On 20 November (Children’s Rights Day) 2000, some 30 fathers tried to occupy the headquarters of the 'Partij van de Arbeid' (PvdA –Dutch governing Labour party) in Amsterdam. They wanted the party to pay more attention to the significance of fathers in the wellbeing of children. They struck a blow for shared care and access to children for both men and women.
The action led to a series of negotiations at all levels of the party. It also led to the Labour party hosting an open conference with protest representatives and other interested parties, contributing to new policies for the Labour party manifesto.
Here is a short review and probing analysis of these events.
The PvdA has always been rooted in the working classes, a tradition upheld by our present prime minister. The party is founded on a number of socialist ideas, somewhat diluted of late. But in the last few decades feminism has given the party an important secondary ideological base. This variety of feminisme, as others elsewhere, has covered itself in ambiguity with regard to the position of fathers. Theoretically, there is a desire for more paternal involvement in families. In practice, the intent is to accept fathers on mothers’ terms alone and otherwise exclude them.
Unfortunately, political involvement in fatherhood issues has up till now been found almost exclusively on the right of the political spectrum. All the more reason to carry out our action at the PvdA headquarters. The physical occupation didn’t quite come off, it is true, but for a whole morning long, the main entrance to the party offices was thoroughly blocked.
During the protest, there where negotiations with party managers and members of parliament. Family policy is normally a subject left to the particular attention of the Labour women’s group, who were thus closely engaged with the discussions.
Central to the negotiations was the Langeac Declaration (see October issue), serving as a key point of departure in our discussions. It was agreed that we should strive to raise these issues with the government and have a conference on this subject in tight liaison with the party’s National executive, drawing attention to our deliberations both in the party’s own press outlets and if possible in wider related media. There was also a promise to let the banners hang for another week on the front of the building.
Two of the four members of our own organisational committee found this insufficient reason to stop our blockade. However the majority of the 30 participants in the blockade thought it best to give the Labour party the benefit of the doubt. Although a large number of journalists attended, there was little coverage of the action on the day itself. But later developments were well covered. Noteworthy was a tv discussion programme involving young people where we received overwhelming support from both girls and boys.
Mainly through lack of courage and full understanding on the part of members of parliament there were few tangible results from the promised discussions with the government, for example on the question of PAS ( Parental Alienation Syndrome). The labour party representatives however gained a far greater insight into the problems. The engagement and goodwill of the female head of the party administration led to the PvdA women’s group becoming the co-organisers of the conference. On 31st May 2001 the conference was held with the full backing of the national executive council of the party. In the invitation to attend the conference the following ground-breaking sentences were seen:
'On the one side there is a growing appeal from society to men to take up more caring tasks, on the other hand they are, in divorce cases, not seen as a responsible caring parent.'
"The present practice of family law is oppressive to many of them, especially in those cases where they end up losing one parent (mostly their father) permanently, with all the traumatic results that ensue."
'It is remarkable that in the case of divorce there seems to be a relapse into traditional ideas on the division of care and work. Mothers seem to see themselves and are being seen as primary caretakers and refuse to distance themselves from their 'care capital'."
These remarkable sentences have up till now probably never been heard from a mainstream women’s organisation. The results of negotiation within the oversight committee which had been set up were also interesting. These attempted to place the conference in the above context of apparently conflicted duality of fathers and mothers rights in family’s , with new linkages drawn between the lack of real fathers rights in relation to their children, social repression and malpractice in the shape of discrimination against fathers. In Holland, this incontestable dissipation of male rights has been witnessed whilst the actual caring responsibilities of fathers have continued to expand. The workshop dedicated to this matter was poorly attended due to the attraction exercised by the more technical workshops on juridical issues and PAS. We had expected some Labour party and Labour women’s group members to attend this particular workshop but instead they were remarkable by their absence. Moreover, party officials did not succeed in mobilising their own backbenchers. Thus, because we, the conference taskforce, decided to avoid over-attendance of one group of participants (fathers), the conference as a whole was also poorly attended.
Theory and practice
In the course of the lead-up to the conference we had noted on several occasions that what we were negotiating stood a chance of meeting strong resistance in practice. Nevertheless, Labour party officials had difficulty in conceiving this. We tried to show what we meant by comparing our present situation in Holland with recent experience in New Zealand. A Shared Parenting Bill, allowing for a default of equal division of parental responsibility, was placed before parliament in May 2000. However, the governing New Zealand Labour party and women’s organisations combined to stop the bill dead in it’s tracks.
It was assumed that in Holland our approach would be more mature. But the truth was that things were not much better. One female member of parliament involved in the negotiations repeatedly brought up women’s interests in order to oppose certain proposals. A male colleague of hers gave a prime example of political impotence. He actually advanced the notion that "it is an illusion to believe in the primacy of politics," a somewhat unusual position for a left-wing party to take.
However, we did manage to launch a discussion on the reasons for the equally feeble stance of male politicians in regard to anti-father discrimination and denial of paternal contact rights. In truth, it is regarded as a minus point when building up your status as a male politician to discuss or bring in personal problems. It did not surprise me in the least that in this arena [del] the original plan for the conference in the parliament building was less than a resounding success. The strategic situation is well illustrated by the upset that occurred when the first version of the invitation to attend was issued. In this invitation pro-female activists were already seeking to bring in the position of women by demanding the inclusion of commentaries to the effect that, at the very least, such solutions to contact problems would reduce the amount of male violence against women.
