How women are
changing Indonesia

All over the islands of Indonesia, women are making change for themselves from the ground up. With support from research led by the University of Melbourne and Universitas Gadjah Mada, the future of gender equality in Indonesia is set for change.

By Susanna Ling

In Australia, the news coverage you read on Indonesia isn't usually about women's empowerment or gender equality. According to the United Nations, Indonesia currently ranks 116 on the Gender Inequality Index - a sign of the significant work to be done.

But research by academics from the University of Melbourne and Universitas Gadjah Mada suggests that grassroots change is in motion.

University of Melbourne researcher Dr Rachael Diprose is leading a project into Women's Collective Action and the Village Law in Indonesia with Dr Amalinda Savirani from Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta and Dr Ken Setiawan, also from Melbourne. The research is supported by the Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment, known in Indonesia as MAMPU.

A joint initiative of the Australian and Indonesian governments, MAMPU partners with 13 national civil society organisations in Indonesia, who in turn work with over 100 sub-partners at the local level, to develop women’s collective capacity and empower them to undertake poverty reduction initiatives, which includes influencing government policies to be more gender inclusive.

It focuses on improving women's access to social protection programs, women's employment, the protection of migrant workers, women's health and nutrition, and reducing violence against women.

But while the mandate of MAMPU to support women's empowerment may seem simple, the execution of the program by its civil society partners is not.

The Indonesian archipelago comprises tens of thousands of villages spread over thousands of islands. Each is culturally and geographically unique. Some villages don't have access to electricity or running water. Some are only reachable by boat, others are deep in the mountains. Some have been recently devastated by earthquakes and lack the resources to be rebuilt.

While Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, there are areas in which other religions predominate. There are over 300 different ethnic groups in Indonesia, each with its own culture, language, and customs.

Such a diverse environment poses complex challenges when it comes to women's rights and gender equality.

Dr Diprose and Dr Savirani's field team is piecing together the big picture of the work that civil society organisations, and the women's collective action groups they support, are undertaking. The goal of the research is to discover which approaches, strategies and environments have been most conducive to improving gender equality and empowering women, particularly in villages.

"The research aims to understand if and how the grassroots work of civil society organisations might be changing decision-making processes to be more inclusive of women and their needs across the diverse and complex landscape of Indonesian villages," says Dr Diprose.

"Many of these organisations establish or strengthen women's groups in villages, helping them to build their skills and exercise their voices in village decision-making. They also undertake broader advocacy work – working with government and other influential people to develop policies that are sensitive to the needs of women".

The outcomes of the research will inform the work of other civil society organisations and future national policy-making in Indonesia.

Changing the status quo

In much of Indonesia, women face enormous obstacles in achieving gender equality.

Child marriage is still practised in some places. In many rural and peri-urban areas, poverty levels are high and education levels are low, and entrenched cultural beliefs keep women in the home and out of public life.

Often, poor women don't have the basic paperwork (identity cards, for example), know-how, or confidence needed to access protection programs such as health cards. Access to health services is limited, particularly in the small islands in remote parts of the archipelago, and maternal mortality rates are high.

Poor women seeking new livelihood opportunities are vulnerable to manipulation by middlemen that organise migrant labour in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and Malaysia, and gender-based violence is a reality for many women, with 348,446 recorded cases in 2017 - and these, of course, are just the recordedones.

There's no question that these issues need drastic action on the part of governments.

But at the grassroots level, women's organisations are doing the painstaking work of "chipping away at social norms and structural barriers to gender equality", says Dr Diprose ("Reducing barriers to gender equality in Indonesia"), and the landscape is slowly changing.

One such organisation is the Women-Headed Family Empowerment (PEKKA) Foundation, a partner organisation of MAMPU which, among other skills-building and collective activities, supports households to access social protection programs in health and education through accessing identity cards.

Another such organisation is MAMPU partner Institute for Women' s Alternative Education (KAPAL Perempuan), which has established informal women's schools in 25 villages across Indonesia. These 'schools' consist of regular meetings between small groups of women where different activities are undertaken, but the women also make friends and form support networks.

