Thu, 25 Dec 2003


Ati Nurbaiti The Jakarta Post Jakarta

For each person, young and old, in the regency of Gresik, Central Java, the average annual budget for health is Rp 1,413, or not even 20 U.S. cents. This revelation emerged in a training session on the regional budget, aimed at female political party cadres.

If more women represented the population in Gresik's legislative council and administration, perhaps they would be more sensitive to peoples' welfare and push for a larger and more proportionate allocation of the budget for health services.

In Makassar, South Sulawesi, activist Husaimah Husain works with the grass roots. Her impatience with conditions around her has attracted her to politics: "If I'm elected, I'd raise the budget for women and children with special needs," she said. In a discussion here on women's political representation, she added that she would also push for local legislation to protect women and children from domestic violence.

Better health services, and a society in which people treat others as equal human beings instead of objects to be bullied, are just a few of the wide ranging features of "a better Indonesia" that many dream of -- and for that, better representation of society is needed in decision making.

Having more women at all levels of decision making does not automatically mean an enlightened government, legislature or judiciary. However examples everywhere such as the seemingly uncaring budget in Gresik have led researchers, politicians and activists to the belief that a more balanced representation of gender among decision makers would help make them become more committed to public interests.

At the national, provincial and regency or township level, having a third of women in the legislative bodies would fulfill what is considered the minimum figure needed to balance the power structures of men.

The struggle for affirmative action has also come to Indonesia with predictably slow developments. Activists protested the law on political parties which they said failed to meet their demands to impose a ruling that they have at least 30 percent of women candidates for the legislature. Such a ruling was considered important to prevent women's representation from dropping even further in the legislative body at the national level, let alone the lower levels of legislative bodies.

Women are not begging for seats, they say, stressing the word "candidates" -- the women will have to work hard to get elected.

Despite the disappointment in the law, and even suspicions of lip service, many hail the clauses on women's representation in the two laws as important changes toward a more balanced decision making process.

The average 5 percent of women's representation in legislative bodies would ideally be much higher in an effort to come close to 30 percent. Central Java, for instance, with 100 legislators at the provincial level for a population of 33 million, should have more females than its current six women.

Regional autonomy poses both a broad opportunity and a threat regarding the ability to improve the life of locals. Husaimah from Makassar, saw the chance in the area of domestic violence; yet a number of regions have local rules intended to protect women, but which could also be seen to unnecessarily limit them, such as the introduction of sharia in Aceh.

Apart from Indonesian women gaining the first, albeit tiny, step toward recognition of the need to allocate a quota for women legislative candidates, the United Nations also points out more sources of encouragement.

In May the Progress of the World's Women 2002 said that "although women have progressed relatively slowly in the last two years in the areas of education, literacy and employment, there have been encouraging signs of improvement in women's legislative representation."

The report said there were no systematic differences between the developed and developing world in women's share of seats in the legislature -- "the United States, France and Japan lag behind 13 sub-Saharan countries".

"The increase in women's share of seats in parliament was attributed mainly to political measures in several countries, where quotas were legislated or adopted on a voluntary basis," read the announcement on the report released by the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem).

In Sweden, affirmative action led to a balanced composition between men and women in the cabinet of the winning party, the Social Democrat Party. This led other government bodies to follow suit.

Writing in the Kompas daily, Eva K. Sundari of the Asia Foundation cites last year's UNDP report, in which corruption in Peru is said to have dropped by 30 percent at the same time that 30 percent of women occupied the bureaucracy. It is not clear how women in power here can be less corrupt, yet the hope is that as a more potent force they would maintain more sensitivity.

Political parties have pointed out that they cannot find enough women with the necessary qualifications and political motivation. In response, on Kartini's Day in April this year which commemorates Indonesia's national heroine, copies of a book containing the biodata of 100 potential women from Medan, Jakarta, Pontianak, Surabaya and Makassar were distributed to political parties by the Center for Electoral Reform (Cetro). From the database compiled from questionnaires including their vision for the nation, a number of political parties have sought them out as legislative candidates. In November the book was updated.

What organizations like Cetro are trying to point out is, of course, that the argument about the lack of qualifications and motivation is not entirely true. Brought up in societies where women generally do not take the lead, role models are indeed lacking and surveys have indicated that many women still prefer to choose men as legislators or as president, despite having the first woman as president in the nation's history.

But like everyone else women here have been more outspoken since Soeharto quit the presidency; they only need more support.

With lack of experience and opportunity women entering the high risk world of politics tend to seek a guarantee of security. Actress Nurul Arifin who has opted to become a legislative candidate for the Golkar Party, is among the few celebrities who has put her reputation and career at stake by associating herself with the party seen as a remnant of the New Order.

Although Nurul is popular, "She would still need security," says lecturer Ani Soetjipto, also from Cetro. Such a guarantee of being elected would be gained from being placed on the top of political parties' list of legislative candidates, such as number 1 or 2, which are precious political commodities.

When Golkar women came to the party headquarters on Dec. 12 to demand that the party stick to its commitment to have a 30 percent quota for legislative candidates, Nurul declined to comment on whether she had secured such a guarantee.

In such an unhealthy system in which women cannot yet compete based on their own ability on a level playing field, the worry is that it will be very difficult to get even a small number of capable women in the legislative bodies.

During the recent rush to list candidates with the General Elections Commission it became evident that political parties ignored the message that women, as a minority in terms of power, need to work with each other. With one party fielding a "leading" woman, another would also place an equally good female candidate in the same constituent.

"Our aim was to get as many women as possible in the legislature" from various parties, Ani says, "Yet they are pitting the women against each other." She says this again indicates women's lack of bargaining power in proposing or rejecting the allotment of certain areas to them compared to the men, regardless of the requirement that candidates should reside in their constituencies.