Interview with Katrin Schiffer

Today, 8th March 2024, for International Women's Day, we had the privilege of speaking with Katrin Schiffer, a leader in the field of harm reduction. Katrin has committed her career to defend and work for people who often struggle to have their voice heard.

Katrin Schiffer is the director of the Correlation European Harm Reduction Network, a civil society organization in the Netherlands. Katrin is also the Head of the International Department of Stichting De Regenboog Groep (the Rainbow Group Foundation), an NGO committed to supporting people suffering from poverty, addictions, psychiatric problems or homelessness in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

During her career, she has been involved in drug policy and advocacy, which she describes as a major challenge most of the times due to the complexity of tackling social issues and advocate for people who is in vulnerable or marginalised situations.

The Person Behind the Name

Aina: Katrin, we would like to know more about yourself both personally and professionally, how would you describe yourself?

Katrin: This is a difficult question… I’m eager, I’m dedicated and I am committed to what I do.. This is the field where I wanted to work. It doesn’t mean that it was an easy way, but if I want something, I go for it. I wouldn’t turn around if something was in the way, I would find a way to overcome it. I am very happy with what I am doing. My idea was not necessarily to be in a leading position, it happened naturally. I enjoy my position, but it is the kind of work which really interests me.

I’m working in different projects, and most importantly, I’m working on the things where my heart lies. What we do matters, and this is what I wanted. To me, what makes a life worthwhile is that you do things which matter and make a difference.

I have been working for 30 years in the same organisation. Which is unbelievable. Time flies and I really love my work, the colleagues and the friends, which I made throughout the years.

More generally, I think I am easy-going and like to cooperate with others in good partnership. I’m not competitive. I’m a team player and truly believe in collaboration. Not only because I need a friendly environment, but also because I believe that this works.

A Journey in Social Work

The Roots: From Home to AMOC

Aina: Katrin, how did you initially get involved in drug policy and advocacy, and how your journey helped you lead to your current position?

Katrin: I never know where to start when I got asked this question… It was very early. My mother volunteered in a prison in Germany. We often had people from prison at home, also during Christmas holidays, especially those who did not have family or friends.  I grew up with the idea that this is how you deal with people. Look at the person, be open and do not stigmatise. There is always a story behind.

Later, I studied Social Work in Germany, with a strong focus on marginalised groups, such as young people in disadvantage areas and people experiencing homelessness. During my studies, at one point I looked for an internship outside of Germany, and went to AMOC, in Amsterdam, AMOC is a walk-in centre for people who use drugs, nowadays part of the Regenboog Groep. During my internship at AMOC, I realised this is where my heart lies.  Also, I felt in love with the city of Amsterdam, so I decided to stay in Amsterdam, after finishing my studies in Germany.

A Decade of Outreach Work in Amsterdam

Katrin: I wrote my undergraduate thesis in Amsterdam, which was about migrant sex workers. At the time, I also needed to survive too, so I worked as a cleaner, but also had a side job in the night shelter of AMOC, and worked as a volunteer in the Drop-In for Street Sex Workers in Amsterdam.

Later, I got a position as social worker at AMOC. I worked as an outreach and social worker for male sex workers in Amsterdam, mainly doing outreach work in the streets or bars. I was the first woman working in this field in Amsterdam. I entered a male-oriented environment, and though I really liked the job and working with the group, it was tough and I felt I always had to be assertive, to not be seen as a young girl.

Only one year later, I started coordinating the first European Project and Network – the European Network Male Prostitution, consisting of more than 20 organisations across Europe. We established cooperation and provided support to male sex workers.

A Switch to Coordination: the Start of Correlation

Katrin: In 2003, I had my first child. Because the coordination work for European projects required more time, I stopped working as social worker. Which was good, as I also felt that I became more attached to the people I worked for, to their stories and what they experienced.

A year after, in 2004, my colleague Eberhard and I established Correlation, a broader European Network, focusing on the binding elements of social exclusion and access to health. As a result, we created what is currently known as Correlation, which at the time was named European Network on Social Inclusion and Health. At the time, harm reduction was only one element of it, but there were other elements such as youth and sex workers. This network aimed to provide services based for those not having access health, being marginalised, and being stigmatised. 

… and this is how I ended here. We have been running Correlation since then. It has been quite a travel. We started the network, due to the practical needs within our organisation. Now, we are having more than 370 members across Europe and address a broad range of topics, based on the needs of our members. 

The growth Correlation has experienced in the last two decades is quite something. There are other networks that exist for a long time. But it is exceptional that an NGO – De Regenboog Group – operating at the local level that has managed to establish and maintain such a stable network. We are all proud of it. This was not the work of just one of us. We did it all together


Being a Woman in the World of Drug Use

Aina: How do you think being a woman has shaped your professional path, and which challenges have you experienced as a woman in a leadership position?

