Some 107,000 women belong to KVLV, or Catholic Organisation of Rural Women. It developed from what was originally the Boerinnenbond, or Women Farmers’ Association. Yet an aging membership has fallen from its 1991 peak of 163,000 members and continues to drop.
As part of its revitalisation plans, the organisation is making a concerted effort to attract a younger generation and keep abreast of new trends in society. KVLV’s new website has a fresh and modern look with plenty of photos of women in their 20s and 30s. And the group’s new tagline, “Vrouwen met vaart” (Women on the move), is a guiding principle for all its activities, which range from cooking classes to professional training courses.
“Together with other women, you can shape your life and your environment. That leads to becoming stronger and feeling more sure of yourself. That’s what KVLV is all about,” KVLV president Carla Durlet tells me from the group’s headquarters just outside Leuven.
Over the years, the organisation has changed its name, expanded its membership to include all women (rather than just women farmers) and broadened its range of activities. The key values that differentiate it from other women’s groups have, however, been there since the beginning: its focus on rural life and its Christian roots, as well as an emphasis on self-reliance and independence.
But the link with farmers remains strong. The boerinnen, who are today referred to as agravrouwen (agricultural women) and include farmers and horticulturalists, may only account for 10% of the organisation’s membership, but they still hold a central position. After all, many people still refer to KVLV as “the former Boerinnenbond”, reflecting the strength of the brand and how entrenched the group’s original name is in the Flemish psyche.
Every leap year, this section of the organisation celebrates Dag van de Agravrouw (Agricultural Women’s Day), with the next one falling on 28 February. This year’s celebration will kick off with a keynote speech by Flemish minister-president Kris Peeters, followed by a focus on using your talents as a springboard to success. In the afternoon will be two workshops from a broad selection of professional, cultural and social topics, and the event will end with a networking session.
The rural roots of KVLV are also embraced in its renowned Ons kookboek (Our Cookbook), which is a traditional wedding present and found in nearly every Flemish kitchen. “It’s the cooking bible of Flanders,” said Durlet, who puts its success down to its quality, simplicity and completeness.
Last month a congress focussing on the future of KVLV kicked off with young Flemish celebrity chef Jeroen Meus making a recipe from the very first edition of the cookbook, which was published in 1927 with a modest print run of 1,000 copies. Today the book’s sales are heading towards three million. It has been translated into French and published in Braille and audio versions.
Ons Kookboek provides a key source of income, alongside membership fees and subsidies from the government of Flanders. KVLV is keen to emphasise, however, that the organisation represents a lot more than one bestseller. The group is there to provide opportunities for all women and to enrich all aspects of their lives, be it through social activities, information evenings, legal advice or practical support.
Through KVLV’s approximately 1,000 groups spread across Flanders, “we have our finger on the pulse” of who today’s woman is, says Durlet. Throughout the year, KVLV’s branches organise about 54,000 different activities.
Working against KVLV is increased competition for women’s time and interest from gyms and sports clubs, computers and television. On the other hand, the organisation has been happy to note in recent years a move away from an overly individualistic and consumer-focused culture. “We have noticed a new mentality, a search for the authentic,” Durlet says, citing an interest among younger women to learn how to use a sewing machine or a general trend of going “back to the land”.
KVLV is keen to build on these trends and ensure that it attracts as many younger women as it can. It wants to be seen less as a place for coffee mornings and chit-chat and more as somewhere that emphasises the practical and makes a real difference to women’s lives. The organisation has in fact been doing that for years, through, for example, its child-care initiatives and social work actions in rural Flanders as well as community projects in developing countries.
To thrive in the 21st century, it’s not so much about the organisation changing what it does as changing people’s perceptions. A tough task, but not an impossible one.