Sun, 06 Feb 2000

First lady battles on to empower women

By Linawati Sidarto

THE HAGUE (JP): Looking elegantly traditional in a cream kebaya (blouse) and chocolate-gold veil, First Lady Sinta Nuriyah Rahman's words bore the grit of the fighter she's long been for a cause close to her heart: the struggle to empower her fellow countrywomen.

"Although many other issues need our attention in this day and age, I think violence in which women are the victims is a central issue in Indonesia," said Nuriyah on Thursday in The Hague as she accompanied her husband President Abdurrahman Wahid on a 16-day- visit to 13 countries.

In the one-hour meeting with state and non-governmental organizations, Nuriyah gave a short lecture, answered questions and also asked members of the audience to share their opinions, seeking to "listen to your views and experiences in relation to women's issues -- and how to find solutions for coping with violence experienced by women".

She stressed that focusing on women's issues is of particular importance in regions which have suffered violent conflicts, like Maluku and Aceh.

"From experience we know that women are the most severely affected and bear the heaviest burden as a result of those conflicts," she said.

On a practical level, she explained, the National Commission on Women and the State Ministry of the Empowerment of Women are in the process of establishing a network of crisis centers.

She said the centers should not be conducted in a uniform way, as "each region has its own specific problems as to what causes the conflict, and has a specific cultural potential to overcome both the conflict and the occurrence of post-conflict trauma".

Asked what was being done for rape victims from the May 1998 riots in Jakarta and other cities, Nuriyah said "efforts are being made to ensure the welfare of the women, and the babies born as a result of the incidents". She admitted that attempts to find the perpetrators met with "numerous obstacles".

In her lecture, she said the government "needs time to instruct and convince its legal and other institutions that violence against women, particularly sexual violence, should in certain respects be treated differently from other crimes.

"Thus, the usually required elements of 'proof' or 'evidence' and other legal impositions are not all relevant for these cases, and the existing laws need to be reviewed".

Nuriyah, who graduated from Yogyakarta's State Islamic Institute and recently received an advanced degree in women's studies from the University of Indonesia, also takes an interest in trouble spots which seldom catch the public's attention.

"For example, there are frequent incidents of violence against women in the coastal areas. These women often seek refuge at the local Islamic boarding schools, and that's why it would be good if physicians were available at these places."

She appealed to the Dutch for "moral and material support".

"Help your sisters in our country who are unable to find their peace of mind as a result of atrocities they experienced in the streets and environment where they live."

In the last three decades of "what we call Indonesia's 'era of development', women's political roles have been determined and defined by others, not by women themselves", Nuriyah said, a situation which she clearly hoped would change in the future.

One of the marks of Indonesia's recent era of change is the emergence of powerful civil groups, a wave which should equally sweep Indonesia's daughters.

"This is the time for women to regain their space," she said, stressing that women should not see themselves merely as appendages of their husbands or families.

"We should try to make the state, social institutions and the family give up their authority over a woman's physical, mental and emotional integrity. Let women define for themselves what they think is most important in their life."

She said it should include women's "freedom to choose" on the matter of reproductive issues, conceding that while Indonesia has been praised for successfully reducing its birth rate, "it must be acknowledged that women are the ones who suffer the biggest risks as agents in the family planning program".

Dharma Wanita

Asked about the future of the organization of civil servants' wives, Dharma Wanita, which was set up during president Soeharto's rule, she said that in the past it "didn't serve the country, but it served the husbands", which was greeted with laughter from the audience.

She explained that Dharma Wanita has been undergoing structural changes, important ones being that membership is no longer compulsory, and that leadership should be based on competence, not on the husband's rank.

The organization also needs to look closely at its purpose and role in society, she said.

"It's really regrettable that the Dharma Wanita has done practically nothing to ease suffering in conflict areas, whereas numerous NGOs have done their best to help people in these areas."

The audience practically gushed over the first lady, who has been confined to a wheelchair following a traffic accident a few years ago.

"I'm really impressed by her. She's a very strong woman, and it's very clear that she truly believes in her causes," said Rita Kok, the wife of Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, after the talk.

Mrs. Kok said this was the first time they met, "and hopefully not the last, since you don't meet people like her every day".

In 1992 Indonesia refused all official developmental aid from the Netherlands after a Dutch minister openly criticized Indonesia's policies in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor.

Late last year, the Dutch government said it would resume its official aid programs to Indonesia.

Betty Scheper, the East Asia division head of the Dutch NGO Novib which cohosted the talk, said she looked forward to intensifying her organization's support for humanitarian causes in Indonesia.

Perhaps the biggest praise came from Ratna Saptari, a member of the talk's cohost AKUI, an organization of Indonesian students and professionals living in the Netherlands, which was formed in 1998 mainly with the aim of raising humanitarian aid for Indonesia.

Ratna, who was mediator of the discussion, pointed out that only a few years ago "we couldn't imagine sitting and discussing social aspects of gender issues with our first lady".