Name: Lisa de Pagter
Major: Governance, Economics and Development
Master: Not yet!
Hey Lisa, thanks for sitting down with me. Your friend Aniek told us a little about what you’ve been up to and suggested that we interview you, so here we are. Aniek told us she looks up to you and that where she “fights for the climate,” you do so for “youth participation, gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights.” Could you tell us about your journey?
I’ve always had a passion for women’s rights. It started early in high school: I was angry about the injustice I saw, especially when it came to women’s rights and gender equality. Around the age of 14, I remember realizing that I started being sexualized as a young woman and taking unconscious precautions. But it also struck me every time I heard about violence against women on the news.
It all just lit a fire inside.
I started looking for a way to turn that frustration into something concrete, and when I was 16, I joined the Nationale Jeugdraad (NJR; English: National Youth Council, an NGO that advocates for young people). This was my first experience with young people making a change. I learned about the Sustainable Development Goals, and for the first time I was surrounded by people that were just as passionate as myself about making a change. After a year at the NJR I realized I still wanted to put my efforts into improving women’s rights and gender equality. That’s when I first heard of the position of the Youth Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (YASRHR), but I was far from able to apply. Instead, at age 17 I applied to be a volunteer youth advocate at the organization that hosts the YASRHR project, CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality. I knew about the international opportunities there, but I wasn’t expecting to be able to really travel for the work – I was just really happy to have finally found that outlet and start working concretely on gender equality in my spare time.
Nevertheless, three months later, I went to the UN in New York for the first time, lobbying governments for commitments to youth participation sexual and reproductive health and rights with other young people. More opportunities followed: I ended up training partner organizations in the Dominican Republic and Turkey, advocating at other UN processes in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva. I kept doing this work at CHOICE during my time at LUC, and in the end I spent over four years with them. Those years really made me the advocate and activist that I am today. Because I got to learn so many things about international relations, the status of women internationally, and work on my skills as a trainer and lobbyist. But I also met some of my closest friends there, people that I really look up to as fellow activists.
Then when I was finishing up LUC, I realized that I was ready for something new. This time around, I did apply for the position of Youth Ambassador, which I encountered all the way back at 17, and I made it! I graduated from LUC in July, and started this position in August.
Wow! It’s so cool that you got to attend all these events at such a young age. Could you tell me a bit more about CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality, and do you feel that people listened to you when you were a youth advocate?
At CHOICE, we advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights, and gender equality, with a special focus on meaningful youth participation. That means that young people get to have a say in policies that are being made in these fields, as they are the most affected by them, but also the ones we hear the least. Every time these issues are discussed at the UN, or in national decision-making, CHOICE is sure to be there and guarantee that young people’s voices are being accounted for. We often did this by being at the events, and talking to the people representing their countries whenever we could. We would sit by the door and chase them when they came out of the meetings.
As a linguistics student, I appreciate the importance of wordings. Fast-forwarding to your current job as a Youth Ambassador: what do you do?
Currently as Youth Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Gender Equality and Bodily Autonomy – I know how terribly long the title is (laughs)– I make sure that the development cooperation policy that is developed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is reflective of the lived realities of young people worldwide. It’s an independent position, and in practice, this means that I make sure that the policies aren’t what we think is best for young people, but that young people actually have a chance to voice what they need.
Nowadays, everything I do is through Zoom. It’s quite sad, I can’t lie, because normally I would actually be meeting young people all over the world and see what challenges they face when it comes to claiming their bodily autonomy and realizing their sexual and reproductive health and rights, in order to better inform our foreign policy. But of course, I can’t do that right now.
That’s such a shame. It must be hard to make an impact in international relations from behind your laptop screen. Are you also involved with Dutch policies, to look a little closer to home?
That’s a hard question. I’m ambassador of all youth, and that includes Dutch youth too. However, because I’m part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, most of the things I advise on are about our foreign policy. Although I involve the Dutch youth in my work from time to time, it’s hard for me to really incorporate their needs. The Ministry focuses on youth elsewhere, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, and they have very different lives than people in the Netherlands. So it’s primarily those experiences that need to be reflected in the work.
It’s only when I address multilateral spaces from the official Dutch seat, that also speak on behalf of Dutch youth. And then it’s only fair that I talk about my experience as a Dutch young woman living in the Netherlands, the fact that I have access to abortion services, and that I can get contraceptives without hassle, or other things in the scene of sexual and reproductive health and rights – and that I’m lucky, because in so many countries that’s not the case at all, especially now with COVID. But I’ll always advocate for young people at large, you know? Improving young people’s livelihoods anywhere will spur the movement elsewhere. It’s baby steps.
It’s good to hear that you’re looking at what you can do. Even in the Netherlands, it’s important to keep listening to the people. I’m actually curious, back at LUC, were you also involved with things like the Feminism committee, or something similar?
Honestly, because I was already so active with things, like my work as a youth advocate, I didn’t really allow myself to be part of these LUC committees too. At the time, it wasn’t really a conscious choice, but I feel like it would have become too much. Like, yes, I’m very passionate about these topics, but it wouldn’t have been good to dedicate 100% of my free time to them in a space within LUC. However, I did always focus on these topics in my research. Almost every paper I wrote included a gender and an intersectional lens.
You majored in GED right? How do you feel about gender and sexuality within the Major?
I did GED, yes. I always really enjoyed feminist theory, but it was never a core aspect of any course I took in the major. That’s why I always took it upon myself to look for that perspective. I often included it in my assignments, when it was appropriate. For example, I wrote my final paper in Environment and Development about the effects of climate change on rural women in South Africa. Often, when women are in charge of agriculture, they are single mothers, and when climate change makes the crops fail, they will go to extreme measures to protect their children. This leads to them being exploited, and in extreme cases they may have to resort to transactional sex. Gender really factors into everything, if you pay enough attention. Another example would be of a paper I wrote on how the protests that took down Omar al-Bashir were led by women. I looked into it, what led to them organizing these protests, and how despite their role these developments, they were not structurally involved in the peace process after he was taken down.
That’s really interesting, and quite sad. Do you have any advice for the current students writing their essays?
I think it’s important to remember that your student life doesn’t end after LUC. When we’re at LUC, we like to pretend that we’ve got the next ten years planned out in as much detail as possible. It’s all about getting the highest grades, going to a top university, and you’re constantly pushed to do more and to do better. And then when it ends, you can choose to jump right back in, and go do a Master’s. But you can also take some time to explore whether that plan is really what you want. For me, I sort of knew where I wanted to go, and I’m experiencing it right now – and it’s the best choice I could have made. If you’re less certain, taking that time to figure things out is important too!
That doesn’t mean you don’t have to plan anything, but it’s okay to take some time. Full disclosure, I’m going to UCL for a Master’s after the summer. But in a way that fits in. I was never the one getting the high grades. Instead, I balanced academics with what I found interesting and important, and managed to build a resume along the way. I guess what I’m trying to say is, try to be more than your academics. Try to figure out what drives you and gives you energy, and pursue that. That’s how I got started at 16, and it has gotten me where I am now.
Thank you so much for sitting down with me Lisa!
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