Fri, 29 Dec 2000

Women bear heaviest burden

Indonesia commemorated Women's Day on Dec. 22. The plight of women during the crisis of the past few years was among the highlights of a recent conference in Leiden on Indonesian women. Linawati Sidarto, a Leiden-based journalist, shares insights from the four-day talks.

LEIDEN, The Netherlands (JP): In the poem titled "Woman" author Damairia defiantly declared in 1959 that Indonesian women should no longer be "ornamental flowers," and neither should they be "discarded flowers -- seller of cheap sweat, half-paid laborers."

Almost half a century later, the poet's dream remains just a dream, as research in various Indonesian regions consistently shows that, particularly during hard times, women bear the brunt of the misery.

What do women in Irian Jaya and Makassar, South Sulawesi, have in common? While divided by language, geography and culture, they suffer the same fate during times of need: they work harder than anyone else, and at the end of the day, get the least amount of food on their plates.

"Women in Makassar, especially those with little education, tend to let men in their families eat first. During normal times, this is not a problem. However, in times of crises, women are the prime targets for malnutrition," said Baego Ishak, lecturer at Makassar's State Islamic Studies Institute IAIN Alauddin.

Similar observations on women in Irian Jaya were made by Mientje Rumbiak, who teaches at Jayapura's Cendrawasih University.

Ishak and Rumbiak were among the 23 presenters at the four-day conference "Indonesian Women and Crises: Past and Present, Opportunities and Threats" at Leiden University in the Netherlands in mid December.

Participants at the conference, organized by the Women Studies Working Group, came from various ethnic and professional backgrounds.

Papers presented covered regions in Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Irian. Themes were equally variable, from labor and social issues to politics.

Women laborers also get the shorter end of the stick during hard times, as shown by research done on communities in Central and East Java. Keppi Sukesi of Malang's Brawijaya University pointed out that female plantation workers in East Java, most of whom fall into the category of casual rather than permanent workers, were the first to lose their jobs when the crisis hit.

Women workers in the metal industry in Batur, Central Java, suffered a similar fate according to a study done by Gadjah Mada University's Susi Eja Yuarsi.

She pointed out that while women often become the main breadwinner during crises, in reality "socially they are still placed in a very low position compared to men."

One of the consequences of the above sentiment is that outside assistance meant for women is often nicked by men. Gadjah Mada's Naniek Kasniyah, who has done research in Irian Jaya, said that agricultural tools donated specifically by the government for women, who often perform heavier physical work than men, were ultimately used by the latter.

Sukesi noted that while women have to scramble to scrape additional income for their families in times of need, they are also still expected to do the bulk of the household chores.

Middle-class women, while protected from the harsher fate of their poorer sisters, are not immune to the situation, albeit for different reasons. Yuarsi said her research found that these women "lack the skill and experience" to financially assist their families during leaner times, as "the norms in the community discourage women from this class from working outside (their home)."

Saparinah Sadli of the University of Indonesia, and chairwoman of the National Commission for Women, stressed during her keynote speech that "one of the most pervasive problems is the fact that we are basically still living in a patriarchal society, and many men and women are still gender blind."

The notion of Indonesian women being subservient was effectively exploited by former president Soeharto's New Order government to restrain the citizenry.

Yanti Muchtar, coordinator of the NGO Circle of Alternative Education for Women, explained in her paper that New Order gender politics "recast the roles of Indonesian women as being limited to domestic spheres and excluded from all political activity," -- a concept mirrored in the women's organizations it set up.

The use of women's organizations as political vehicles was not exclusive to the Soeharto regime. Jan Elliot of Australia's Wollongong University points out that the Indonesian Women's Movement or Gerwani, when set up in 1954, "articulated a strong voice for the rights of women workers," and strived to be "an educational and struggle organization which was nonpolitical and for all religions and ethnic groups."

In later years, however, Gerwani leaned more and more to the left, a fact deftly used by the New Order regime in the wake of the September 1965 failed coup to smear the organization and close it down permanently.

During the three decades of the New Order, state-controlled women's organizations such as Dharma Wanita and Family Welfare (PKK) flourished.

Siti Kusujiarti and Ann Tickamyer of Ohio University, who scrutinized PKK programs in two Central Javanese villages, described the organization as "the single most important institution in Indonesian rural areas for implementing state social welfare programs for women."

While defining itself as a "voluntary and democratic social organization," the researchers found PKK not only to be an "effective channel for ideological socialization," but it also provided the government "with a means for controlling or curbing women's political participation and activism."

Similar to Dharma Wanita, its structure "assumed that all government functionaries were men whose wives automatically were available to serve as the chairs of the corresponding PKK organization."

How far apart the PKK and women's nongovernment organizations are was made clear by a plea made by Yessy A. Rozali. Rozali, a member of the Muara Enim PKK in South Sumatra, asked: "Instead of ignoring PKK, why not include us in the struggle to advance women's causes?"

She added that the term guidance (pembinaan) in PKK has, apparently in the spirit of reformasi, been conveniently changed to "empowerment" (pemberdayaan).

The conference, Saparinah said, was the first attempt to analyze the social, political and economic impact of the recent crisis on Indonesian women. While commending the variety of research presented at the conference, Sadli pointed out that many were not done with a feminist approach, and lack in-depth analysis.

"This conference shows that there's rich data out there. The question now is: what do we do with it? It's good that studies are done about women, but they also need to work for women."

She explained that on an academic level, women's studies in Indonesia had a decidedly non-feminist origin. A decade ago the State Ministry for Women's Affairs, often criticized for proliferating the idea of women's subservience, set up women's study centers in some 80 universities throughout the country, "mainly to come up with possible programs for the ministry."

One participant lamented the quality of research at the study centers. The main purpose of the event, organizer Ratna Saptari said, was to "support research on women, since in all these years Indonesian universities were not encouraged to do proper research, and a lot has been done outside the academic sphere."

Ratna stressed that academics and activists were often unaware of what the other side was doing, "and it's very important to link the two together." A long time researcher and co-founder of the Jakarta-based Kalyanamitra women's organization, she pointed out the possibility of activists utilizing research results in their undertakings.

The most urgent problem which needs to be tackled, Saparinah warned, is that of violence against women, particularly in areas in regional conflict.

"This is getting worse because of the ongoing political conflict, and what's most worrisome is that the government so far has no policies to overcome this.

"So many women have been victims, including of state violence, and they receive no protection, and no guidance as to what to do."

The writer is a journalist based in Leiden, The Netherlands.