A women's school on Sabanko Island established by KAPAL Perempuan
A women's school on Sabangko Island established by KAPAL Perempuan. Photo supplied.

With newly gained skills such as reading, writing and financial literacy, women are often able to establish small businesses and achieve economic independence. Some women's schools have even set up savings and loan cooperatives, meaning that they no longer need to go through loan sharks with exorbitant interest rates to get their businesses off the ground.

Economic empowerment means greater self-reliance. For some, it could be the difference between staying in a violent home out of necessity and having the choice to leave.

But the schools teach more than letters and numbers; they also share knowledge with village women about their rights. They teach them new skills, such as how to feel comfortable speaking in public, and train them in leadership. In a culture where women's voices are not heard in public forums, the schools represent a safe environment where women can discuss issues that affect their daily lives. The ultimate goal is for these women to take on more leadership roles so they can advocate for women's rights.

In July, I accompanied Dr Diprose to the tiny, sun-drenched islands of Pangkajene Kepulauan in South Sulawesi to meet with women from the village's women's school. It's clear that the school is making a difference to both their private and public lives.

Approximately 1500 people live on Salemo Island, many of whom are fishers
Approximately 1500 people live on Salemo Island, many of whom are fishers. Photo: Susanna Ling.

Many of the women tell the same story: before they started attending the school, they did the housework alone. In their village, they explain, there is the belief that if men do domestic work, their lives will be short. Having gained knowledge about gender inequality and the confidence to express how it impacts on them, women have taken the ideas they've learned out of the school and into their homes. Now, they say, their husbands help with domestic work, relieving the double burden of work inside and outside the home. It's a small but significant cultural shift.

The butterfly effect

Granted, such progress takes time - and when you consider that it can take a year of building trust before an organisation like KAPAL can establish a school in a new village, the idea that change at this micro level can achieve 'real' outcomes for women's equality may seem optimistic.

But the civil society organisations are seeing a butterfly effect. Where women were once too intimidated to set foot in the village office, they now regularly approach village leaders, take the steps necessary to access services and voice their opinions in village planning meetings.

This is particularly significant since the introduction of the Village Law in 2014, which changed the way the Indonesian government allocates budget to rural areas. Under the law, more than 74,000 villages in Indonesia each receive around USD$75,000 every year from the national budget for their development priorities and initiatives.

"The introduction of the Village Law represents an enormous change in Indonesia," says Dr Diprose. "Before this, villages received only a small amount of funds, and most policies were implemented by district or central governments".

The question, of course, is: who decides what to prioritise in a village? And whose needs must be taken into account?

Needless to say, women's voices have been largely unheard. While gender quotas for parliamentary candidates have been in place since 2003 and there are several female ministers, at the village level, politics is still a man's domain. Village heads are usually men, and women have been unwelcome or absent at village planning meetings. Inevitable, then, that it is still men who decide how money is spent.

But this too is changing.

"Our joint research is uncovering the ways that women's groups established or supported by civil society organisations are acting to influence village decision-making", says Dr Diprose.

Teach a woman to fish...

Nurlina is a fisherwoman from Sabangko Island, Salemo Island's closest neighbour off the western coast of South Sulawesi. With cropped hair, shorts and a black bomber jacket, she stands out amongst the bright dresses and sarongs of the other women.

Judging by the huge banner bearing her image as we step on to the island, Nurlina seems to enjoy almost rock-star status in her village.

Fisherwoman Nurlina on her fishing boat on Salemo Island
Fisherwoman Nurlina on her fishing boat on Salemo Island. Photo supplied.

Nurlina is one of many women on Sabangko Island whose livelihoods depend on fishing. In Indonesia, those recognised by the government as fishermen by occupation can apply to receive fisherman's insurance and a fisherman's card. It enables them to access government subsidies on fishing equipment, generators and diesel fuel to power their boats.

But until Nurlina demanded that fisherwomen in her village be given the same recognition as men, these benefits were inaccessible to female fishers.