Katrin: I guess many women would recognise this feeling of not being good enough. In my case, this feeling only stopped a few years ago. Many women feel that way. Not having enough capacities and knowledge. And this is why many women do their extra best. Sometimes I felt that I was selling something that I did not have in me. I did a Master’s in Public Health back in 2011, in parallel to my work, as I wanted some kind of professional back-up.  Throughout the years, I realised that men are much more assertive and convinced about themselves and their work. They quickly feel or behave as experts, while women are more hesitant. It took a long time for me to no longer think that I had to prove myself.  

I think it’s age. Certainly, I still have feelings of insecurity very often, but I also feel more grounded. I am no longer pulling myself down and I realise that my experience has made me a senior with valuable knowledge and expertise. And I now dare to say that I am good at certain things.

Aina: What would you tell young women starting their professional career to avoid this feeling of insecurity and always questioning their capacities?

Katrin: I would say this feeling of insecurity is somehow good. My insecurity made me work, read, and train a lot, and really look into how I could improve myself. Young women should not stop doing it. Things have not changed yet, and we still have to prove ourselves much more to the outside world than men.

But I would also tell them to trust themselves more, and also take the credit for what they have achieved, do not always give the credits to others. They should be proud of what they are doing. Also, do not take a side way, even if things are frightening. Try to face your fears, even if this means that you need to invest more. You will fail from time to time, but this is part of the process. No one ever always wins and succeeds, you can only learn from things if you fail once in a while. Also, support each other. Make a good network with other women.


Aina: Women often experience stigma and discrimination differently in the context of drug use, how do you perceive the unique challenges that women face in accessing support and services, and what initiatives have you supported to address these challenges?

Katrin: Looking back to the drop-in centres when I started working, it is clear that the field of harm reduction is a men’s world.  If you walk in a drop-in centre, you will see 80 or 90% of men. It is a hard world, and women have a very hard time in it. There is a lot of violence and trauma, which is currently insufficiently addressed in most services. Women also face other problems. Particularly women with children who often lose them or are in constant fear of losing them.

What I have experienced is that women who use drugs have found alternative ways of surviving. There are women who engage in longer-term relationships with their clients, offering support, such as food or housing.

What is needed? Women need more protection. Women need a place where they feel safe.  For example, many years ago when I worked in in AMOC, we had specific opening hours for women, where they could come, for specific services for women. This is what they need, a safe space where they can share their experiences with each other, talk, support each other and have fun.

When I worked as a volunteer in the Drop-In for Street Sex worker , we offered a safe place, where women could come in, have a coffee, a quick sleep, eat something, get condoms or have a small chat. At one point, the city government agreed to set up a protected area in which women could sell sex. Cars could park there and the work could directly be done in these boxes. It was safe. It avoided clients having to take women to other places.

During this time, I understood how important it is to provide women with a safe place where they can just go, and they do not have to talk to a social worker or to anyone. It also did not look as a clinical space at all, it was more like a living room. They could come in, sit on the couch, have a shower, and only if they wanted to, they could talk. It was an extremely relaxed atmosphere. This low threshold environment, made many women open up and share their stories. Overall, the social element of this place was something extremely important for them to open up.


The Evolution of Harm Reduction Services: Women and Gender

Aina: How has the field of harm reduction been changing? What areas do you think need more work to advance harm reduction services?

Katrin: There is a clear awareness that we need more services for women. The problem is that the biggest group attending harm reduction services are men. My question then is, where are these women we do not reach? They are probably not there. We do not see them, because, as I mentioned before, they have found other strategies to survive. They have learned how to take care of themselves,
and others. Women who use drugs, are often those in charge of taking care of the children, and of their own partner, if they both consume. 

The least we can do is look for them. We should find women who might need support, and identify which support they need, even if they already have some form of it. This needs to be done with women themselves, find peers and places where they hang around.


 Aina: In those lines, is there any particular project you are determined to pursue in the near future? Maybe, as you are talking about this, could a project around services for women be one of the projects you would like to pursue?

Katrin: We are now focusing more and more on the need for gender-sensitive services and this does not only include women. Gender is broader. We need to extend our focus to non-binary people, and address problems and specific forms of violence, discrimination,
stigma, etc. 

Overall, I do not have a very specific project, nor know exactly what we are going to do in the following years, but we will keep working. We are certainly interested in looking into how good practices can be further implemented. 


The BOOST project: Why is it different?

Aina: Lastly, in regard to the BOOST project, what makes it different, and how do you think the BOOST project can contribute to advancing the field of Harm Reduction?

Katrin: The BOOST project is an amazing project, because it brings together a number of different players to address different areas, including data collection, monitoring, capacity building, and the upscaling of good practice through mentorship programmes.

Collaboration and Advocacy are strong elements in BOOST. We managed to bring together the four European Networks – C-EHRN, EHRA, EuroNPUD, and DPNSEE. We combine forces and developed a Joint Advocacy strategy, covering the forthcoming five years. This collaboration creates synergy, and will increase our impact. It makes a difference if you join forces and create an alliance with a clear message and focus: “These are our priorities. This is what we want to change. We go for it.”