Dieneke van der Wijk: “I admire the resilience of women”

Article: 02.08.22, Amsterdam, Karin Bojorge-Alvarez

Warning! This article contains reference to (war) violence. 

How do we do it? How do we make a difference in the world when we are in the middle of a water crisis and women's rights are under pressure? That is the puzzle that Dieneke van der Wijk intents to solve as the new managing director at Simavi. But she doesn't shy away from the barricades either. Within a few days of taking office, she enthusiastically participated in the Climate March in Rotterdam and dropped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague. “It's about impact.”

“You stay”, the commander pointed her out. Dieneke van der Wijk, working for a development organization, had been trapped in a war zone for weeks. But the commander didn't like this researcher who didn't bring money for projects. “Get out of here”, was the message. But how do you do that if there is no safe passage?

It was not the only time that Van der Wijk found herself in threatening circumstances. For example, she witnessed ethnic violence in Sulawesi, Indonesia. “Young people with big machetes walked around with severed heads and no one to stop them.” And she was closely involved in the demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers in Liberia.

Tough jobs

“Oh, there were so many difficult situations”, says Van der Wijk about her long career with development organisations. “Fascinating learning moments, which I still have very sharp memories of.” She started her career in Sri Lanka, but also lived in Indonesia, Thailand, Sierra Leone and Liberia. She also faced tough jobs in Myanmar, where four activists were recently executed by the regime, and Afghanistan, where programmes had to be shut down in a hurry when the Taliban took power.

The beautiful moments have always been more important. Starting the moment that 'the penny dropped' for Van der Wijk that this was the work she wanted to do. “When I was a student, I was still searching. Actually, I preferred to play basketball.” First she studied to become a teacher, then she opted for a master's degree in Pedagogy. She eventually ended up in Sri Lanka as a researcher. “I worked there with children and their parents on tea plantations. Entire families lived there in line-rooms. I visited them and felt completely embraced. Then I knew who I wanted to be.”

The power of women and girls

She was also touched by the enormous strength of people, for example of war widows and single mothers in Sri Lanka and Cambodia. “Women who have nothing at all and still support their family during a war. Who work really hard under extreme conditions and who have to contend with prejudice on a daily basis. In Sri Lanka, for example, these women had to fish with their bare hands. Because it's considered disrespectful to use the nets men fish with. The cheers of the women when one of them actually grabbed a fish from the murky water. The power of women and girls to survive and to make something out of life: that really appeals to me.”

Van der Wijk is fascinated by this resilience to survive in a world that is changing so quickly. But it also raises the question of how you build organisations that make a difference in situations that are so difficult and complex. “That’s also so appealing about Simavi. There is a fantastic new strategy aimed at empowering women to demand and realise sustainable solutions for water and sanitation. But how exactly do we do that? There is not one single answer to that. The situation is different everywhere. You have to work holistically, you have to understand the dynamics of power and culture and also very much seek collaboration.”

Shrinking civic space

Van der Wijk considers the problems that she has encountered in her career as useful pieces of the puzzle. “Pieces that taught me how to solve problems and how to make decisions as a leader. How to build an organisation that has an impact.” She has slowly grown into it, she notices. “In the past, my passion lay in working with communities, for example in those houses on the tea plantation, and now more with working together on the organisational side.”

Meanwhile, the world of development cooperation has also changed. “The policy of the Dutch government has taken on a completely different approach, with a lot of emphasis on trade and quick solutions. It is important to voice our concerns as a development organisation. Because the world is not that simple. If it were that easy, the private sector would have taken care of it long ago.” In addition, in many countries the space for civil society organizations is limited by authoritarian regimes. “Leaders like to think they can stop you, but we can find ways to work around that.”

The power over water

Moreover, the need for action has only increased, says Van der Wijk. “Most consequences of the climate crisis are directly related to water. Drought, flooding, deteriorating water quality or water shortage. It's only getting worse. Especially in Africa and Asia, where millions of women and girls already have insufficient access to water and sanitation. And who has power over water? It’s mostly men who make decisions.”

Van der Wijk says that she is quite 'wary' about the space there is for women to take on leadership roles. “Afghanistan is of course an extreme example, but acceptance by men is also limited in other countries, such as Bangladesh. The scope for minority groups, including LGBTQ people, is not increasing. On the contrary, it becomes more dangerous, less tolerant. So we have to keep counterbalancing.”

Tackle colonial ways

At the same time, development agencies must look into the mirror themselves. “It is high time to tackle the old-fashioned, colonial ways. Why are we in the 'North' the experts? Let's see where everyone's strength and experience lies. Together we can make a difference. We have to put power and decision-making where the action is.”

Whether Simavi will be a different organization in five years' time? "I hope so. Not in the sense that we no longer focus on women, water and climate. But in how we work and how we make an impact. Working on the basis of equal partnerships, that is the puzzle we have to solve together.”

Who is Dieneke van der Wijk?

  • 1965 Born in Smallingerland
  • 1984 – 1987 PABO Groningen (teaching academy)
  • 1988 – 1993 Masters Pedagogy Groningen
  • 1989 – 1993 National level basketball
  • 1994 – 1997 Researcher and program officer Oxfam Great Britain (Sri Lanka, Cambodia)
  • 1997 – 2009 Management functions Save the Children UK (Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Liberia, Sierra Leone)
  • 2009 – 2022 Management positions Oxfam GB and Oxfam International at global and regional level (Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Thailand, Sri Lanka)
  • 2022 – present Managing director Simavi
Esther Oeganda

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