In Memoriam: Mia Berden, founder of the Women and Development Programme

3rd April 1914- 24th October 2011. Memorial written by colleagues and friends from the Women, Gender and Development Programme

Oud Arbeidsinspectrice en Lid van de Staf van het Directoraat van de Arbeid

Ex lecturer at the Institute of Social Studies

Officer in de Orde van Oranje Nassau


Tall, silver haired with a firm step, her tremendous energy and strength unaltered, till the last few weeks, Mia Berden left us on 23rd October 2011 at the grand old age of 97. She joined the ISS in 1967 as Lecturer in Industrial and Labour Relations in the Social Policy course. Her past experience as Inspectoress of Labour, as well as the hardships of the 1930’s and the brutality and traumas of fascism, forged a strong desire to fight for social justice, which she did consistently throughout her life.

She leaves behind a great legacy, having planted a special species of saplings all over the world. One of her greatest contributions has been the establishment of the Women, Gender and Development program at the ISS. After attending the World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975, she proposed the setting up of a program on women and development in the ISS. In order to develop this concept further, in 1977 she convened a three month meeting of feminist activists and academics from Bangladesh, Peru, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Somalia, Colombia and Jamaica at the ISS, led by anthropologist Kate Young and economist Ingrid Palmer. Many of these women went on to create women’s organizations in their own countries as well as became key figures in women’s movements globally and nationally and key decision-makers in government institutions and within international aid agencies (for instance Mahmuda Islam from Women for Women in Bangladesh; Roxanna Carrillo founder of the Centro Feminista Florsa Tristan in Peru; Sunila Abeysekera who in 1998 won the UN Human rights prize for her work on women’s human rights). The workshop recommended that ISS establish women and development as a study area. However, it was not easy to challenge male domination as well as androcentricism in existing structures of knowledge within the ISS. Mia has shared many stories with us about the resistance as well as the support for the program as she fought singlehandedly to get it established.

The program started as a sub-specialisation in 1978, and became a full MA specialisation in 1982. Mia recruited Maria Mies in 1979 and Kumari Jayewardena in 1980 to teach in the program; they created an innovative, critical and stimulating curriculum. After Maria Mies left and the program was under threat, Mia drew in Rhoda Reddock to take on the convenorship, followed by Saskia Wieringa. She was also instrumental in recruiting Prof Geertje Lycklama and Amrita Chhachhi. The team of the ‘women’s program’ (as it was called in those days) expanded with ThanhDam Truong, Aurora Carreon, and subsequently with Loes Keyers, Renee Pittin, Irene Dubel joining the program grew, stabilised and gained respect and recognition within the ISS and globally. Despite many changes over the past many years, it is with pride that we see that the sapling Mia planted has flourished and has grown into a tree with many branches and deep roots and is still alive, having graduated more than 600 students as specialists in Women, Gender and Development.

After retirement Mia remained linked with the WGD through the global community of WGD alumni, who continue to meet virtually and in the real world, pursuing the agenda of women’s rights and gender justice. She excelled in making connections and building bridges across generations of women.

Mia was a great advocate of the integral link between women’s studies and the women’s movement and praxis as the basis for knowledge production. She used to coordinate the research methodology course and synthesizing exercise where participants experimented with activist research and engaged with issues and organizations in the Netherlands. She was critical for the success of the W&D international research project on The History of Women's Movements and Organisations, along with Maria Mies and Saskia Wieringa, co-coordinated by Loes Keysers and Jyotsna Agnihotri Gupta. Mia supported, in particular, the activist researchers who had to work under very difficult circumstances, and contributed in her own way to the project’s production of original research and publications on Jamaica and St. Vincent and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, Peru in Latin America, Indonesia and India in Asia and Somalia and Sudan in Africa.

Quiet, determined and suffused with inner strength and compassion, Mia planted many other saplings by supporting individuals as well as organizations, which have also grown into trees.

Mia embraced the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother in Auroville, India, which she visited regularly. As a member of the board of de Zaaier, she supported a number of development projects in Auroville since 1986. She was instrumental in providing MA and PhD research scholarships to a number of researchers from developing countries working on gender and women’s development issues.

Some of the many initiatives by ISS alumni that she support

  • The program of Gender Studies at University of West Indies. Mia helped to find funds for the position of an Outreach Officer who would facilitate that linkage between the academic program and the women's movement and wider community true to her belief that Women's Studies without the Women's Movement would die.
  • The Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC), Sri Lanka.
  • The Pakistan Institute for Labour Education and Research, active on issues of labour, women, child labour and campaigns for peace in the South-Asian region.
  • and many many others……..

Our founder mother and grandmother of the WGD has moved on to another realm this week but her spirit remains in all of us and she will continue to inspire all those she touched. We celebrate her contributions, remarkable strength and unshakeable commitment to the cause of women’s emancipation, which she saw as requiring personal plus socio-political transformation.

We are women who seek to performan alchemy of self
We speak of pain
We speak of the transformation of pain
We sing of the cave
We sing of the sky within the cave
We whisper the secrets of water
Whisper of fire in water
We are of then and now
Both dark and radiant
broken and whole
(from Wild Mothers by Sheba Chhachhi)

Amrita Chhachhi, Loes Keysers, Ireen Dubel, Jyotsna Agnihotri Gupta, Rhoda Reddock

See for more information

Read poems written by ISS alumni for Mia

Read Memorial messages from around the world

Publication date: 31 October 2011