May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

From mother to citizen

A woman measures the height of a toddler under a tree, surrounded by other women and children. (Vita Febriany)


The New Order actively promoted citizenship of a particular kind for women


Ibu Nani (not her real name) is a high school graduate from a small village in Sukabumi district, West Java. She is 52 years old, and the mother of four grown children. When I first met her in September 2015 she introduced herself as a housewife, meaning she did not have a regular job. Her husband is a construction labourer. Compared to other housewives in her relatively poor neighbourhood, she dresses well, looking neat and clean. Her spoken Indonesian is very formal, with a strong Sundanese accent. What is special about Ibu Nani is that, even while claiming she is ‘just a housewife’, she holds down several different positions within her community and even beyond it. Her community work began thirty years ago. That is when the New Order’s community-based health care program Posyandu started in her village. She was asked to be one of a few volunteers to run the program. Posyandu stands for Pos Pelayanan Terpadu, or integrated service post. It was (and is) a monthly activity for mothers and infants. Volunteers weigh and chart infants’ progress, instruct mothers in infant nutrition and health, and promote safe pregnancy and delivery. It also previously offered family planning advice.

Today Ibu Nani is the Posyandu Village Coordinator, overseeing forty other female volunteers spread over eight Posyandu posts in her village, which has around ten thousand inhabitants. At the same time, she acts as village facilitator for three other government programs from the ministries of social welfare, health, and agriculture. Ibu Nani also manages two district-level community associations – one on health, the other on women. She told me that volunteering changed her life. She is no longer ‘just’ a stay-at-home mother. She feels she can help and be useful for her community. 

Ibu Nani is not unique. Across Indonesia, an estimated 1.5 million women worked with Posyandu at its highest point in 1993. It was the largest of the volunteer-based health program in the country. More volunteers were involved in many other government-initiated programs at that time, involving agriculture, youth, and the environment. Posyandu still does important work. It is a legacy of the New Order, and a monument to the particular type of citizenship that Suharto’s regime promoted. 

New Order citizenship

The New Order placed a lot of importance on citizenship. The Indonesian term is ‘kewarganegaraan’, literally meaning membership of the state. While the New Order’s propaganda tended to ignore the idea that citizens have rights, it constantly stressed the obligation to ‘serve the community’ (bermanfaat bagi masyarakat). The phrase ‘gotong royong’, meaning to work together for a common cause, is an indigenous notion of moral obligation and generalised reciprocity. This phrase was central to the state’s efforts to mobilise ‘voluntary’ village labour. As it was mobilised by the state, volunteerism in the New Order cannot be considered genuinely voluntary. Good citizens were expected to make their time,  cash, and ‘in kind’ contributions available to the community. ‘Community work’ (kerja bakti) could involve cleaning or building public facilities such as village roads, drains, or meeting places. ‘Night patrol’ (ronda) was also voluntary. Women had special duties. The Panca Dharma Wanita, or the five duties of a woman, were: (1) to be a good wife and support her husband; (2) to manage the household; (3) to care for and rear children; (4) to be an additional breadwinner; and (5) to be a citizen and member of society. In New Order propaganda, therefore, good women stayed at home while actively helping to implement the state’s social welfare programs. Citizenship meant combining obedience to state authorities with active involvement in the community. 

A volunteer charts infant weight. (Vita Febriany)

Nowhere was this particular interpretation of citizenship more pronounced than in the New Order’s community health care programs. Faced with limited resources to improve health care facilities for its burgeoning population, the regime mobilised women volunteers to help the state run community-based health care across the country. It would have been extremely expensive to build professionally staffed health clinics throughout rural Indonesia in a short time. Community-based health care was thus a good option.

The Posyandu program was launched in 1984. Within three years, the number of posts had grown from an initial 20,000 to 133,786. By 1992 there were a quarter of a million, spread over every one of the country’s 68,552 villages. The New Order was highly successful in recruiting and retaining volunteers. Around 40 percent of the volunteers (known as ‘kader’) currently running the Posyandu posts were recruited during the New Order, which ended nearly twenty years ago. Many have been working in their community for twenty to thirty years, and are now aged between 40 and 60 years. In fact the biggest problem faced by Posyandu nowadays is the difficulty in recruiting new kader, and the high turnover of young kader. The theory that suggests that only democracy can bring true volunteerism appears flawed in the case of post-New Order Indonesia. 

