KULU – empowering women in development

I started off my series on Scandinavian feminism by meeting up with Kvindernes U-Landsudvalg (KULU) based in Copenhagen, an organization that is known to be a central contributor to women’s rights in Copenhagen and internationally. Even though the organization was on holiday officially, the Chair woman Janice Førde and secretariat coordinator Ruth Ejdrup Olsen were so friendly to give me an hour with them and have a talk in their main office.

ME: Thank you so much Janice and Ruth for sitting down with me! Let’s start at the beginning. How and why was KULU created?

JANICE: KULU was started 43 years ago in connection with the first UN women’s conference in Mexico in 1975. That was because even though that time was the beginning of the decade for Women’s development, development was still not really about women, they were rather left behind. So that’s how KULU actually started, with the mission to involve more women in development. The purpose of KULU was that member organizations would get together and ask: How can we achieve more gender equality in development? That was the start of it.
I myself became an activist in 1987/88, when I joined the Women’s House Association – it was called ‘Red Stockings’ back then – which is still a member organization of KULU today.

RUTH: 1975 was the International Women’s year and the start of the UN’s decade for women. In 1974, some Danish women organizations started to work together on giving information about women in developing countries. That was very rare information back then, because at that time people did not have so much knowledge about the situation for women in developing countries. Therefore, these Danish organizations decided it was time to spread such information. KULU’s mission today takes that a step further: We want to give information and also advocate for women’s rights in developing countries and in Denmark. And we do that by for example pushing government agendas to have more gender-sensitive policies. We have also started actual development coorperation with our Southern Partners.

ME: So do I understand it correctly that KULU acts as a lobbyist for its member organizations?

JANICE: Yes, but not entirely. We do things together with our 23 member organizations and advocate them on bigger platforms, but KULU has also had the role to actually influence their member organizations. For example, big organizations like Oxfam IBIS have asked us in the past to suggest women speakers for panel debates, and KULU has also been able to push for integrating women’s rights in macro-economic development issues. In that sense we have affected our NGO-partners. But yes, we do exist by fundraising.

RUTH: One important achievement that we had was in 1987, when we had a big role in the first ‘Women in Development Strategy’ for Denmark’s government. Back then we had invited partners from the South to advocate for this strategy. In accordance with the first International Women’s Conference in Mexico (1975), we agreed that all governments should include women’s rights and empowerment into their policies.

Janice Førde (to the right), Chair woman of KULU, and Ruth Olsen, secretariat coordinator of KULU

ME: Let’s talk about Denmark compared to the rest of the world: The fact that Denmark is positive about feminism is well-known. From the outer perspective it seems like you as a country have made it far regarding gender equality. Do you agree that you have come far, now that you have worked so closely around this topic for many years?

JANICE: In general, Denmark has been positive about feminism for a long time, but having words on paper that are nice is something different than the actual practice. So that’s our job and our members’ job, to make sure that those words are put into practice and into policies.
I think it is true that we are doing well in comparison to the rest of the world. But still, women are not equal to men here in Denmark. There is still a wage gap for the same work, pensions are lower for women for reasons such as maternity leaves, and so on. So there are a lot of areas where gender equality has not been reached yet, it still has to be worked on all the time. But I think that people here tend to relax and think ‘Oh we’re doing so well, we’re among the top’, but actually you have to keep fighting for the things you want because if you don’t, then the things you achieved could be turned back, and that’s not what you want. So I would say Denmark is pretty good – but there’s still work to do.

Denmark is doing pretty good, but you have to keep fighting for the things you want.

ME: And what would you say is the biggest challenge for the Danish woman today?

JANICE: Certainly one big challenge we have today is the inequality on the labour market. For example, the type of access that women have to certain jobs like managerial positions, etc. Regarding women in leadership, Denmark is actually still very low compared to other countries, today we have up to only 6% of women in leadership positions. One factor that causes this is that men in leadership positions tend to recruit men, and you would think that women on the other hand would tend to recruit women, but unfortunately also some women might rather recruit men.

