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Freedom, happiness and taboos #5

The Netherlands has long been renowned as a country that breaks taboos in the area of sex. We cherish our freedom and sexual rights, and have a tradition of strong emancipation movements. Furthermore, openness about sexuality is generally considered a defining feature of Dutch society. However, is this actually still the case in 2016? Are we still a ‘leading nation’? And how do we fare in comparison to the rest of the world these days?

These are among the key questions raised during ‘Seks zonder grenzen’ (Sex without borders), a debating programme hosted by Rutgers and De Balie on Valentine’s Day 2016.
Society is rapidly changing. And we are increasingly faced with different cultures, with refugees and with an altered (international) political climate. Rutgers nevertheless considers it vital that we continue to use all the experience we have gained in the area of sexual freedom and equal rights, to the benefit of men and women throughout the world.

“Refugees ask us to take a personal approach. They do not want some distant professional, but a person who actually makes contact with them, and who has a personal story to tell.’’

Bram Tuk (Consultant at Pharos )

Sexuality and refugees

It is worthwhile investing in the sexual health and rights of refugees and holders of residence permits. After all, sound sexual health contributes not only to their own wellbeing, but also to improved levels of participation and integration in the community. And this applies both in the Netherlands and other countries.

Asylum seekers and holders of residence permits were raised with different standards and values. And these sometimes also apply with regard to sexuality and relationships. Sexuality is generally a matter that is discussed solely with one’s spouse. People may therefore be incorrectly or poorly informed with regard to the human body, health matters, pregnancy and contraception. Their introduction to a different (more liberal) culture often raises questions: How do you get in touch? Where can I acquire information about sex? And what about the relationship between men and women? Rutgers assists in making all sorts of topics discussable, while also providing reliable information. Not solely to refugees, but also the professionals who work with them.

“It is easy to spot in men; a bump appears on their ear if they have had sex.’’

Extract from a conversation with Syrians (In the report ‘Discussing relationships and (sexual) health’ )

“Even during childbirth, you receive no information whatsoever. Your mother just tells you to calm down, that everything will turn out fine. And then you rush off to the hospital, like a shot. I was absolutely devastated, as I didn’t have a clue.’’

Syrian woman (In the report ‘Discussing relationships and (sexual) health’ )

We cooperated with the municipal health services (GGD-GHOR), the Asylum Seekers’ Healthcare Centre (GCA) and STI AIDS Netherlands in compiling information brochures in eleven languages, which explain topics including Contraception and STI, The use of condoms and Facts and myths about the hymen (in Dutch).

Bram Tuk, Pharos (Credits: David Jagersma)
Bram Tuk, Pharos (Credits: David Jagersma)

Knowledge sharing

The Health of People on the Move symposium focused on the state of health of the world’s several million refugees. As one of the symposium’s organisers, Rutgers called upon the Dutch government not only to acknowledge the universal right to health(care), but also to actively promote the provision of health services to everyone.

At the Dutch national conference entitled ‘Wat werkt’ (What works?), Rutgers concentrated specifically on educators and care providers. Some 150 healthcare professionals attended the event in order to take a closer look at the needs and experiences of the asylum seekers themselves, while also considering the problems they face.

On the domestic front, Rutgers Netherlands called for the introduction of a course on sexuality and relationships for refugees and asylum seekers. We are keen to explain how healthcare, legislation and regulations are organised in the Netherlands. Furthermore, we are eager to clearly point out that people in Dutch society treat one another both with respect and as equals, also in the field of sexuality, the acceptance of homosexuality, etc.

Going forward contains online information about sexuality in thirteen languages, which is intended for migrants and non-Dutch speakers. Developed by the Flemish expertise centre for sexual health, Sensoa, the website is also to be adapted to the situation in the Netherlands during the course of 2017. Moreover, a best practices manual is being compiled for the provision of information to newcomers, entitled ‘Wijzer in de Liefde’ or A Guide to Love. Rutgers is cooperating with Pharos, GGD GHOR, STI AIDS Netherlands and the Royal Dutch Organisation of Midwives (KNOV) on this project.

Strong together

In 2016 eleven Dutch organisations that promote diversity, equality and LGBT rights, forged an alliance. This Gender Diversity Alliance is currently developing a joint strategy designed to break away from established gender norms, thereby moving towards a society that is more flexible in terms of gender diversity. The Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture & Science (OCW) has earmarked funds with which to develop both a ‘theory of change’ and an action plan.

Going forward

Rutgers has been placed in charge of the research aspect of the project. A finalised action plan to boost diversity, equality and LGBT rights is due to be presented in the autumn of 2017.


On the international front, Rutgers is engaged in a project known as Prevention+, which is an extension of the successful MenCare+ programme. The general aim is to cooperate with men – fathers, husbands, male partners – in combatting gender-based violence. Fathers’ groups, counselling, campaigns and advocacy are but a few of the means we apply to break the pattern of gender norms (and masculine norms in particular) that legitimise violence against women.

Making periods normal

Throughout 2016 Rutgers participated in the ‘Making periods normal’ programme in India. In cooperation with Simavi and Women on Wings, Rutgers endeavours to provide information about menstruation and hygiene, topics which remain the subject of numerous taboos. A three-year programme has been launched in India, which enables women to set up their own small business selling sanitary pads. The programme will continue throughout 2017.

Awareness campaigns focused on menstruation have already succeeded in reaching 300,000 women and 150,000 in India. Furthermore, some two million women and girls there now have access to sanitary pads.

The Coming In conference attracted 140 people that are involved in the empowerment of bicultural LGBT’s in the Netherlands. (Credits: Osman Sarikaya, Art Saray)
The Coming In conference attracted 140 people that are involved in the empowerment of bicultural LGBT’s in the Netherlands. (Credits: Osman Sarikaya, Art Saray)

Coming In

The three-year Coming In programme offers support to lesbian women, gay men, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBTs) with a bicultural background. This group of people often faces problems, with which healthcare providers are not always familiar, such as difficulties regarding acceptance. The programme is being jointly run by COC Netherlands, Rutgers and Movisie. COC’s activities are aimed primarily at the LGBT people themselves, while Rutgers and Movisie focus mainly on social workers and healthcare professionals.

The film entitled ‘Je moet wel in jezelf geloven’ (You have to believe in yourself) features three young people from Surinamese and Moroccan backgrounds, who relate their life stories. It therefore teaches healthcare professionals that the western model of emancipation (based on openness and coming out) is simply not applicable to bicultural LGBTs. The latter therefore benefit a great deal more from support in coming in.

Going forward

Four regional training courses for healthcare workers were held in 2016, during the course of which information was accumulated for a ‘social map’ for bicultural LGBTs. The map shows where information, support and assistance can be accessed. The social map is also to be made available via the platform website during the course of 2017.

Going forward

Rutgers and Movisie aim to continue holding meetings and sessions for healthcare workers and social work professionals throughout 2017. Two new films on the topic of bicultural LGBTs are also to be shot.

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