Inspirational Woman Interview: Kathleen Ferrier


Photo credit: Foto Verhoeff Leusden

Kathleen Ferrier is actively involved in issues relating to international relations and international cooperation, with a focus on human rights, migration, education, health and sustainability. Born in Suriname, she worked on grassroots health, education, and development projects in Chile and Brazil, before serving as a member of parliament in the Netherlands for ten years. Since 2013, she lives in Hong Kong, where she works as an academic professor. Apart from that, she is involved in various activities, such as fighting modern slavery and, with the European Chamber of Commerce, promoting sustainability. She is co-founder of Bright Hong Kong, a writer and public speaker on female empowerment and leadership, international relations, better understanding of China for businesses and the principle of diversity as a source of strength.

What is your background?

Kathleen Ferrier: I was born in Suriname, the former Dutch Guyana. My country is one of the three Guyanas, located on the north cost of South America between Venezuela and Brazil. During my school years, my family moved back and forth between Suriname and The Netherlands, so I grew up between, or better: with these two countries. I decided to study the languages of my continent: Spanish and (Brazilian) Portuguese. I also studied international co-operation and development and Latin American sociology. Still a student, but teaching Spanish, I met my husband, Tjeerd de Boer, who was preparing for teaching at an ecumenical seminary in Santiago de Chili. He had to learn Spanish of course and I happened to be his teacher. After my studies, I followed him to Chile where we got married in 1984 and lived for seven years. Those years have marked my live and inflicted in me a deep rooted sense for the universality of Human Rights and  the importance of functioning democracies. We experienced the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and witnessed how the Chilean people sent the dictator home in a plebiscite in 1988. Those years I worked in “poblaciones,” the poorest areas of the city, basically on female empowerment and economic development. After Chile we moved to Brazil where I became a member of the Fundacão Samuel, an organization that targeted the most underprivileged areas of the city and specifically women and children.

All together we lived 10 years in Latin America, and then moved back to the Netherlands where I worked as co-ordinator of an association of migrant churches in the Netherlands. It was a huge privilege to work more than eight years with Christians from all parts of the world, who sought to build up a life, as Christians in Dutch society. I was contacted by the Christian Democratic Party, by then the largest political party in the Netherlands and later invited, by the women in the party, to run for parliament in 2002. So I became a MP in 2002 and served as such for over ten years, involved in international relations and development, education and health. After ten years I decided not to run for elections in 2012, because it is my conviction, that politicians should never stay too long. Politicians who think they are irreplaceable harm democracy. It was right at that time that my husband saw a job opportunity in Hong Kong, as professor of the Lutheran Theological Seminary. He applied and here we are!

Previously, you worked with the UN’s Independent Expert Review Group (iERG), which aims to provide information and expertise on women’s health. What were some of your main takeaways from working with the iERG?

Kathleen Ferrier: The “independent Expert Review Group on Information and Accountability on Women’s and Children’s Health” was started by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when it became clear that the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) 4 and 5, on women’s and children’s health, were lagging behind. Our group of nine experts had the task to follow up on the developments concerning women’s and children’s health and of course Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.

One of the basic things I became aware of is how true the statement is, that Martin Luther King Jr. made, saying that: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

In our world today, as a poor woman, as a black woman, your life is worth less than the life of a rich and white women. This is unacceptable. One of the results of our work is that now, there is a commission in which both WHO (World Health Organization) and UNHCR (UN High Commission on Human Rights) are collaborating, to make urgently needed progress on this matter.

Also I learned that one of the biggest challenges of our times and certainly for the new set of goals that follow up on the MDGs, the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals, is to target inequality more effectively. Inequality between countries, but certainly also within countries, differences between rural areas and cities, but also within cities. The devastating effects of a world with inequality has become clearer, thanks to, also, social media and the internet.

Thirdly, I find that as international community, we can not value enough, transparency, information and accountability. These are needed to make progress. According to my opinion, donor countries should be held accountable more strictly, than so far has been done. It is easy to pledge large sums of money, but when it comes to delivering, far to often, donor countries and organizations, hide away.