ME: Oh, that’s suprising!

JANICE: Yes, and this leads to the situation that we still have today, namely inequality on the job market. But it’s hard to say if that is the biggest challenge we have today, because there is still so much work to do.

ME: So as you mentioned, there is still work to do in Denmark, but you also work on the international platform. Where does the focus lay for KULU? More on the national or on the international level?

JANICE: It’s both levels: we have to advocate and influence our colleagues but also the government and the officials (that’s the national level), and since we are a part of the EU we also go up to the EU-level. In Europe we are members of the WIDE+ Network (Women in Development Europe Plus) which is based in Brussles since 1985. It has been our linking advocacy office towards EU policy: WIDE+ has member organizations but also individual members; and in 2012 due to the economic problems it was temporarily closed but later opened again. We’re part of the network, and we’re working on getting funds for it, as it has been a very important source of advocacy towrards the EU. On the international level there are UN bodies like the ‘Commission on the Status of Women’ each year in which we want to participate and do activities aorund the priority and review topics. So as you can see, we are active in a number of processes on different levels.

Info: The ‘Commission on the Status of Women’ (CSW) is a functional commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The CSW works as the UN organ that promotes gender equality and women empowerment. The commission holds an annual two-week session with representatives of UN member states, civil society organizations (such as KULU) and UN entities at the headquarters in New York. Together they review progress in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and its subsequent updates and dicuss processes and gaps in the global gender equality.

And not to forget, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is very important for us which also operates on the international level as well as national levels. Our main focus areas are SDGs 1 (No Poverty), 4 (Quality Education), 5 (Gender Equality), 10 (Reduce Inequalities within and among countries), 13 (Climate Action), 16 (Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions) and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals).

Info: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development contains a plan of action to achieve peace and prosperity for people and the planet. At its heart lie the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 goals that if achieved hope to make the world poverty-free, gender equal and prosperous.

ME: On the national level, how exactly do you try to press the Danish government to implement more gender-sensitive policies?

JANICE: Regarding our member organizations, we coorperate with member organizations such as MS-ActionAid and Oxfam IBIS because they are active around SDG 10. For example, now we are planning some joint activities, including a public meeting to get the word out there. Also, we have a Southern partner connection. If we want to influence authorities on the other hand, we have meetings and activites with different parliament members and/or government officials. We can count several political parties among our members: the Social Democrats, the Red-Green Party, the Socialistic Peoples Party and the Social-Liberal Party. We also have meetings with DANIDA which is the development wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here in Denmark.

ME: Judging from the broad range of activities that KULU engages in, I can imagine that your member organizations also come from diverse backgrounds. Can you give examples of the member organizations within KULU today?

JANICE: We do have some very big organizations like Oxfam IBIS and MS-ActionAid which are very busy with their own programs as well, so we are always trying to find ways to enhance our coorperation. Another one would be the Danish Women’ Society which has been very active sitting on KULU’s board and doing projects together with KULU.
Danish Women’s Society has been really pushing against the everyday sexism which has been like a campaign, looking at how women and girls are subjected to sexism daily. This campaign was started even before the #MeToo movement. People could write on their Website and share their stories for example. So we as a development organization are mainly focused on women’s rights and empowerment in development, while some of our member organizations like the Danish Women’s Society are busy with the national conditions here in Denmark, like the everyday sexism against women. Another big problem that girls are facing today is so-called ‘revenge porn’, where especially men are sharing intimate pictures of their girlfriends on the internet, and there have been Danish women who have come forward with their stories and have become spokespersons for this topic. We as KULU can then draw on their information and connect these members with our Southern Partners for example.

ME: It’s very interesting to see how your organization works to advocate other organizations, and how that works both on the national and the international level.

