Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Crown Princess Mary: A decade of giving back.

As Crown Princess Mary and her family enjoy a private holiday back in Australia, Her Royal Highness talks to Juliet Rieden about 10 years of the ground-breaking Mary Foundation, her deeply felt belief that everyone needs "a solid dose of empathy" and how this Tassie-born royal found her place in Denmark. 

Photo: Steen Brogaard
In 2004, in honour of the wedding of HRH Crown Prince Frederik to Australia's own Mary Donaldson, a 1.1 million kroner ($176,000) gift was raised in Denmark and Greenland. As wedding gifts go, this was a pretty generous one and certainly a sign of how much faith Danes had in their new Crown Princess. That trust was paid back in spades when three years later the new royal put the people's funds to work and launched her Mary Foundation. 
HRH The Crown Princess's vision was to create a powerful initiative that gave something back to Denmark, a program of projects that would tangibly help the most vulnerable and tackle key social problems. Under an overarching mantel of combating social isolation, based on the belief that everyone has a right to belong, the Mary Foundation has identified and developed around 10 projects within three focus areas of bullying and well-being, domestic violence and loneliness. 
"The last 10 years have been a rewarding and challenging journey," Crown Princess Mary tells The Weekly. "We have worked hard and in collaboration with experts and partners have established the Mary Foundation. That our efforts can help to improve people's lives and give them a sense of hope for the future, gives all of us at the Mary Foundation a sense of fulfillment and pride. However, today I am more convinced than ever that our work has only just begun. When working with social issues, you quickly find out that the more you learn, the more complex it becomes - and the more humble you get when it comes to creating lasting changes and securing long-term impact." The royal may feel humbled by the task, but Crown Princess Mary's passion is obvious and the Foundation is a proud badge of honour for Danes, who are hugely supportive of her work. 
The "Free of Bullying" program, pioneered by the Foundation, has been introduced into half of Danish kindergartens and a third of schools. So when Crown Princess Mary's youngest son came home talking about her work it was a wonderful moment for her, as a mother. "Vincent came home [from school] and told me that they were learning about `mum's project'," says Crown Princess Mary proudly. "I haven't sat them down and explained in detail what my work is focused on," she says. "However, they are definitely aware of some of the issues that deeply concern me, as we talk about them and they ask me questions about, for example, the children I meet in Africa." Six-year-old twins TRH Prince Vincent and Princess Josephine are in their first year at school. Like their elder siblings, TRH Prince Christian, 12, and Princess Isabella, 10, they are not at a private school, but a public school - Tranegardskolen in Hellerup, in suburban Copenhagen, just north of their home in the Amalienborg Palace. 
This is the first generation of Danish royal children not to have been privately educated, which is a big deal. The Danish court is more than 1000 years old — one of the oldest monarchies in the world — but as a new era hovers on the horizon with Crown Prince Frederik and his Tasmanian wife Crown Princess Mary at the helm, it is also proving to be one of the most modern and open-minded, and initiatives like the Mary Foundation's Free of Bullying program being widely used at classroom level are an important part of the new monarchy. 

Royal role model 

Danes also see Crown Princess Mary as a role model, says Lars Hovbakke Sorensen, royal commentator and Assistant Professor at Denmark's University College Absalon. "She is a role model in many different ways. But most important is in her care for children, women and other people with social or health problems. By her work she demonstrates that even if you are a person without any social or economic problems and even if you belong to the 'upper class' — or the royal family — you can talk and work together with any 'ordinary' person. She speaks with 'ordinary' people, to children and those facing social problems in a really natural way." This sense of genuinely connecting with people is key in the royal's personal message to her four children. "We feel that we have a responsibility as part of our role as parents to bring up our children to be open and tolerant adults, with a solid dose of empathy," the Crown Princess explains. "It is important that we have the ability to reflect and to put ourselves in the situation of others, to see things from another perspective. Empathy is what holds our world together." 
Empathy is certainly at the heart of the Mary Foundation's work. "The Foundation has been very effective," says Sorensen, "both regarding the concrete work but also because Crown Princess Mary's personal engagement in the work creates a new [and vital] attention to the problems the Foundation works with." 

Photo: Kongehuset

The need to belong.

I ask the Crown Princess what spurred her on, not just to establish the Foundation, but to concentrate on the areas she has chosen, including social isolation. For Crown Princess Mary, it seems it was elemental. "As far back as I can recall, I have always found it difficult to see a person seemingly alone, a person standing on the outside looking in, a person who doesn't feel like they belong," she explains. "I believe that we all have a fundamental need to be an accepted and valued member of a group, that we are an important part of something greater than ourselves. Alone, we feel vulnerable. This is the basic idea behind the Mary Foundation's underlying philosophy that everyone has the right to belong. All of our work and efforts are targeted at combating social isolation, whether it leads to or is the result of bullying, domestic violence or loneliness. Today, we know that the feeling of happiness and the quality of our health are closely linked to whether we feel that we have good and close relations." 
Tackling bullies Bullying is one of the Foundation's key areas and a hot topic for all mothers as vicious trolls on social media wreak emotional devastation all over the world and fuel terrifying social scourges such as the rise in teen suicide. "The dynamics of bullying are the same online and offline," says Crown Princess Mary. "But social media does provide a new channel for bullying. Digital bullying extends bullying past the school day and it is therefore often experienced as a relentless pressure and stress. Another factor is that messages or words alone — which are often sent anonymously — can have an even more brutal impact than if said face-to-face. "In Denmark, the way we view bullying is changing," she adds. "Today the focus is more and more on the group and each child within the group, no longer just the children who bully and the children who are being bullied. We view bullying as not being about vulnerable children or mean children, but rather about unhealthy dynamics within a group. Therefore, if we are to effectively combat bullying, we have to engage everyone within the group. It's about the group, with the guidance and support of teachers and parents, creating a common set of values and a common understanding of what it means to be a good friend. Creating a culture where bullying within the group is seen as unacceptable. 
"This is the basic idea behind Free of Bullying — an anti-bullying program developed by the Mary Foundation and Save the Children Denmark (with inspiration from Australia's Alannah and Madeline Foundation's Better Buddies Program) which is today widely used throughout Denmark, and attracts increasing interest from other countries." 