During the conference we determined that the failed workshop on the subject of childcare by men would be followed up by a round-table conference within the Dutch parliament chaired by Mariette Hamer MP. Mrs Hamer is responsible for family affairs in her party parliamentary delegation and was a member of the party commission that prepared the new election manifesto. In the preparation for this round-table conference the two people who had introduced the original workshop made the resultant text into a more comprehensive paper, strongly sustaining the theoretical points underpinning equal parenting. But, remarkably, the representative of the "Women’s Alliance for Re-allocation of Care and Work," an organisation financially supported by government, refused to connect this to any practical legal consequences.
Instead, the Women’s Alliance chose to personally attack the father who had prepared the original workshop by accusing him of retaining personal concepts signifying that women would have no interest in sharing care of children. De facto it is fair to say that he had concluded that women’s self-interest does play into the present situation, but he also made clear that this showed a poor understanding of their own interests. This viewpoint is in fact paralleled by that of many female writers, who claim similar ideas in well-established women’s magazines (eg: Aminata Forna). It seems that when bringing in ideas which are less than politically correct, the problem is compounded when their proponent is male. The whole setup bears some comparison with the concept of the "lace curtain" as presented by Warren Farrell. The Women’s Alliance were so angry that they refused to join the round-table conference with Mariette Hamer.
The round-table conference was a success, in spite of the absence of the Women’s Alliance. Our most important points regarding the redefinition of childcare responsibilities were positively received. Mrs Hamer was more than willing to bring this matter to the attention of the manifesto committee. In fact, this initiative has led to the insertion of an interesting paragraph in the manifesto promising to implement equal care for both parents into law.
It was very surprising that in the first draft this paragraph was somehow left out of the concept text. The same happened to a positive commentary submitted by the board of the party, containing an amendment intended to secure unrestricted contact between parents and children.
It seems that some networking was taking place with people at higher levels in the party with a view to blocking such developments. We asked ourselves (and those who might know amongst our interlocutors) the source of such obstruction, and came to the conclusion that important male figures in the party were heavily influential in support of the "women’s movement".
At the party congress in December 2001 both texts, (the recovered original plus subsequent amendments), were incorporated into the election manifesto with the proviso that the word "unrestricted" was dropped for unknown and undiscussed reasons. In the meantime an important and highly relevant article by Professor Hoefnagels, to be published in the party’s own magazine, was coming under heavy fire. In this context, it is crucial to appreciate the stabilising influence of the taskforce we had helped to form. This comprised both user groups and politicians, with two administrative and one national executive member of the party as well as two members of parliament, who pursued their task with zest and competence.
The Dutch father’s movement has certainly registered some successes and made good use of the possibilities of the Dutch so-called "Polder model". The advantage of this model is the emphasis it places on talking and negotiating conflicting interests and viewpoints. The disadvantage is the resistance to change it engenders due to the way it encourages evasion of conflictual situations and decisions. It is very hard to set limits on our social and political behaviour. Such policies, aimed at deterring us from antisocial behaviour, have led to a number of unfortunate events in recent Dutch social experience.
Moreover, such attitudes give an opportunity to disregard judges’ decisions and more than this to actual disregard of the law by the judges themselves. For those not familiar with Dutch legal practice, it appears quite incredible that in Holland it is normal practice for lawyers or public prosecutors to combine these roles with that of judge. The business of family law thrives on voluntary interpretation of such legal concepts as "the best interest of the child" and this has led to a sense of chaos and confusion at the present time in Holland. The bald fact is that the concept of the child’s best interests thus becomes so arbitrary and fickle that often, under such discretionary largesse, the interests become the opposite – those of the professionals practising in this field.
The Dutch fathers’ movement not only tries to get the politicians to listen but also to act and to set limits to attacks on the father-child relationship. There are now increasingly vocal objections to policies which blur the line between tolerable and intolerable behaviour, which can themselves be seen as an extension of the notion of 'smothering' (Warren Farrell) on a macro-level. However, as a mark of hope, the political manoeuvrings described above may just result in the establishment of some core notions on the idea of fathering and their insertion into family policy development. Slowly but steadily, our view of fathering is changing, with the development of a view of the father as a mixture of a good listener, talker, carer and boundary setter for children.
The biggest Dutch political party (the Labour party) is clearly disposed to listen, that much is shown by our recent experience. Full of expectation, we look towards a new alliance of mothers and fathers, fatherhood and motherhood, never denying the accomplishments of feminism (but not its ugly sister, female supremacism), whilst acknowledging the full value of fatherhood.
Joep Zander writes articles on fatherhood and law for the Dutch press on a regular basis. In his work as an artist and child sociologist he tries to connect both the rational and creative aspects of fatherhood. He has fought for his own relationship with his daughter Rosa at all levels and in many ways. From his public hunger strike in 1995 in front of a Dutch courthouse to his case, pleading for the family rights of his daughter, to the European Court of Human Rights.
Joep is a half-time father to his young son Joshua.
He has also been active at an international level as a founding father of the Langeac Declaration. He is his own webmaster (seehttp://joepzander.nl/) a site which contains many of his articles (some translated into English). He is also webmaster for a well-visited site on fatherhood (http://papa.nl.nu).
As an artist he has developed the action postcard 'Pappa?' that played a role in political debate on the new law of 1998 which started to reimplement joint custody ideas into Dutch law. The image of the card, which can be used internationally, is copyright-free (restriction: with mentioning http://joepzander.nl as source) and can be downloaded fromhttp://joepzander.nl/pappa.htm
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