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11 July 2006

On 11 July 2006, Yakin Ertürk, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on violence against women, its causes and consequences issued the following press statement:

“I would like to thank the Dutch Government for inviting me to undertake an official fact-finding mission on the situation of violence against women in the Netherlands. During the course of my mission, I have visited The Hague, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht as well as the Asylum-Seeker Return Center in Leersum. I held consultations with national and local authorities, independent experts, women’s organizations and other civil society actors, and would like to thank them all for sharing their time and experience with me.

In its foreign policy and within the United Nations, the Netherlands has long been a champion of gender equality and the human rights of women. All developed countries have committed themselves to provide official development assistance equivalent to at least 0.7% of their gross domestic product (GDP). With its official development assistance standing at about 0.8% of GDP, the Netherlands is one of the few developed countries to consistently adhere to this international commitment and it is particularly commendable that women’s rights, particularly women’s sexual and reproductive rights, constitute a key component of Dutch development cooperation. The Netherlands’ support for the upcoming report of the Secretary General on violence against women is also most praiseworthy.

Since 1974, the Dutch Government has also pursued an active policy for women’s emancipation in the Netherlands, which foresaw the introduction of specific measures to empower women and eradicate gender inequality. Today the emphasis in the emancipation policy has shifted predominantly to gender mainstreaming (i.e. the integration of gender concerns to the work of all government institutions) accompanied by a preference for decentralized governance (i.e. delegation of key public policy issues to local governments). This shift appears to be motivated by an understanding that the emancipation of Dutch women has been by and large completed. Persisting inequalities between women and men in the labour market, for instance, are often viewed as a consequence of the part-time work pattern that women are perceived to prefer, rather than as a result of structural obstacles such as non-availability of public child care, school hours and the persistence of a gender ideology that prioritizes women’s reproductive role, which may all pose limits on women’s options. Gender inequality issues are increasingly associated with immigrant women and defined as an integration problem.

Within this context, an overarching policy framework on violence against women as a distinct socio-historic category emanating from unequal power relations between women and men is missing. The issue is instead catalogued into specific gender neutral categories of violence coordinated by the Ministry of Justice with a focus on the criminal dimensions of the problem. Domestic violence, for instance, is defined as a problem encountered in the private sphere by men, women and children alike, overlooking the fact that more than 80% of the victims are women who experience violence due to gender specific discrimination. The disassociation of violence against women from the general emancipation and human rights framework and the lack of a strong coordinating national machinery inherently limits the overall effectiveness of the many excellent initiatives and practices that have been put in place at the national and local level.

I would also like to briefly comment on the Dutch policy on trafficking and prostitution. In 2000, the Government lifted the ban on brothels and entrusted the municipalities with the task of regulating the sex sector in order to make violence and exploitation more easily detectable. Over the last six years, the instruments and procedures to combat all forms of trafficking, forced prostitution and prostitution of minors have become much more sophisticated. Many new measures have been put in place. Observers consider that women in the regulated sector of the sex industry are now better protected than they were before the legal reforms. On the other hand, there are reports of women shifting from the regulated sex sector into illegal circuits that are hard to monitor, barely regulated and more dangerous. Social stigma of women in prostitution persists. Therefore, it is necessary on the one hand to support the empowerment of women to enable them to transform the sex sector, and on the other hand to focus on changing stereotypical perceptions of male and female sexuality that underlie gender specific discrimination and violence.

I also have some concerns related to the stringent procedures on asylum-seekers, which have been introduced in 2001. The introduction of a 48-hours Accelerated Asylum Determination Procedure, which is initiated immediately upon arrival, has not only reduced the number of asylum-seekers without a valid claim, but the number of genuine refugees seeking protection in the Netherlands has also dropped. The procedure is particularly problematic with regard to women who fail to make reference to traumatic instances of persecution such as rape during the initial interviews. They will be precluded from pursuing their asylum claim, unless they can positively demonstrate that their very trauma prevented them from relating their persecution experience to the authorities. The worrisome reports of suicides and missing persons, especially minors, in return centres for rejected asylum-seekers also require urgent attention. In the context of my mandate, I am particularly concerned about the disappearance of minor girls, who may find themselves in situations of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Last but not least, I would like to recall that in combating violence against women international law calls on states to use due diligence to prevent, protect, prosecute and provide compensation. Such an obligation can only be met within a holistic approach to gender equality, with a view to transforming unequal gender hierarchies. Such an approach must pay special attention to women who may face multiple discrimination, such as immigrant and refugee women or trafficked women, and must ensure that the rights regime is fully upheld when formulating measures of integration, anti-trafficking and immigration control. In this regard, ratification of all regional and international human rights instruments including the United Nations Convention on the Human Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families, which the Netherlands has yet to sign and ratify, can enhance the capacity of the State in its efforts to build an equal and integrated society. “