Professor Ineke Boerefijn, an activist academic at the Centre for Gender and Diversity
January 15, 2007 Leave a Comment
Professor Ineke Boerefijn is an activist academic, a rare breed of scholar who refuses to stay up in the ivory tower built for people like her. In March 2006, she was appointed Extraordinary Professor as the new ‘Opzij’ Chair of ‘Power and Strategy’ at the Centre for Gender and Diversity at Maastricht University. A profile for Crossroads.
Ineke Boerefijn is the fourth Opzij professor and the first Chair with a legal background. This special rotating chairship was created in 1997 by the Dutch feminist monthly magazine Opzij. It was actually thanks to this exciting development that the Centre for Gender and Diversity was launched in 1998, with the mandate to bring together the research on Women’s Studies that is spread throughout the university.
Through research and social services in Maastricht, the Centre focuses on ‘Gender Studies’. It looks at how being male or female effects the processes of inclusion and exclusion in society – the study of how gender relates to power. The 13 staff members also research ethnicity, religion, nationality, class, age and sexuality and how they intersect and effect equality.
As the new Opzij chair, Boerefijn’s responsibility until 2008 is to provide new research which will be published through the Centre for Gender and Diversity. She’ll also be giving lectures and there are discussions about an expert meeting in the spring on violence against women and human rights.
Boerefijn’s special research focus is on integrating the issue of violence against women into the international human rights law framework. Even though we often hear about violence against women in the media, Boerefijn believes that it has been inadequately dealt with internationally. Violence against women has only been on the global agenda for the last couple of decades. Since it’s such a new issue, Boerefijn wants to make sure women’s particular needs are adequately integrated into emerging human rights policies.
But Professor Boerefijn is actually stretched far and wide across the Netherlands. Apart from holding the Opzij Chair, which brings her to Maastricht one day a week, Boerefijn works as Associate Professor at the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights based at the University of Utrecht’s law faculty.
“I always want to use my research towards a political agenda, and I don’t just want to talk with academics,” she says. So she also sits on the Board of the Dutch branch of Amnesty International in Amsterdam, on the Editorial board of the International Studies Journal and probably several other committees and boards that would fill up a page. She’s produced many publications on human rights and violence against women. This week, Boerefijn is finishing an article on the international responsibility towards non-state actors who commit domestic violence. In other words, what does international law say and do about private individuals who are violent towards family members behind closed doors?
In her ‘spare’ time she plays tennis and she even has a good sense of humour. When you meet this articulate and cheerful woman, it’s easy to see how she’s achieved so much. It’s also no surprise when she confesses that she’s dying for a decent night sleep!
After completing a Ph.D. in Law in 1999 at the University of Utrecht, Boerefijn started focusing on gender issues in 2000 when she and two colleagues conducted research for the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs about policy on violence against women. The ministry wanted to assess whether Dutch policy complied with the UN Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The research looked at domestic violence, trafficking in women, sexual reproductive rights and sexual harassment among other issues. Based on this research Boerefijn and her colleagues released a book  which received a lot of media attention and as one of the few experts in this new field, Boerefijn was subsequently invited to speak at numerous lectures across the country.
Women’s issues vs human rights
Boerefijn likes the fact that she started working on the subject with a background in human rights and didn’t have a feminist background when she started focusing on gender. She was able to see these issues with fresh eyes and bring legal knowledge to her research.
Boerefijn is especially concerned with the marginalisation of women’s rights. The right to life, liberty and security doesn’t necessarily take women’s special situations into account. Human rights can be violated in public and private spaces but it seems that most of the attention focuses on the violation of public human rights. This is a problem because violence against women mostly takes place behind closed doors. Rape, spousal assault, female genital mutilation and honour killings all take place in private spaces.
The professor also realised that academic research in the fields of international human rights and violence against women has not often been bridged. There is a serious lack of expertise about violence against women in mainstream human rights bodies. And women are also underrepresented in these organs.
Boerefijn believes that the issue of violence against women would benefit from being included into the academic research in the field of international human rights. She wants to make use of existing human rights bodies, treaties and courts to set the topic of violence against women on the international agenda.
