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‘Without the law degree programme, I would not have become a Children’s Ombudsperson.’

Margrite Kalverboer, Children’s Ombudsperson and professor
Margrite Kalverboer, photo: Reyer Boxem
Margrite Kalverboer, photo: Reyer Boxem

Text: Ellis Ellenbroek, translation: UVC

Studying law in addition to orthopedagogy—Children’s Ombudsperson and University of Groningen professor Margrite Kalverboer (1961) says that this was one of the best steps she has ever taken in her life. An interview on doing what is expected of you, choosing for yourself and dealing with whatever comes your way.

What did you learn in your early years about studying and building a career?
‘In our home, the focus was on knowledge and interest, not on what you could do or earn with a degree programme. My sister, my brother, and I were taught that we should always keep developing ourselves. Academics were very strongly emphasized. My mother had wanted to continue her education. Although she was quite good at learning, the conditions were not right. She came from a poor farm family with eight children. The fact that she went to the HBS (higher civic school) was quite an accomplishment in itself. Her books were two or three editions too old. When the teacher was on Page 4, she would be on Page 2 or 3. It was impossible to keep up. Later, she attended the moedermavo (junior general secondary education for adult women).
My father came from a family of educators. My grandfather was the school principal. He died when my father was 16 years old. My father attended the HBS and, while he was there, he had the highest marks that any student had ever achieved. The premature death of his father left the family with no money for university studies. He went to the kweekschool (teacher-training academy) and became a school principal as well, but that was not his dream. He wanted the academic element.’

Your father, Alex (1931-2017), eventually went on to study and, in 1974, he became Professor of Psychology at the University of Groningen Faculty of Social Sciences. Six years later, you went there as a student.
‘To some people, I was “the daughter of...” I had intentionally chosen not to study psychology, so that I wouldn’t run into him. That obviously occurred anyway. Once, I overheard a staff member say, “I saw Kalverboer walking with his daughter.” In essence, he thought that my father was paving the way for me. That type of comment stays with you. It’s so hurtful. No, I didn’t really like it that my father was a professor. I was not regarded as an independent person. In our family, it was obvious that my father was the great intellectual. My mother emphasized that. My sister and I had the feeling that we would never be able to measure up to him. That was not as much the case for my brother, who was very technical. My father didn’t even know how to hold a hammer. Whenever I would do anything good, I would think that it was a coincidence, or that I had guessed well on multiple choice. That insecurity was probably also related to my being a woman.’

You completed your degree in orthopedagogy, earned a doctorate and, a few years later, decided to pursue a degree in law.
‘I have always been interested in law. As a girl, however, I did not even dare to imagine it. Law was associated with the Vindicat student association, and we were socialists. I underwent surgery for cancer in 1998. It was uncertain whether what they found in my body was still treatable. The surgeon told me, “We might open you up and then close you up again right away.” My youngest child was two years old, and the oldest was six. Rehabilitation after the operation was the most difficult thing that I had ever done in my life. I had to start again from Square 1. I thought that I would never again be who I had been. I got through it, however, and I decided, “From now on, I’m going to do what’s important to me.” The degree programme in law, for example. I was the head of educational policy and treatment in Het Poortje, a juvenile corrections facility. I needed more knowledge in order to find out how to implement children’s rights from a pedagogical perspective. What do children need in order to develop themselves well? And how can those conditions be linked to the provisions of the Children’s Rights Convention? This resulted in the BIC (Best Interest of the Child, ed.) model, which I launched in 2006, together with my Orthopedagogy colleague Elianne Zijlstra. Because I was both an educator and a lawyer, my societal influence grew. Without that combination, I would never have become a Children’s Ombudsperson.’

Are you a role model?
‘Female students have asked me, “How can I come to do what you are doing?” “I want to be like you.” “I want to have influence as well.” My answer has always been to develop broadly and find a niche.

Have you ever thought that, as a woman, you have to go the extra mile, relative to a man?
‘Yes. At several points. For example, in Het Poortje. We were growing and growing. I had written a plan for further expansion. At some point, I got a male colleague with a lot of bravado. He did everything, and he could do anything—that was the impression he gave. He was not any better than I was, but he always had the first choice for his team. He sought out the very best psychologists, and I was left with the people he didn’t want. The funny thing was that my team worked perfectly. His was not going nearly as well. I then realized that men present themselves in a completely different way than women do.’

In 2014, you lost your husband, Ate Wiersma. He was a visual artist. In between jobs, you also went to art school, just like your father, who was also a well-known painter. What role has your art played in your life?
‘After my husband died, my youngest son asked me, “What did you actually do at art school?” I took out my work. I was shocked. I had never seen myself as a real artist. I regarded what I had done as a bit of fiddling on the sidelines. But what I saw was simply lovely! It was actually good! Ate was extremely talented, but he wrestled with that. He did not have an easy life. He once said to me, “You studied orthopedagogy and you went to art school and you’re a lawyer, and you even draw more than I do.” He wasn’t jealous. He was proud of me. But he felt as if he was standing in my shadow. I think he felt that he should have done all of those things. I’ve never stopped drawing. For the past few years, I’ve been doing self-portraits. I’ve already done hundreds of them. Some of them look like me, but others don’t at all. But they’re all me! I am keeping them for myself. No one is allowed to see them. At least not now. Only my children.’

Margrite Kalverboer

Margrite Kalverboer (Groningen, 1960) has been the Children's Ombudsperson in the Netherlands since April 2016. She studied orthopedagogy (1980-1986) and law (2002-2007) at the University of Groningen. At the same time she followed an education in drawing, painting and graphics at the Minerva Art Academy in Groningen. She obtained her doctorate in 1996. Her research gave insights into the reports from the Child Protection Board. After her PhD she was the director of pedagogical policy and treatment in the judicial youth institution Het Poortje in Groningen and gave lectures at the University of Groningen. In 2012, Margrite became professor by special appointment of Children, Pedagogics and Refugee and Asylum Law, endowed by Stichting Groningen Universiteitsfonds. She lives in Groningen - her sons (28 and 24) live next door - and has a houseboat in Amsterdam with her sister. This year Margrite became an Officer in the Orde of Oranje-Nassau.

Last modified:11 November 2021 4.20 p.m.
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