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The Netherlands appoints #MeToo commissioner after fresh wave of sexual assault cases

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A new wave of high-profile #MeToo allegations has shocked the Netherlands — and this time, the government says it is taking action to tackle sexual harassment.

The Dutch government on Tuesday appointed Mariëtte Hamer as commissioner for combating inappropriate behavior and sexual violence, a new role in which she is tasked with coming up with a plan to tackle sexually inappropriate behavior and sexual violence.

Hamer, who’s the chairwoman of the Social Economic Council — a government advisory board — and former lawmaker for the Labor Party (PvdA), said she expects an increase in the number of reports “as we initiate conversations about transgressive behavior.”

“In other countries where such a conversation has already been started, you see those numbers go up first, and only then down,” she said in an interview with Dutch media. 

When the #MeToo movement reached the Netherlands in 2017, there “was a lot of outrage, but it didn’t go any further than that,” said Willy van Berlo, a program manager at Rutgers, a Dutch research organization that supports young people on sexual health and rights in the Netherlands and around the world.  

At the time, “there was the occasional incident that made the news, but attention faded again,” van Berlo said, adding that “the Netherlands apparently needed a large second wave of reports in their own country to let the realization sink in: Sexual transgression is a major social problem and something needs to change in the culture.”

Other countries, including France and Denmark, have witnessed in recent years a rise in sexual assault cases — years after the #MeToo movement began following the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the many sexual harassment cases that came to light in its aftermath.

The surge in fresh allegations was sparked by a YouTube documentary about sexual intimidation and abuse surrounding popular TV talent show “The Voice of Holland,” which detailed a long list of claims about sexual abuse, inappropriate comments and even one instance of rape. 

The TV show scandal is not the first time that sexual abuse has made headlines in the Netherlands. A prominent Dutch casting director was accused of widespread sexual misconduct in 2017, and the country has seen cases in the worlds of sports and politics

But none of those had as much resonance as “The Voice of Holland” scandal, according to Freek Walther, a trainer of counselors, partly because this case implicated some of the Netherlands’ best-known celebrities.

Since the allegations came to light this month, Dutch organizations and charities say they have seen a surge in calls reporting sexual abuse.

The police said in a statement on Monday that its sex crimes teams was “busier than usual.” And the Sexual Assault Center, a national organization that helps the victims of abuse and misconduct, said the number of calls it had received was up 508 percent

On Sunday, Marc Overmars, a former player for the Dutch national football team turned senior executive at the country’s biggest club, Ajax, quit and apologized for what the club called a “series of inappropriate messages” sent to several female colleagues.

New accusations also hit Hamer’s own PvdA, with one of its MPs, Gijs van Dijk, stepping down and apologizing following accusations of inappropriate behavior.

One of the women accusing van Dijk of inappropriate behavior said she reported his actions to the police and party leadership as early as 2019.

Cornelia Klaster, who was chair of a PvdA committee on poverty, recounted that she had frequent meetings with Van Dijk who, despite being told not to, hugged her so hard she was left with bruises on her breast. 

An investigation by an external research firm found her complaint groundless, but Klaster said there was a prominent PvdA member on the research firm’s supervisory board — rendering the investigation worthless. 

Party leader Lilianne Ploumen said Thursday that the 2019 investigation had been “thorough and independent” but added that the case would form part of a new probe into van Dijk’s behavior. 

Widespread problem

More than 100,000 people report sexual assault every year in the Netherlands, 90 percent of whom are women. Two out of 3 women reported that they were harassed on Dutch streets in 2021, according to figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics. 

“In a society that is praised for its open and tolerant attitude and known for its progressive approach to sexuality education in schools, news of sexual abuse allegations does not surprise us,” said van Berlo. 

“Our approach to sex education has paid off; it has led to low numbers of teen pregnancies and abortions. However, this approach in schools is not focused enough on reducing sexual violence and exposing harmful gender views,” she said. 

“In this area, the Netherlands and many other countries still have a lot of work to do.”

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