Dec 08, 2023 Last Updated 10:51 AM, Dec 7, 2023

Women do it tough

Published: Sep 22, 2007
The economic crisis affects women badly. They are laid off first, yet have more responsibilities at home.

Charlene Darmadi

World Bank President James Wolfensohn has said: 'The Indonesian economic crisis has reached a point of life and death'. The impact of the crisis is greatest for those at the bottom. Women, the poorest of the poor, feel its influence everywhere: as workers, as consumers, as wives and mothers. If the known crisis has caused anxiety, how much more the unknown crisis still ahead.

Women workers were among the first to feel the crisis. Textile and garment factories, shoe factories, and the construction industry have been among the worst affected. With the exception of construction, most workers in these industries are female. Most workers laid off by factories unable to carry on are women. Even those not laid off are working shorter shifts, getting no overtime, and are getting paid late.


For a woman, losing her job has big consequences for herself and her family. For though people often consider women's wages to be secondary income compared with that of men, in reality their income is vital for the poorer households. The perception that women's wages are secondary and men are the main breadwinners is so common it actually influences factory managers to lay off the women before the men, especially if they engage in 'selective' lay-offs.

Even before the crisis, the wages women took home were barely enough to survive on. One study of women factory workers in North Jakarta showed that in mid-1997 many could only survive by going into debt. A 1994 study on women workers in the handcraft industry in Tasikmalaya, West Java, showed that most of the 304 respondents only earned Rp 250-500 (20 cents or so) a day. Sixty six percent of them used all their income to satisfy family needs, such as buying food and sending kids to school. If even in normal times women have difficulty meeting basic needs on the minimum wage, how will they manage in this crisis?

The government has responded to growing unemployment with big labour-intensive projects to provide a temporary job for those laid off. According to then-Labour Minister Abdul Latief, the program was urgent because the unemployed were likely to run out of savings within 3-6 months. But the projects usually involved heavy work designed for men, such as cleaning out storm drains in Jakarta, and so were of no help to women.

In Indonesia, household problems are a woman's problems. She holds the sole responsibility for the household budget and how to make it go the distance. That is why women were the first to feel the crisis when it erupted in January. As prices leapt up, baby milk powder among them, a group of mothers were among the first to take to the streets to protest in Jakarta. Karlina Leksono, a well-known woman who led the group 'Concerned Mothers' (Ibu Perduli) said that for impoverished kampung mothers the price increases were 'a critical matter of life and death'.


Inflation in January alone reached 6.88%. In cities like Surabaya and Denpasar it reached 9%. The crisis also touched pharmaceuticals. Since November 1997 the price of prescription drugs, both imported and local, has gone up between 75% and 200%. The popular traditional Chinese medicines have on average gone up 300%. Most worrying for the poor is that medicines in government community health centres may run out soon. The price rises are already enough to cause household stress, but if we remember that many households have a reduced income or have lost it altogether then the situation is even more critical.

More expensive medicines and a tendency to visit the doctor less often means that many people now have less access to health services. When this happens, increased health care tasks usually fall to the woman as wife and mother.

Women can of course apply various strategies to compensate for a reduced household income, for example by making food portions smaller. In Indonesia the woman often eats last, taking the left- overs after her husband and children have eaten. Such strategies may help the food to go around, but they have a direct effect on women's health.

When access to health services declines, those who suffer most are the poor, especially children and pregnant and breast-feeding mothers.


In general the correlation between fertility and women's employment is negative, which means that women who work have fewer children. The reverse is also true, so that during a crisis such as this when many women are unemployed, the birth rate will increase. The problem is made worse by the rising cost of contraceptives: up to five times or more.

Whereas the Bandung family planning clinic has been able to keep prices down somewhat, the situation is worse elsewhere. In Indramayu in West Java, for example, thousands of women have been forced to drop their family planning program because of the rising cost of contraceptives.

The Indramayu clinic head advises those unable to pay to use cheaper methods of contraceptives, such as coitus interruptus or condoms. These methods are certainly cheap but they are less reliable. They also take contraception out of the control of women and hand it over to men. The high price of contraceptives and high female unemployment could very well destroy the progress that family planning has made the last decade.

The picture looks even more worrying when we imagine the increased number of pregnant women who are not getting enough nutrition, and who have reduced access to affordable medical care. Such a situation will force up the mortality rate of babies and of mothers at childbirth. At the very least more babies will be born unhealthy.

According to the researcher Shiva: 'Complications due to pregnancy, premature birth, low birth weight and reduced life expectancy will occur if mothers do not get enough to eat. Anemia, the first consequence of malnutrition, will directly cause a rise in the percentage of women who die during pregnancy and childbirth'.

Will we see a rise in the number of uneducated and unhealthy children in the coming years as a result of this crisis?


What will be the effects of increased stress in the household? Since women control the household budget, it is to be expected that they might also become the focus of increased stress in the home. According to some scholars, the allocation of money is a prime cause of domestic conflict.

The women's activist Nadia has shown that there is a kind of vicious cycle in which the wife, who runs the household, continually asks for money from her husband, who may then become angry and bash her. Sometimes this cycle of violence can result in murder, as happened recently in Bandung where, as a result of a conflict over money, a husband stabbed his wife to death. Similar incidents have been reported elsewhere.

Unfortunately statistics on domestic violence are difficult to obtain in Indonesia, because the matter is not separated from other crimes and also because rape in marriage is not formally recognised.

Like it or not, women are expected to run the household and provide for its needs. In extreme circumstances women have been known to go into prostitution in order to be able to fulfill their domestic responsibilities.

Although the number of female sexual workers at Bandung's best known brothel area of Saritem has not increased as yet, very few of them now go home to their villages after work, because the number of customers at the brothels has declined to about 60%. In other words, although the number of prostitutes has apparently not increased, they are working longer hours.


This picture of the negative impact of the economic crisis on women demands urgent action from the government. Increased fertility, increased mortality rates for mothers and infants, decreased nutritional levels, and decreased access to education, all have national consequences. From a purely economic point of view, a healthy nation will save reserves by having to import less medicine.

The government ought urgently to:

Plan programs to provide temporary work for women as well as men. Pay attention to the shortage of medicines at health clinics. Subsidise medicines. Recognise the seriousness of domestic violence, separate it from other crimes in the law, and recognise and punish rape in marriage. Subsidise contraceptives and make them available to women at family planning clinics. Not allow children to lose access to education. School fees need to be cut during the crisis.

Field notes, 28 February 1998.

Charlene Darmadi is a researcher at Akatiga, a non- government organisation dedicated to researching social conditions in Indonesia. This and other reports are available for purchase from Akatiga: Jalan Raden Patah 28, Bandung 40132, Indonesia, tel/fx 022-250 2622, email This report was compiled in April 1998. Most women we interviewed who were still working said they had changed their consumption pattern. Tuti, who works in a garment factory in Jakarta, used to drink a glass of milk every morning. Not any more. Before the crisis she used to buy Rp 5,000 (AU$3) worth of cosmetics a month. Not now. Her friend Ning, who works in the same factory, used to eat fish or chicken twice a week. Now she eats tofu every day.

Inside Indonesia 56: Oct-Dec 1998

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