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In conversation with Devika Partiman: why voting for a woman benefits everyone


Story by:

David Wouters

Interview by:

Elisabeth Lanz

February 17, 2023

In the Netherlands, women in politics are underrepresented. The house of representatives in the Netherlands (Tweede Kamer) has seen a 3% decrease in women since 2002, and an 11,7% decrease since 2010, with a total of 31% being women. In local councils in the Netherlands women make up a total of 31,62%. For member story #5, A Lab member and founder of Stem op een Vrouw (Vote for a Woman) – Devika Partiman – and I sit together to talk about the importance of representation of women in our government, why it is beneficial for everyone, how to get more women elected in the house of representatives during the upcoming elections and why A Lab has been the perfect choice to continue their work from.

Hi Devika, before diving into what you’re doing right now, tell me, who was Devika before founding Stem op een Vrouw?

I’m actually a festival producer, I studied event management and afterwards worked for several productions like Magneet festival, IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam), Roots festival, mainly for events within the music sector.

You were inspired by Surinam to set up Stem op een Vrouw. Could you tell me more about that?

I was visiting family in Surinam and one day I went to a museum. My eye landed upon a flyer dating out of 1996. It read ‘Women make up half of the population, this is not represented in the National Assemblee, so choose consciously, vote for a woman’. It was a flyer created by the Surinamese women organization called ‘Vrouwen Parlement Forum’.

I took a picture of the flyer and back in the Netherlands, its message lingered around in my mind. I was curious about the representation of women in our government. I then found out that the percentage of elected women in our government was really low, which I found bizarre. The elections for the house of representatives almost took place and I wanted to do something about it. I had been an activist in other fields and brought together a small group of people to create a campaign to stimulate people in the Netherlands to vote for a woman. That’s when Stem op een Vrouw was found in 2017. Ever since, our team has grown and we are currently working with a team of 15 volunteers.

Why is it beneficial to have more women elected in politics?

The parliament represents the people and should therefore reflect society as it is. Only that way, people will know that they have a voice and that this voice is represented. Everybody deserves to see that there are politicians that look like them and think like them. Right now, the ratio is not balanced. There’s too few women in order to fully deliver impact on decisions considering women - which are basically all decisions - and to always consider the perspective of different women. In addition, there’s little visibility and little diversity within the already elected women.

One could argue that men can represent women. Sure, but when you turn this around and you only have 150 women in the house of representatives, I am sure men will realize that this is not how it should be. Different people compliment each other and representation should be balanced.

I can imagine you often receive criticism from men – and perhaps also from some women about what you are trying to achieve. Which one comment or criticism is one that you would like to debunk once and for all?

For sure that must be ‘Shouldn’t it be about quality instead of gender?’ We must have heard that question for over a 1000 times and we have answered it for over a 1000 times. I always say: Of course it’s about quality. Why would you vote for someone you don’t think is qualified? Our campaign is not ‘Vote for a woman that you don’t find qualified’.

The collective idea surrounding qualification is usually the problem in this case. It originates from the narrative that there’s just one person on the list that is the best, which would usually be the candidate on top of the list. The problem is that this is not the idea nor purpose of our democracy. Quality in our democracy means that all of the people on the list complement each other. Our message is not to pick a random woman and vote for her, but to choose someone that suits you. And when that person is a woman, you both vote for quality and for more equality. Also, many people have been randomly voting for the leading candidates on top of the list without often really knowing what they stand for or who the other people on the lists are.

So yes, voting is all about quality, but why does that mean you can not vote for a woman? Better representation of all people, makes for better policy. Voting for a more diverse parliament enhances the quality of the decisions made. And so the best thing you can do, is to do your research and find a woman that suits your ideas and values.

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You set up a campaign that spreads awareness about ‘preferential votes’. Could you tell me what this entails and how it will improve the chance of getting more women elected?

People who find it important for there to be more elected women in politics, often vote for the first woman on the list. This candidate is usually number one or two on the list. Of course this is a nice gesture, but that woman is already high on the list and doesn’t need your vote. She will get extra votes which will silt through to others on the list and those are often men.

With our campaign we encourage people to vote for women lower on the list in order to get extra women elected to the House of Representatives. So how does it work? First of all, you have to find one or maybe a couple of political parties that you wish to vote for. Second, take a look at the polls. How many seats is your preferred party at? Finally, look into the women below the polled number of seats. They need your preferential vote to get elected. On our website – which is also available in English – you can find an overview of all political parties and female candidates.

Why has there been a decrease in women in the house of representatives after the last elections? More important, why has the percentage of women stayed the same over the past 20 years? Why is it that difficult to get more women elected?

In general, people have in fact been voting more for women in the past years. But some political parties - often right wing and/or christian parties - just don’t make finding and attracting women as candidates a priority. It’s exactly those parties that have a low percentage of women on their candidate lists that have grown bigger over the past years. Therefore, the percentage of women decreased.

What is the thing you like most about your job?

I feel that we have normalized the idea that you don’t just vote for a party, but for a person. I’ve had many conversations with young people who found out about our voting strategy, and ever since have grown more conscious about the individual power of their vote. They actively do their research and have become more critical in who they give their vote to. That’s something I am very happy to see. Ultimately the best thing is to see those women elected who were not high on the list.

We’re very happy that team Stem op een Vrouw chose A Lab as the place to continue its work from. When did you become a member and how did your choice land on A Lab?

We’ve been here since January 2019. We were searching for a central office space that’s easy accessible. Our eye landed upon A Lab, as it’s right next to the central station. There was an instant click with Lucas, the director of A Lab, and with Ismay, the former community manager. You can really see that team A Lab is enthusiastic about what everyone is doing. You put a lot of effort in creating a space that stimulates progressive ideas and houses progressive organizations. Next to that A Lab is very flexible in terms of their memberships, which is perfect for our foundation.

Have you worked together with other A Lab members?

Zeppa offered to work on our campaign style and website. We used their frame and strategic tips for our current website so we’re very happy with that. Next to that it’s nice to know other people in the A Lab community who find themselves within the progressive movement - like Hedy Tjin and Massih Hutak. You know where to find each other, which is nice.

A while ago you organized an event in our event space The Playground, could you tell me more about that?

We organized a training meet-up with networking opportunity for candidates of the European parliament elections. We invited press because there is less attention for the European elections on news channels and women lower on the list are often not even mentioned. A journalist organized a workshop about presenting yourself. We hosted a panel with reporters from different media, and had a small group of candidates over. It was a nice way to meet and to help candidates a bit further in their campaigns.

Which other collectives, groups or people should we follow when talking about diversity in politics?

The ‘Damn Honey’ podcast is interviewing female party leaders in their next couple of episodes. And there’s a group of people in their twenties who used to be youth ambassadors for the UN. They started a series called ‘KiesWijzer 2021’, to watch or listen to via  YouTube. In each 15 minute episode, they discuss one political party’s program. This is useful as party programs are often over 50 pages long, it takes a while for people to get through that. Also, some people are better learners when listening, while others are better at reading. So this is a nice way to get to know the different parties.

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