

Older Burmese women singing during the meeting.

Burmese Children during the festival.

Following her Thai experience, Sara created a flexible, self-sustainable program in Colombia and in the US in several refugee communities. Using a bottom-up approach, Sara has found success in different locations. The older refugees create an inter-generational program as they collaborate with children, each according to their own tradition. A.R.T. simply makes the project possible. Many times, family members get separated during emergency situations. Once they are in a camp, this cultural program helps them reunite and learn from one another. Refugees learn that they can rebuild a community and give hope to older persons and children in a new and foreign environment.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Neighbourly Help by Aukje de Vries

A few days ago I came home from a walk and saw on the other side of the street a lady who lives on the nearest crossing street, not far from my house. She has lived in this neigbourhood at least as long as I, but we were never formally introduced. I do not even know her name or her house number, but when we see each other we always say hello.

So she did this time, but she hesitated and then crossed the street. She said: “As I was ironing and looked out of the window the other day, when the street was very slippery, I saw you go out, cross the street halfway and then go back. I wondered whether you needed to do your shopping but did not dare go any further because it was too dangerous. Actually while I was ironing I saw a lot of people fall, maybe as many as 18 in just a brief span of time.”

And I said: “Oh how nice of you to think of that, I really appreciate it. But I remember the occasion: I only went back to get my iron contraptions (sorry, I don’t know the proper word in English and it is one of those words you don’t find in an ordinary dictionary) to put under my shoes so I wouldn’t fall.” I told her that I had done a lot of shopping the day before it got so slippery, because I had heard the bad weather forecast and had wanted to be prepared. I again expressed my appreciation of her thoughtfulness and went into the house.

Later that day Esther and I talked to each other and I told her about the event. Same reaction: Esther, too, said: “How nice of her”. But then I started to think. Suppose I really had needed to do some shopping…. It was nice that my neighbour had the awareness that I might have a problem, but without her actually offering any help, my shopping would not get done. Probably she did not know my name like I didn’t know hers, so she couldn’t look up my phone number but she could have seen from her window which house I went into, so if she had really wanted to help she could have come to my door.

Her awareness of a possible problem was a good first step, but why not the second step: actually offering help?

Next time I see her I’ll properly introduce myself and tell her that I will be glad to get her phone call when the streets are slippery again.

Question: Do you offer help to your neighbours when you think they need it, or, in case you are in a position to receive help, do you want to accept it? What is your reaction to an offer of help?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Questionnaires by Aukje de Vries

At least once a week I receive a questionnaire. It seems as if every agency - both for profit and not for profit - wants its relations to evaluate its products, services or whatever with a questionnaire. The senders always assure us: it will only take two minutes to fill it out! What a lousy questionnaire that must be.

I have noticed over time there is a pattern in my annoyance.

Questionnaires ask questions about topics about which I have no opinion. If it is an electronic questionnaire I have to answer these questions and make a choice out of several possibilities or else I cannot go to the next question. The choices I make in these cases do not represent my opinion.

A second possibility is that the questions relate to items about which I do have an opinion, but what I really think is quite often not among the proposed answers. It occurs only too often that here too I am forced to give an answer, which is not really what I think.

A third annoyance is that quite often there are other factors that have a decisive influence on my opinion about the product or service that are not in the questionnaire at all. Sometimes there is a space for remarks, but I have the impression they are seldom recorded, because the answers are dealt with electronically.

The sender, using my response, may believe that he deals with a true judgment but what he has got, has little to do with it.

Still companies and organizations use such responses as the basis for important decisions.

Conclusion: it is a nuisance to receive and fill out such questionnaires and the answers don’t provide the sender with valid information.

Some time ago I decided to boycott all questionnaires as a matter of principle and to inform senders about my objections. Sometimes I get a nice reaction, especially when I also give a more detailed opinion about the product or service, but more often I hear nothing.

Just recently I received a questionnaire (a real simple one, too simple as a matter of fact) from a European organisation, which receives a subsidy from the European Commission (EC). The EC requires the recipients of subsidies to provide certain data. I realized that not answering the questionnaire would work against this organisation, and because I like the organisation I let go of my principles and gave positive answers about issues that didn’t apply to me.

I wrote an accompanying message stating my objections with a copy to all others who received the questionnaire and I got a lot of positive replies.
The organisation will inform the EC of our objections to questionnaires (but it is doubtful whether the EC will listen).

I believe it is time to stop the hype that such poorly designed questionnaires, providing decision makers with faulty information, are necessary for the management of any self-respecting agency! They are a waste of time and money.

P.S. I was trained as sociologist so I don’t object to good questionnaires, used wisely!

Question: Do you believe that we should take action against the abundance of poorly designed questionnaires?