You worked as a Policy Analyst at Fundação Samuel in Brazil and Kerk in Actie in the Netherlands. In both initiatives, your work had a focus on improving the status of women through education, health and economic development. Can you tell us more about your roles with these organizations, as well as some of the most valuable lessons you learned there?

Kathleen Ferrier: In the years in Latin America I got to know the practice of (female) empowerment and economic development in my day to day life, working in the poblaciones or favelas, like the slums are named in respectively Chile and Brazil. I understood what worked (only that what people themselves really desired, and not what some foreigner or donor organization thought might be good), I saw that THE agents of change for the better, are women as they are, often alone, responsible for educating and feeding the children, and therefor used to thinking creatively. We supported women, basically not by giving money, but by creating opportunities for them to act. Good example is the bread baking action women in Chile started after they discovered they had a common dream: to have a toilet inside the house. The raised money by starting a bread baking campaigning and earned enough money for making their dream come true. More importantly, however, thanks to the campaigning, they became a strong group, they became organized and that made it possible to speak with a loud and string voice. So they went tot he local governor and demanded street lights and public transport, as well as paved roads, so that their children could travel safely from work or school to home, even in the dark.  As project officer with the Dutch protestant Church, PKN, I could put all these experiences into practice by development of effective policies for empowerment and  development.

How has your personal Christian faith informed your worldview of justice and human rights?

Kathleen Ferrier: My faith has always guided me. It has given me the necessary trust to undertake anything I felt necessary, knowing I would absolutely get what it would take to bring my task to a (good) end. For me, basic in Christianity is that we are all sisters and brothers, we are equals and we are all related with each other and with the planet, through the love and energetic power of our Creator. Therefor,  inequalities we see regarding respecting human rights and regarding opportunities in life are unacceptable. That has always been my drive.

What are some often overlooked issues related to women and migration?

Kathleen Ferrier: Weird as it may seem, overlooked issues regarding women and migration, are the specific needs women have. As the ‘Special Representative for Migration’ for the OSCE (Organization for Security and Collaboration in Europe) Parliamentary Assembly, I visited many Central Asian and East European countries. Economic opportunities for female migrants, in cases of regular, legal migration, were often very limited, because women were simply not seen as having economic potential. Therefore, they often came to work in situations of modern slavery. In cases of illegal migration, both men and women become victims of exploitation and modern slavery.

Women in refuge camps have very specific needs, that are not attended to. This regards first of all their safety, but also comes down to needs for sexual and reproductive health issues and basic needs like the availability of sanitary napkins.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Kathleen Ferrier: My sister Joan. She was a life long fighter for a more just world and female empowerment. She was the example of pride, female, servant leadership. She combined a great sense of humor with a deep drive to make this world a better place for all, and achieved a lot, by uniting people, bridging differences.

Like my parents, she was an educator, believing in growth through change, self-confidence and agency. We were very close.  To my deep deep sadness, she passed away in 2014, on the effects of breast cancer.

What advice do you have for the next generation of advocates for women’s health?

Kathleen Ferrier: Firstly, see health and certainly women’s health, focussed on sexual and reproductive health and rights, as a basic human rights issue. Secondly: regard health in a holistic way, as part of the total of wellbeing, in a sustainable environment, with opportunities and access to education. It is all related! And never ever accept, that the life of a black poor women is less worth than a woman with a white skin, born in a privileged environment!

What are your favorite books, films, websites and resources related to women’s empowerment and international development?

Kathleen Ferrier:

Book: The Color Purple (Alice Walker), also the books of Amy Tan, specifically The Joy Luck Club.

Movies: Selma

What inspires me most however is music. Music and texts by Latin American writers (poets) and musicians like Chico Buarque da Hollanda (Brazil) Patricio Manns (Chili), Mercedes Sosa (Argentina) and many others.

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