Sun, 06 Feb 2000

Many Solo women face great struggles in their lives

Text by Singgir Kartana, photos by Ali Budiman

SURAKARTA, Central Java (JP): Surakarta, better known as Solo, is famous for its beautiful women, a phenomenon that inspired the late Ismail Marzuki to compose Putri Solo (Girl from Solo).

The Javanese song, which met with great success when it was covered by Waljinah in the 1970s, is filled with adoration for the beauty, cultured mind and refined behavior of a woman from Solo, an attitude much in line with the customs of Javanese nobility. The song also popularized the stereotype that the ethos of hard work and the ability to demonstrate resoluteness and concern were absolutely absent from the women of Solo.

In reality, however, many Solo women face great struggles in their lives. And many of these women can be found doing jobs most people consider suitable only for men, or not suitable at all.

Endang, 30, a mother of two from Karanganyar, Solo regency, is one such woman. Along with dozens of women from her village, Endang earns a living quarrying sand on Matesih hill, not far from her home. Every day she treks up and down the 60-meter hill, covering a length of some 500 meters, to break rocks with a simple tool so she can collect a layer of sand. Every time she goes down the hill, she carries a bag of sand weighing about 50 kilograms.

Her small, firm stature and dark skin reflect the bitter struggles she has faced in life.

Although the women quarrying sand generally weigh less than 50 kilograms, barefooted they trudge up and down the hill about 20 times per day. The 60-meter path up the hill is not straight and sloping, but rather is narrow, winding, steep and rocky. In the wet season, this path is slippery, making the bags of sand these women carry feel even heavier than their 50 kilograms.

The women work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with an hour of rest during their long day. From morning to afternoon they are soaked in sweat from their toil. To maintain their stamina they drink a lot of water, about three to four liters a day, and during their one-hour break they massage one another, an activity which gives them some entertainment.

On average these women have been doing this work for 15 years. Generally they chose this work because they wanted to remain close to their families, and also because they believed the only requirement for the job was a healthy body.

Endang, the youngest of the women working on the hill, said she continued working when she was eight-months pregnant.

"I have been doing this job since I graduated from elementary school. I don't want to work in the city. I cannot leave my children. No one takes care of them, you know. Besides, my husband is in the city working at a construction site," she said.

Compared to the standard wages in their village, Endang and the rest of the women do not earn much. One 50-kg bag of sand is sold for Rp 200. If these women go up and down the hill twenty times in a day, they earn Rp 4,000.


There are many other women engaged in similarly difficult work. Some women earn money as scavengers at garbage dumps, while others work as porters at Pasar Legi.

Mojosongo, the largest garbage dump here, was established in 1985 and occupies 30 hectares of land. Every day some 1,500 tons of garbage is dumped at this site: rotten vegetables, paper, plastics, metal goods, leaves and even carcasses. Also, liquid waste from the solid garbage collects here.

It is easy to imagine the putrid smell of this place, and yet the reality is much worse. This smell, a host of flies and mosquitoes, liquid waste which can cause skin irritations and the intense heat all combine to make this site extremely unhealthy, making it impossible to remain at the dump for any length of time.

Nevertheless, a number of women, as well as some men, do spend some time here each day, scavenging through the garbage to make a living. Tukiyem, 25, a mother of one from Kampung Jatirejo, for example, said she had gotten used to the most distasteful conditions at the dump. The smell, the liquid waste and the intense heat have never deterred her from picking through the garbage in order to survive.

"At first, the smell could make my head swim and my stomach turn, but now it no longer does. Well, of course, I still feel an itch on my feet if they are exposed to the filthy liquid waste. Luckily, a doctor from the local health center comes here once a week and examines us free of charge. This way we are kept from serious illness," she said.

Tukiyem has more scavenging experience than the other five women making their rounds. According to her, she began scavenging in 1985, just after the site was opened. Because she lives nearby, she can do this work full time.

Armed with baskets, thin iron rods with hooked ends, worn-out boots and faded conical hats, these women scavenge through the foul-smelling garbage with great patience, separating valuable items from worthless ones.

Plastic and cardboard are the most sought after by Sarinah, one of Tukiyem's fellow scavengers.

"Plastic sells for the most, followed by cardboard. After I collect the items, I take them to a buyer not far from here. Plastic garbage sells for Rp 150 per kilogram while cardboard sells for Rp 100 per kilo. In a day, I can collect some 15 kilograms of plastic garbage and about five kilograms of cardboard," said Sarinah, 40.

Women porters

Just like the women collecting sand or scavenging at the dump, women porters at Pasar Legi lead a similarly difficult life, hauling goods on their backs for short distances. There are some 30 women between the ages of 20 and 40 working as porters at the market.

Sumirah, 32, from Nayu hamlet, North Solo, has worked here for a decade. The elementary school dropout and mother of three says she can carry up to 120 kilos of goods; she weighs less than 50 kilos.

She can do about 10 rounds each day, earning Rp 1,000 every time she carries goods weighing 100 kilos or more. For goods weighing less than 100 kilos, she earns Rp 700. For a day that lasts from 6 a.m. to about 4 p.m., Sumirah earns an average of Rp 10,000.

"To be able to carry goods that weigh a lot, the goods must be placed in a slanted position and then our body must be bent. In this way, the weight will be less," she said.

To maintain her strength, Sumirah occasionally drinks traditional herbal medicine. Besides the herbal medicine, Sumirah says that she has sex with her husband almost daily, saying this was her only form of entertainment and also a good way to relieve her fatigue.

Sumirah and the other women porters took this job because they had no other options, yet all of the women hope their children will have brighter futures filled with the opportunities they never had. Therefore, despite her financial difficulties, Sumirah wants to give her children the best education possible so they can do better with their lives.

Endang, Tukiyem, Sumirah and many others toiling in dispiriting jobs are portraits of "sturdy" and "robust" women. They are simple and modest enough to accept their lot without surrendering to fate. They care nothing for the new millennium, the gender struggle, emancipation and other such things. The biggest gifts are from God and their greatest happiness is having enough to eat today. Tomorrow is another day. These women are strong and sturdy in the real sense of the words.