The creation of obedient kader 

In 2015 I spent several months interviewing senior Posyandu kader in West Java and East Nusa Tenggara. Most were in their early twenties or even younger when they joined – just after their first or second baby. None claimed that becoming a kader had been their own initiative. They had been asked by the village head or someone else within the village apparatus. Some accepted because they thought it was an opportunity to go out and socialise within the community, and learn how to properly take care their own babies. Some said a refusal would have been shameful. A Ministry of Health document from 1990 listed the kader selection criteria as follows: ability to read and write; social spirit and willingness to work voluntarily; knowledge of the customs and habits of local people; willingness to commit the time required; residence in the village; friendly and sympathetic nature; acceptance by the local community. None of the kader I met were aware of these criteria, however.

After being appointed, kader received training at the village or sub-district level. They learned to weigh children and fill out growth charts; to interpret the growth line and give nutritional advice based upon it. They learned what to do for diarrhea and how to advise pregnant women. They learned how to encourage participation (i.e. to get mothers to come to Posyandu), entrepreneurship, and financial management. Posyandu volunteers were automatically also members of the official Family Welfare Movement, PKK (Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga). There they learned the Five Principles of the national ideology Pancasila, with extensive attention to being a good citizen and a good woman. 

The kader were provided uniforms, badges and certificates. These gave them legitimate authority to speak to villagers and instruct them in certain tasks. They received no cash compensation, but did get free care at the health centre, plus a small amount for transport when attending meetings outside the village. The New Order promoted the image of the kader fulfilling a noble and patriotic duty, making a positive contribution to family, community and national welfare. A kader whose husband was a civil servant had a positive impact on his career. Kader were routinely invited to all the important village-, sub-district- and district-level meetings. Supervising other health centre and family planning officials gave them self-confidence. Each year, a model Posyandu kader was invited to the presidential palace along with other development volunteers, where President Suharto personally presented them awards.

The kader weigh babies. (Vita Febriany)

Active citizens

After Suharto was forced to resign in 1998, the Posyandu did not disappear. I found that many Posyandu kader first appointed during the New Order remain actively involved in the social, economic and even political affairs of their community. Some are on the village council, not infrequently as the only female member. They told me they used their position to promote the Posyandu. They explained to the council that it was challenging but worthwhile, and they demanded more funds. 

Within the wider community, too, these experienced kader do much more than simply provide health care. They act as intermediaries for neighbours with the local government to obtain vital citizenship documentation like identity cards, family cards, and birth certificates. They understand government procedures and know many officials personally. Pregnant mothers often ask kader to go with them when they give birth at the hospital. They also have an important informal role in implementing the new universal health insurance scheme BPJS (Badan Penyelenggara Jaminan Sosial, or the Social Security Executing Agency). Registration involves traveling to the city, filling out forms and dealing with officials – a difficult ask for villagers. For them, the kader are a blessed shortcut.

In return, these women derive considerable benefits from their role. Many kader run a small business in their village, supplying household goods from pots and pans and clothes to televisions and refrigerators. They sell on credit, asking the mothers to repay in daily or weekly installments. Some lend out cash as well. Some have even taken advantage of democratisation to launch a career in politics. During the New Order, all kader had to support the ruling Golkar party. Now they are free to support any party. Their standing in their community makes them attractive to political parties and to candidates. 

The New Order’s community health care program had a big impact on the public role of these women. It enabled them to leave the home and become local leaders. It promoted the active involvement of citizens in their community. Of course, these kader were supposed to be a particular type of ‘good’ female citizen: obedient, accepting of patriarchy, and ready to follow instructions from the state. Precisely such active and obedient citizens have been difficult to reproduce in the democratising Indonesia. It is ironic, but true, that today’s democracy can learn something from the much-maligned New Order.

Vita Febriany ( is writing her PhD dissertation at the University of Amsterdam on the Indonesian community-based health care scheme, Posyandu.


Inside Indonesia 129: Jul-Sep 2017{jcomments on}

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