Public vs Private human rights
When we think of human rights violations, images of soldiers or state officials abusing innocent people come to mind. In fact it was the horror of the war crimes and genocides committed during WWII that led to the formulation of international human rights law.
Since international human rights have only been codified for 60 years, it is easy to understand why violence occurring in the private sphere, like family violence, has not yet been integrated into this framework. Activists like Boerefijn are fighting to make this happen.
Although the issue of violence against women has been recognised globally and even receives special attention from United Nations bodies like the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Development Fund for Women, Boerefijn argues that by having separate organisations dealing with it, the problem has been effectively sidelined. She believes that for real changes to take place, violence against women must be brought into the mainstream of human rights issues.
Defining domestic violence against women as torture
According to Boerefijn, domestic violence can be classified as torture under is the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. When wife battery and rape are defined as ‘torture’, things somehow become more serious. Boerefijn hopes this type of categorisation will help draw more attention to the problem. As it stands many countries have very weak laws against family violence. Rape committed by husbands against wives was made a crime in most Western countries only in the 1980s!
Boerefijn wants to look at how gender neutral policies affect women. She’s starting her research in the Netherlands, where policies on domestic violence are gender neutral, even though well documented studies show that domestic violence affects far more women than men.
According to Dutch research , domestic violence in the Netherlands is reported to the police approximately 57,000 times per year. This represents only 12 per cent of all incidents, meaning that domestic violence occurs almost half a million times annually. Seventy five per cent of all victims are women. Eighty four per cent of victims of sexual violence are women. Ninety eight per cent of repeat offenders are men.
Interestingly Dutch policy on domestic violence faced by immigrant women is gendered. Issues like honour killings and female genital mutilation are explicitly described as violence against women. Boerefijn says this reflects Dutch disapproval with ‘foreign’ forms of violence against women. But the types of violence that Dutch women routinely experience are not identified as a women’s issue in the law. Boerefijn wants to look more closely at how this gender neutral policy affects Dutch women facing violence at home.
Relevant and rewarding work
“The subject is so broad and I have so little time to get things done,” admits Boerefijn. But on the whole, she finds the work rewarding. “I like to contribute to the debate of the relevance of human rights in this discussion.” It’s still a relatively new area in international human rights law. And Boerefijn finds that it is “relevant to society, NGOs and policy makers.” She enjoys the actual research itself and the subsequent writing. The support she gets from colleagues at the Centre for Gender and Diversity makes the process enjoyable and worthwhile.
By Danya Chaikel
Danya Chaikel is from Vancouver, Canada and recently graduated from law school. She has a background of working with migrants and promoting human rights. Danya recently moved to Maastricht to be with her Dutch partner.
Quoted research papers:
: Het voorkomen en bestrijden van geweld tegen vrouwen : een verdiepend onderzoek naar het Nederlandse beleid in het licht van de verplichtingen die voortvloeien uit het Vrouwenverdrag – Boerefijn, I ; Liet-Senders, M.M. van der ; Loenen, T. (The prevention and elimination of violence against women: an in-depth investigation into Dutch policy in the light of the obligations which flow from the Women’s Convention)
: Binnen zonder kloppen, Ferwerda H.
More photographs of Professor Ineke Boerefijn’s inaugural lecture
On 8 December 2006, Professor Ineke Boerefijn presented her inaugural lecture as the Opzij Chair in Maastricht. The title of the lecture was “De blinddoek opzij; een mensenrechten-benadering van geweld tegen vrouwen.” (‘The blindfold aside; a human rights approach of violence against women’). Boerefijn introduced herself and her work to academics as well as the wider public.
Since this area is so cutting edge, Boerefijn wanted to explain the issues in a way that everyone could understand them – from her law faculty colleagues to her tennis mates. She also wanted to give a speech that would be relevant and interesting to colleagues who are already neck deep in these issues. So she thought up everyday examples about violence against women that spoke to the audience. The activist academic wins again!
Many of her guests had travelled from the north of the Netherlands to listen to her lecture. As a token of gratitude, she hosted a party for 120 people near the Vrijthof Square with dinner, speeches and a DJ. Three different groups of colleagues (from different organisations) sang songs they had composed for her. Such an outpouring of support confirmed how much Boerefijn is appreciated by her many sets of peers.