According to Nur, who works for KAPAL's local partner organisation Yayasan Kajian Dan Pembangunan Masyarakat (YKPM), Nurlina today is unrecognisable from the Nurlina who started attending the women's school five years ago.

"She was shy, and sat in the corner behind everyone else," Nur remembers. "But through the process of education over two years she came to understand the importance of voicing her needs, and she also developed the ability to analyse what was happening on the island. She saw that it had to change."

In a meeting facilitated by YKPM, Nurlina spoke to the head of the regency to advocate on behalf of fisherwomen - and as a result, Sabangko's fisherwomen can now access the same subsidies as their male counterparts. Without the women's school, this meeting would never have taken place.

Nurlina has since made her voice heard on many public issues. Having used her boat to take sick Sabangko islanders to the mainland of South Sulawesi for medical treatment, she began to question why there were no health facilities on the island. In the annual village planning meeting, Nurlina proposed building a local clinic - and while they don't yet have health services, the building at least has been built.

Building a health clinic on Sabanko Island was first proposed by fisherwoman Nurlina
Building a health clinic on Sabangko Island was first proposed by fisherwoman Nurlina. Photo: Susanna Ling.

She also approached the regency government to install a solar power system, to bring affordable electricity to Sabangko. Now when the fishermen and women leave the island to fish at night with their portable generators, those left in the village are not in the dark.

Of course, the willingness of the decision-makers in government or other influential organisations at various levels to embrace change has been crucial to Nurlina's success. So while this "bottom-up" action is crucial for progress, it needs support from those at the top.

"Leaders in villages, such as the village head, the district head, elders or religious leaders wield a lot of power," Dr Diprose explains. "So where there is resistance among these leaders to changing decision-making norms or social norms concerning gender roles, civil society organisations face enormous difficulties."

Taking it to the top

In his 2019 election campaign, returned President Joko Widodo made a number of election promises with regards to women’s empowerment, including increasing women’s representation in politics, facilitating women’s roles in the economy, protecting women from violence, reducing maternal mortality rates, increasing access to education and reproductive health services, and introducing gender-responsive budgeting.

In October this year, Dr Diprose, Dr Savirani, Dr Setiawan and the research team worked with civil society partners to analyse and determine key findings from the research.

"The civil society organisations have been able to learn from each other through the comparative lens of our research, be inspired by the change from action on the ground, and learn about new ways to improve their collective action process," Dr Diprose explains, emphasising also that the organisations will be able to share the findings with policy-makers and their broader networks.

Throughout early 2020, the research team will also present their outcomes to the Indonesian government, particularly those agencies supporting villages. They will share their findings not only on the challenges and successes of the women's schools, but about MAMPU's other partner organisations like PEKKA, who works with female-headed households, Migrant CARE, who works to protect female migrant workers from exploitation, Islamic women's organisation 'Aisyiyah, who has improved access to (and cultural acceptance of) reproductive health services like pap smears and breast cancer screening, and The Eastern Indonesia Knowledge Exchange (BaKTI) Foundation, who works to reduce violence against women.

The report will ensure that key Indonesian government agencies have a comprehensive understanding of how community-led change to women's empowerment and gender equality is progressing across the archipelago when it sets the priorities for its programs and future development plans.

"Many agencies have supported the research and are keen to gain new ideas on improving women's empowerment," says Dr Diprose. "For example, the National Development Planning Agency is developing new strategies around women's empowerment and gender equality and the Ministry of Villages is working to strengthen participation processes in development decision-making in villages. As a research team, we are keen to ensure the findings reach as many audiences as possible to have the greatest impact."

It's clear that there is a growing agenda for women's empowerment in Indonesia, both from women themselves and at the highest level of government. Research like this will ensure that national change-makers are equipped with the knowledge to break down barriers to gender equality.

This article refers to research conducted by the University of Melbourne and the University of Gadjah Mada that is supported by the Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment (MAMPU). The views in the article are the perspectives of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of the Government of Indonesia and the Government of Australia.

Banner image: Representatives from the KAPAL/YKPM women's schools in the Pangkajene Kepulauan islands. Photo: Susanna Ling