JANICE: Yes it is! I think the fact that we are an umbrella organization gives us strength to accomplish certain things. I remember that some years ago, there was a trend among organizations to form cooperations and communicate with each other; but some time later, another trend started where organizations wanted to prove and improve themselves, so the communication among each other got lost for a large part. But as an umbrella organization, we can now enhance the communication again, and we can show that all our member organizations have strength. For example, there have been moments when we have been working on something and one of our member organizations had the expertise on the topic so they cooperated with us on the issue.
Another benefit of being an umbrella organization is that we know a lot of people that are experts in their fields. And so it has happened in the past that we have been able to suggest such female experts to member organizations for a meeting, like ‘we can get you into contact with this or this expert’, and when we do that we mostly refer female experts to them. That is a really nice thing because most of these internatinal panels consist only of men and they don’t even know female experts that they could recruit for their panels, so we can bring them into contact with the female experts that we know. There are so many female experts in all these areas, and we are always happy to suggest such women to our member organizations. That is an important role that we have, and it is an example of how the national and the international level are linked.

Most organizations don’t know female experts themselves. [Therefore] KULU is always happy to suggest such women to our member organizations to improve gender equality.

ME: From what we have talked about so far, it seems that there is a broad range of activities that KULU engages in. I would be interested in how a day of work in KULU looks like?

JANICE: Yes that’s very true, we are working with far too many issues at the same time, and unfortunately we have too few people that are actively engaged here in KULU. So most of the time it’s like juggling balls in the air while at the same time trying to focus on the things that have to get out of the door. The daily work is trying to deal with multiple issues.

ME: And how many members do you have exactly?

JANICE: So we have 21 member organizations that all count as 1 member although they can have hundreds of members within their organization. Apart from these 21 member organizations we have around 300 individual members which is actually not enough for all the work we do here at KULU. Therefore we always try to engage more active members. But we also have working groups, for example on partnerships with women’s organizations in DR Congo and in Mali at the moment. When KULU and these working groups have meetings, we also try to encourage people to work together with us on issues and thereby become an active member of KULU.

ME: Do you feel that now that feminism has become more ‘popular’, there are also more people who are willing to be active in feminist organizations like KULU?

JANICE: So for a long time, the word ‘feminist’ was a radical, dirty word. Now it’s back ‘in style’ which is quite interesting. It’s not because the political content of feminism has changed, but just the way we look at it today has changed.

‘Feminist’ used to be a radical and a dirty word

But I don’t know if that is making people also more active in feminist organizations. I certainly hope so! One thing that I do notice is that there is the risk that other ‘popular’ topics may overshadow the topic of gender equality so to say, for example the topic of climate change. I completely agree that climate change calls for urgent action, and KULU has also worked with gender-justice in climate change in Mali, but we should not forget about the links to other topics that are also important such as gender equality.

ME: With so many issues that have to be worked on, how do you as an organization agree on which issues to focus on?

JANICE: That is mostly decided in our annual meetings. One thing we do is take the SDGs as a reference point. All SDGs have to be implemented of course, and one of our goals is to get a gender-perspective into all 17 SDGs. We try to do it in connection with the different partnerships that we have, like in Mali and in DR Congo at the moment. Also, our 2030-agenda working group has a goal which is to get 17 active members in the group.

ME: Janice and Ruth, it has been a pleasure talking to you both. Thank you very much for your time! I have one last question: How can you volunteer for KULU and become an active member?

JANICE: It would be great to see new faces here at KULU! If you are interested, you can join a working group that you affiliate with; and if it works out then you are able to influence something in that specific area and you can ‘own’ that issue. An individual can do a lot in KULU if they are active. And, also non-Danish individuals can volunteer with KULU, in the international work groups for example. We always encourage volunteers to send a CV along so that we can see how and where they can fit into what we are working on at the moment.

ME: That sounds great! KULU sounds like a great opportunity to achieve something for gender equality! I applaud the work you are doing here, and look forward to the next projects KULU will tackle! Thank you for your time again!

If you are interested in the working groups KULU is working on at the moment, go visit their website www.kulu.dk (also available in English!)
For people who are interested to volunteer at KULU, you can send an email to kulu@kulu.dk

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