Women’s empowerment activist Nani Zulminarni shares her views on gender equity, the women’s movement and the changing role of women in Indonesia.
Could you tell us a bit about your background and your work at PEKKA?
I am the head of an NGO called ‘PEKKA’, or ‘Female-headed Household Empowerment’, that aims to empower women in female-headed families. PEKKA was established in 2002. We grew out of the ‘Widows Project’ an initiative kick-started by the National Commission of Violence against Women (KOMNAS Perempuan) to document the lives of widows in conflict zones. We work with about 1300 women’s groups in 19 provinces across Indonesia to strengthen their position as active citizens in society.
Why does PEKKA focus on women-headed families?
Government data shows that there are an increasing number of female-headed families, currently around 14 per cent or about nine million households. However, in our own research, we found that one in four families is a female-headed family. These families tend to be the poorest of the poor, 60 per cent of the families tend to fall into the bottom two quintiles (40 per cent) of household incomes. Of these, 46 per cent of these women are illiterate, 20–60 years old and are responsible for two to seven family members.
So when we compared our data with the government data, we discovered that the growing number of female-headed families in Indonesia was hidden from the government. Our research showed that these women tended to work as landless farmers in the informal sector, with many earning only around a dollar a day. One-third of these did not have access to government healthcare and social assistance schemes. We also suspected that government-run poverty alleviation programs did not reach these women. In other words these women were invisible.
What do you mean by ‘invisible’?
These women are invisible because they are not recognised socially or politically as the ‘head of the family’. During census time when government officials ask who the head of the family is, people will name men, even though they may not be around. Culturally, men are still considered the head of the family, even though many women are responsible for the day-to-day running of the family home. Because these women are invisible they can’t access the services and benefit from poverty alleviation programs. For example: these women do not have a family card; their marriages may not be certified and their children may not have birth certificates, leaving them legally unrecognised.
So at PEKKA we use legal empowerment as an entry point to empower these women to improve their economic, social and political participation in society. For example, Indonesia’s Marriage Law of 1974 states that only a man or husband can be the head of a family. We have been working on interpretations of some laws, including the marriage law, to define what being the ‘head of family’ means so that women are recognised in these roles and can receive support.
We found that women often don’t have the information they need, and the system is not accessible to them. So a major part of our work involves helping women at the grassroots to do advocacy, especially so that they can access government social services. We have also pushed for greater coverage of the judicial system into rural areas. We have a strong record of advocacy work in legal family matters, like marriage and divorce, and we do a lot of research on why women cannot access court for family matters.
Your major report ‘Ten Years of Women-Headed Household Empowerment (PEKKA)’ examines some changes to the role of women in Indonesia. Are there any regional differences in Indonesia?
There are no major regional differences between the eastern and western parts of Indonesia. Women across Indonesia tend to face stigma, discrimination, exclusion from the system and pity. Yet, while women face discrimination across the country, they live in very different social-political contexts. We work across Indonesia’s 34 provinces from Aceh to North Maluku. In female-headed families in Aceh, for example, women are in charge because of abandonment as a result of the conflict. In the eastern part of Indonesia, it is very challenging in terms of resources (land etc.) and women find it hard to get meaningful work, whereas in Java and Sumatra, women can still work as labourers in paddy fields.
How do you rate Indonesia’s performance against MDG 3: promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls?
I think we have made achievements in some areas but are behind in others. We have made a lot of progress in terms of laws and regulations for gender equality at the national level. For example, we now have a domestic violence act and a 30 per cent quota for women in parliament. But at the same time, because of decentralisation, we find that many women face discrimination at the local level. There is a strong push from fundamentalist groups to incorporate elements of discriminatory law on behalf of certain religions, which, in my view, is against gender equality. A lot of the discrimination women face in Indonesia comes from people’s conservative interpretations of different religious texts, which defines how women should behave and their subordinate role to men in society.
In terms of girls and women’s opportunities for education, the situation has improved a great deal especially at the national level and in the big cities and urban areas. However, I think we still have some serious issues in relation to accessibility to services for women in rural areas, especially in remote areas. Access to these services would improve women’s status and overall quality of life. For example, the maternal mortality rate of mothers has increased, not fallen, in the last three years. So overall, we have had a mixed record – progress in some areas, but we have also moved backwards in other parts.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for the women’s movement moving forward, and what else still needs to be done?
The biggest challenge we face is fundamentalist groups who are working against what we are doing. The way fundamentalist groups interpret the role of women through different religious texts subordinates women. Some of these groups are part of the women’s movement. So we face opposing views from other women’s groups whenever we raise the issue of equality. One thing we have to work towards in the next five to 10 years is to have as many female leaders as possible in all decision-making positions to break down those values that stop women from breaking through. The focus of the women’s movement should be to empower ourselves to break down that invisible power.
As we look forward to the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs, and what we have learnt from the MDGs, how do you think the SDGs should include indicators for women related to poverty?
Whether it be MDGs or SDGs, one thing that has bothered me is that these are just frameworks. When we talk to people at the local level, they don’t even know about them. They also want to know why these international frameworks are not properly implemented. Civil society organisations in Indonesia plan to write a shadow report based on our experiences on the ground because we don’t see the correlation between what happens on the ground with the decisions made at the national level.
Moving forward, for poverty eradication in Indonesia, transforming the lives of women and female-headed family is key. Many of these women live below the poverty line. In fact, 60 per cent of female-headed family live below the poverty line. But poverty is not just about women’s economic situation. For women to move out of poverty there are more structural issues that need to be addressed.
Gender inequality is not only influenced by visible power, but also by invisible power, which makes it difficult for women to get out of poverty. For example, the resistance towards women taking leadership or other public roles is challenged by conservative groups. Women’s roles in the informal sectors contribute significantly to Indonesia’s economic development, but this is not recognised or valued by the system. The SDGs should take all of these issues into consideration, and not just focus on improving women’s income or increasing their capital. Their ideas, passions and their experiences are not taken seriously. There is no mechanism to consult with women on resources and policy. We need a widespread change to the system.
Nani Zulminarni [email@example.com] was interviewed on Skype by Ben Davis and Thushara Dibley. Read more about PEKKA here.