Photo: Ida Marie Odgaard, Scanpix ©

Evolving the monarchy.

The work is incredibly impressive and is no doubt one factor in the Crown Princess' popularity. Eighty-two per cent of the Danish population is now in support of a monarchy, up from 77 per cent before Crown Princess Mary joined the family. And it's paving the way for the Crown Prince Couple as they head closer to Crown Prince Frederik's future as King with his wife beside him as Queen Consort. The Crown Princess turns 46 in February and 2018 will mark 14 years since she joined Denmark's royal elite. Sorensen says Danes are not only thrilled with their Aussie royal, they are also really proud of her. 
"The Danish people feel that Crown Princess Mary really cares about Danes and is interested in all aspects of Danish society. Especially in her work for children with health or social problems and for women all around the world. By her international activities, the Crown Princess contributes to making Denmark visible on the global scene. Danes appreciate this a lot." The first step towards bonding with her people was learning the language. "Crown Princess Mary's Danish is very good, and she learned quickly," explains Sorensen. "Especially in a small country like Denmark, it is important a person from abroad learns the language. It's about Danish national identity and self-understanding." And while the pomp, ceremony and living quarters of royal life take the royal children into a whole different realm, the young princes' and princesses' daily lives are as `normal' as they can. Indeed as we go to press on this story, Crown Princess Mary is preparing to bring her family back home to Australia for the holiday season. Intriguingly, the Crown Prince Couple has managed to forge a unique and respectful relationship with the Danish public and media, and even though their family attracts crowds wherever it goes, this hasn't prevented them from venturing outside Palace walls. Unlike the British royals, who are plagued with paparazzi, this is a couple regularly seen around Copenhagen and left in peace. "Crown Princess Mary rides her bike around Copenhagen with her children and she goes to sports with them such as horseback-riding, swimming and ballet," says Helle Bill Madsen, journalist and royal watcher at Denmark's popular Her&Nu magazine. "What's more, she is considered a great, loving and supporting wife to Crown Prince Frederik." It's been quite a journey from Aussie commoner Mary Donaldson to Crown Princess and it hasn't been completely plain sailing. 
Loneliness is another of the cornerstone issues for the Mary Foundation, and while the Foundation's work is with chronic situations and debilitating social isolation, it is a topic the Crown Princess has personal experience of. "I did experience a feeling of loneliness — short-term — when I first moved to Denmark," she admits. "Moving to Denmark was a huge change in my life; a new culture, new language, new friends and another way of life. So, I see it as quite natural that at times I felt quite alone or a little bit like I was on the outside looking in. Luckily, I had a lot of caring and supportive people around me and I was also aware that it would take time to find my place and feel settled — to feel like I belong."

Photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen ©
"When we talk about loneliness, it's important to distinguish between short-term and long-term loneliness," the Crown Princess explains. "Short-term and situation-specific loneliness is a natural part of life and something we can all experience when big changes in our lives happen, such as divorce, loss of a loved one or moving to a new environment. This is the body's way of reminding us that we should seek relationships with others. Loneliness over a longer period or chronic loneliness is different; it can lead to harmful consequences for our quality of life and health." The research the Foundation has carried out discovered that "employment and having a partner are protective factors when it comes to the risk of experiencing long-term loneliness". 
The current Danish monarchy is suffering its own pangs of loneliness. Prince Henrik, 83, retired in 2016, leaving 77-year-old Queen Margrethe to shoulder the burdens of royal office alone. Denmark's Queen is positively youthful compared to 91-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, whose "rock", Prince Philip, 96, similarly retired this year, but for Queen Margrethe there were more troubling circumstances to deal with. 
In September 2017, a heart-rending announcement revealed that Prince Henrik was suffering from dementia and together Denmark is supporting their Queen through this tough time. But the persistent rumour that Queen Margrethe will abdicate and hand over to her son continues to swirl despite Her Majesty stating she will hold the throne until she dies. 
Sorensen says such suggestions are no more than idle gossip. "In Denmark there is an extremely long tradition for the head of state (the king or the reigning queen) to stay in office as long as he/she lives. Last time a Danish king resigned before he died was in 1523, when King Christian II left the country because of a revolt against him. Since that time every head of state has reigned until death. Queen Margrethe will probably not break with this long historic tradition," he explains. But when their time 
comes, Sorensen says, the Crown Prince Couple will make a wonderful King and Queen Consort. "They will become a very modern royal couple — more informal than Queen Margrethe and Prince Consort Henrik have been. And that will be really good for the future of the monarchy." 
In the meantime, Crown Princess Mary has more work to do, and the the third focus area of the Mary Foundation is tackling the issue of domestic violence, now at epidemic levels globally. "Violence against women is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world," explains the Crown Princess. "It knows no social, economic or national boundaries. Globally, an estimated one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in her lifetime, and gender-based violence undermines the health, dignity, security and independence of its victims, yet it remains shrouded in a culture of silence. 
"In the Mary Foundation, we strive to empower the individual woman and to support her in starting a new life, free of violence."

Originally published by Australian Women's Weekly's January 2018 Issue. Interview by Juliet Rieden.


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