Living in interesting times: one year in the life of Oxfam’s Women’s Rights Director

Nikki van der Gaag looks back on her first year as Oxfam’s Gender Justice and Women’s Rights Director.Nikki-van-der-Gaag (1)

‘May you live in interesting times’ is a Chinese saying that could equally be a promise or a curse. In the past decade, there can’t have been many more interesting times to be working on women’s rights and gender justice.

I began my new post three months after the murder of female MP Jo Cox in the UK, and almost exactly two months before the surprise election of President Donald Trump on November 8. All over the world, the past 12 months have seen rising right-wing populisms and religious fundamentalisms threatening the rights that women have fought for over many decades.

One of Trump’s first acts in post was to sign an executive order to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, restricting US funding for any family planning programmes connected to abortion, and then extending this to all global health funding. This amounts to almost $9 billion, 15 times more than any earlier rulings. It is already having devastating impacts on women’s lives.

In February 2017, President Putin’s Government in Russia passed an amendment decriminalising many forms of domestic violence. ‘Moderate’ violence within families is now an administrative, not a criminal offence, which means that unless bones are broken, the perpetrator will only get a fine or a maximum of 15 days in prison – unless this happens more than once a year. This in a country where estimates are that a woman dies every 40 minutes from domestic abuse.

Three weeks later, on February 27, the Government in Bangladesh passed a law which allows marriage under the age 18 (which is otherwise illegal) to take place in “special circumstances – that is, with parental consent and with permission from the courts, deemed in the “best interest of the underage female or male”. The child’s consent is not required. Bangladesh still has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.

Women's_March_(VOA)_11In addition, funding to women’s rights organisations has fallen by more than half over the past five years from donors, despite recent studies suggesting that the work of such groups brings the greatest long-term improvement to women’s lives.

So in many ways it has been an unprecedentedly depressing year for women’s rights. But the reaction to these events has also been unprecedented – and uplifting.

In January, Trump’s actions galvanised Women’s Marches all over the world. Many thousands (actually, millions) came together in solidarity and with humour to stand up for women’s rights. And in July a Family Planning Summit in London,pledged $5 billion  to try to fill some of the funding gap caused by the Global Gag rule.

This August, in Lebanon, laws which allowed for rapists to go unpunished if they married their victims were scrapped amid much celebration by women’s rights activists and their supporters. This followed the revoking of similar laws in Jordan and Tunisia.

The campaign in Lebanon by Abaad, a gender justice organisation, included billboards of women in wedding dresses that were bloodied and torn with the caption: “A white dress doesn’t cover up rape,” and wedding dresses hung from a noose, on Beirut’s seafront. But campaigning will continue as the rape clause will still apply if the victim is underage.

Campaigning for gender justice and women’s rights increasingly involves not only women and women’s rights Lebanon early marriage campaignorganisations, but men as well. In May, I spoke in Belgrade at the launch of the second global State of the World’s Fathers report, published by the MenCare campaign, which argued that gender equality will never be achieved unless men are involved, including sharing the paid and unpaid care work equally with women.

New alliances are being built, new forms of resistance invented. Oxfam, and other international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), have many years of experience of working with some of the most extraordinary women and women’s and gender justice organisations around the world.

There are three main things that INGOs can do to resist these threats, build alliances – and making sure one day gender equality becomes the norm in every single country:

First, ensure that feminist, women’s rights and gender justice organisations get the funding they need for this resistance. A review by the Association of Women’s Rights in Development showed clearly that money for such organisations is shrinking rather than growing.

Second, use INGOs’ size and reach to support feminist movement-building and increase the visibility and power of gender justice work. This needs to be done with care, so that they support rather than swamp, and ensure that their relative size is a help and not a hindrance. It also means being humbler in their claims about what they as individual organisations can contribute. No one INGO has the monopoly on what’s important for gender justice. Those in INGOs need to listen to Southern organisations and partners and to feminists from the Global South so that their agendas are truly driven by those they claim to serve.

Last but not least, they need to reflect more on their own practice, ensuring that they put their own houses in order, acknowledging and addressing sexism and gender inequity in all that they do.

These are challenging times. The coming year is likely to continue to be ‘interesting’ for women’s rights and gender justice.  But I take heart from another saying, this time an African proverb: ‘When you go alone, you go fast, but when you go together, you go far.’

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3 Responses to “Living in interesting times: one year in the life of Oxfam’s Women’s Rights Director”
  1. Priyanthi

    Congratulations Nikki van der Gaag on your interesting year at OXFAM and thank you for highlighting the challenges and the opportunities for women’s rights – from the negative impact of right wing and religious extremisms to diminishing spaces and funds for women’s rights advocacy, but also the positive energy created by women coming together for the Women’s marches and at a national level like in Lebanon. Just want to flag that alongside these more visible activities, there are 23 independent women’s human rights experts working quietly but firmly to hold governments accountable to the commitments they have made under the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discriminnation Against Women (CEDAW). They are the CEDAW Committee AND, they are having an impact. Not sure about the Lebanon example (even though the CEDAW Committe has repeatedly instructed the Lebanese state to enact laws against domestic violence in particular, but also that all allegations of assault and rape are duly investigated, prosecuted and sanctioned, including sexual assault by the security forces) but the CEDAW review process has supported national women’s rights activists advocacy on a range of issues in many countries, including violence against women, and changed domestic legal systems to be more compliant with CEDAW (more recently Cambodia, Myanmar, China, New Zealand and the UK). Equally important is the fact that the Committee is recognising more and more the rights of marginalised women (Roma women, indigenous women. LBTIQ women, women sex workers and women who use drugs), and is also making observations on the extraterritorial obligations of transnational companies in the global north as well as the extraterritorial obligations of global north states in relation to supporting tax evasions and small arms proliferation that have an impact on women’s lived experience, especially, but not exclusively in the global south. I have been heading the team at IWRAW-AP (, an international women’s rights organisation based in KL, since April last year, and one of our key activities is to facilitate women’s rights organisations interactions with the CEDAW reviews. I have been hugely impressed by the Committee’s eagerness to listen to these alternative voices, and to continue to progressively interpret the convention and hold state parties to account. So thought to share.

  2. Ross Clarke

    Thanks for the post Nikki, after your 12 months in the role I’d be interested in your take on Oxfam’s progress on 2 areas you mention: funding for women’s rights organisations and getting its own house in order. Is the ambition being put into practice?

  3. Thanks Nikki for this very interesting post. I was particularly struck by your recommendation that NGO’s put their own houses in order. My organisation, INASP, made a decision 2 years ago to incorporate a focus on equity in our 5 year Strategy, in particular “actively addressing the needs of both men and women across all of our work and addressing issues of power within the research and knowledge system.” Getting our own house in order was recognised internally to be key to our ability to do this work. Last year we commissioned a gender audit of all of our programme work, which has resulted in a much greater understanding of what we mean when we talk about gender equity and equality. As well as helping to inform our development of a stream of work supporting women researchers and gender mainstreaming in higher education, we have also developed internal guidelines for communication, monitoring and evaluation, and fundraising, and committed to incorporate gender considerations into all of our projects and programmes. This year we have commissioned a gender audit of the organisation that included a confidential staff survey and focus groups as well as analysis of our HR policies and procedures. We are learning a lot as an organisation about what it means to be gender sensitive, and that even a predominantly female organisation like INASP needs to be more consciously aware of gender in our daily working lives.