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‘I want to give young researchers the opportunities that I had’

Riet Groenen was able to spend almost a year in Fiji for her thesis research on fertility and family planning thanks to donations from funds. Her studies, research experience and focus earned her a job at the United Nations. Groenen dedicated her career to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to ending violence against women.

After Groenen retired, she and her husband added the LUF to their wills so that future students will also be able receive financial support for their research.

Groenen as a student in Leiden

Finding her calling in Leiden

From her very first day in Leiden, Riet Groenen knew she was in the right place. Having studied Social Work in Breda, she came to Leiden to study Cultural Anthropology. The importance of having a specific research question was stressed in the introduction to a course on social science research.

Groenen already had a question in mind: what factors determine if and when women have children and how many children they have? A day later Professor Speckmann gave her a publication about demography. ‘There were so many interesting issues presented such as birth, death, migration and population policies in different countries’, she says. ‘Access to contraception and cultural, social and medical aspects: they all played a role in my question.’

‘That field research was the highlight of my studies’

From that point, Groenen knew which direction she wanted to take. ‘In those days, you could still study without time restrictions’, she says. ‘In the eight years that I spent studying in Leiden, I took as many courses and read as many textbooks as I could.’

She completed her studies with anthropological field research. ‘I wanted to go to Oceania and chose Fiji, the largest archipelago in the South Pacific. The research among the two populations there – the indigenous inhabitants of Fiji and the descendants of contract workers brought to Fiji from India in colonial times – focused on fertility differences between the two groups and the sociocultural factors, including contraception, that might play a role. The trip to Fiji and the stay there were really expensive, so I had to look for funding. I was fortunate enough to receive funding from the LUF, among others. That field research was the highlight of my studies.’

Village in Fiji (Photo: Riet Groenen)

Women’s rights

During her research in Fiji, Groenen stayed with the local community in various villages. There she saw the effects of domestic violence. ‘One day a daughter returned to her family with visible injuries because she had fled from her husband’, she says. ‘Rather than take her in and offer help, her father sent her back. She was no longer his responsibility and was told that she should listen to and obey her husband. That was a shocking experience for me: she was held responsible for the violence done to her. Her husband’s violent behaviour was not even questioned.’

After graduating, Groenen worked at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). ‘The UNFPA focuses on population dynamics and sexual and reproductive health and rights’, she explains. ‘Women’s autonomy, particularly when it comes to sexuality, their bodies and contraception, is central. All over the world, the responsibility for preventing unwanted pregnancy still lies largely with women. That makes it important for women to have knowledge and control over this, as well as access to contraception and good reproductive healthcare.’

Groenen in New York for her first job

Scientific research

Throughout her career at the UN, Groenen clearly noticed the importance of scientific research. ‘The most effective way to get governments to recognise and acknowledge that there is a certain problem in their country is to provide reliable data’, she explains. ‘I have regularly witnessed heads of governments state at global meetings that there is no violence against women in their country. But when your own family sends you back to your violent partner or you can’t turn to the police or other agencies for help, or when there are no shelters, then girls and women internalise that violence. They think it’s part of life. Women rarely talk about it and feel responsible for and ashamed of what has happened to them. In addition, the absence of police records as well as lack of scientific data on violence against women, results in governments not having an accurate picture of the problem.’

On a UNFPA working visit to Uzbekistan

Groenen has managed to convince the relevant ministries in various countries to conduct national research on violence against women. ‘A large national survey provides insight into the prevalance and specific aspects of the problem’, she says. ‘As the UN, we provided funding, technical support and the best researchers to carry out the research. Based on the results, policies can be formulated, legislation adapted and multi-sectoral programmes developed on prevention, support and assistance to survivors of violence. In various countries, laws and policies on sexual and physical violence have been developed, national awareness-raising campaigns launched and training programmes delivered for the police, judges, doctors, nurses and teaching staff, among others. But protocols have also been developed to address violence against women and punish perpetrators.’

UN Women

In 2011, the UN created a new organisation to improve the support offered to countries in terms of equal rights and the empowerment of women: UN Women. ‘I was hired in 2013 as Chief of the Ending Violence Against Women Section at its New York headquarters’, says Groenen. ‘The UN Commission on the Status of Women was held a few months later, on the topic of “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls”. UN Women coordinated this event and provided technical support. All UN member states were invited to negotiate a new global agreement and action plan.

‘Every sentence, every word, every comma had to be agreed on by all the representatives’

‘For two whole weeks, until late into the night, all aspects of violence against women were discussed and a draft agreement drawn up. Every sentence, every word and every comma had to be agreed on by all the representatives. It was no mean feat to reach a consensus with all those countries about all aspects of violence against women: the causes, effects and necessary measures to be taken by different parties at the national, regional and global levels. This agreement gives all countries in the world, the UN and regional and national organisations a clear framework to which they are to adjust their legislation, policy and programmes. An incredibly important step.’

Groenen in Vienna where she now lives


Since retiring to Vienna with her husband, Groenen feels contentment as she looks back at her career. ‘It gave me great satisfaction to work in different parts of the world on serious social issues and to work together with different women’s groups, governments, NGOs and UN partners. It was such a worthwhile experience to be part of a movement that really brings about social change for women and girls. That’s why I really wanted to financially support students with their research on this topic.’

Groenen and her husband approached the LUF to ask what the options were for a legacy. ‘They responded very professionally to all our questions’, she says. ‘We could indicate which direction we wanted to take and they came up with a custom solution in the form of a named fund. That means that our money will be used for interdisciplinary research that focuses on various aspects of violence against women, such as prevention, assistance, legislation and policy in non-western countries. By offering this money, I hope to motivate more young researchers to work in this field and pursue a career in it.

‘Violence against women is a huge problem worldwide and prevents women from full and equal participation in society. Now in particular, with conservative voices getting louder in various countries, and women’s rights being further restricted, it is hugely important that scientific research and data lead to effective policy and legislation.’

To find out more about the options for leaving a legacy to the LUF, you can request our ‘A gift for the future’ brochure (in Dutch) online right away. aanvragen. you can contact senior relationship manager Liesbeth van Biezen at 071 527 6094 or e.van.biezen@luf.leidenuniv.nl

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