Election day, a time of hope - and concern - over Indonesian women’s rights

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 9 April 2014 11:42 GMT

Women workers walk past their shoe factory on their way home in Tangerang, Indonesia's Banten province March 7, 2014. Picture REUTERS/Beawiharta

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There are certainly reasons to worry about the outlook for women’s rights in Indonesia, but I’ve met many inspiring Indonesian women who give cause for hope

BEKASI, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tri Widayati is the first woman in her family - and her village too, she thinks - to find employment. At 18, soon after graduating from high school, she left her small village in Klaten regency in Central Java for Bekasi, a satellite town of the capital, Jakarta. 

“Every woman in my village, once they get married, they just stay at home and look after the children,” including her mother and sister, Tri said. 

“I wanted to come here for self improvement. If I had just stayed in the village it would be the same old life and there’d be no progress,” she said, sitting in the office of a workers’ union in Bekasi. 

It was the end of March and I was in Bekasi to speak to female migrant workers employed in hundreds of factories here. I wanted to get a sense of how they live and work, what they thought of the imminent parliamentary elections and where they see Indonesia heading on women’s rights.  

The polls, taking place today, April 9, are the fourth since Indonesia emerged from three decades of dictatorship under President Suharto in 1998. Presidential elections are due in July. The pictures of party leaders and presidential hopefuls in voting booths remind me of the numerous women I interviewed during that visit. 

Tri, a slight, soft-spoken 31-year-old, has been working in a factory in Bekasi for 13 years and earns around $270 a month. She relishes being financially independent. 

“With this job, we don’t always have to rely on our husbands if we want to buy things for ourselves. We can contribute to household expenses, but we also have our own money,” she said, her friends and colleagues nodding in agreement. 

Naema Mofun, 44, is a single mother of three who said her job allowed her to look after her children. She earns about $100 a month more than Tri. 

PROGRESS, POWER OF TRADITION                                                                                      

Though workers in the factories of Bekasi come from a wide range of towns and cities, the area is a centre of religious intolerance. West Java, where Bekasi is located, is a province with many pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) bounding the modern metropolis of Jakarta to the east and south. Women in the capital wear short skirts and stay out late but here in Bekasi, most women wear veils and stay in at night. 

It’s also the province with the largest number of regulations - 35 - that discriminate against women, according to Komnas Perempuan (The National Commission on Violence Against Women). The number of discriminatory bylaws passed by local and provincial governments across Indonesia has more than doubled in four years, from 154 in 2009 to 342 in 2013, according to Komnas Perempuan. 

Tri and her colleagues believe they’re making progress when it comes to women’s rights in the workplace. 

They told me how they fought for maternity leave and other rights set out in the labour law, and how they fought against sexual harassment and arbitrary rules such as having to show their sanitary napkins before their mandated menstrual leave was approved. 

Conditions at the workplace are not yet perfect but are much better than they used to be, they say. They are hoping that the new parliament and president will be on the side of women and workers. 

“I want change. I want to have less discrimination against women because women are playing more important roles in society. There are female politicians and even in factories, female breadwinners,” said Tri, wearing a black headscarf and a white and blue factory uniform. 


On the same trip, I also met Siti Hasanahip. Seven years ago, her husband left her but refused to give her a legal divorce, leaving Siti with no child support and no rights to their shared assets. It took her four years and the intervention of PEKKA (Perempuan Kepala Keluarga), a grassroots organisation that supports female breadwinners, to get her divorce papers. 

Siti, a devout Muslim, is now the PEKKA representative in Cianjur, a town in West Java, helping other women with similar problems. She and other activists have also fought off a local regulation that would have made it compulsory for female civil servants to wear a headscarf, regardless of their religion. 

“Hopefully it won’t be re-enacted as our community is quite diverse,” she said, a cream-coloured headscarf framing her youthful face.

For all the bleak news about worsening women’s rights, the disenchantment with female parliamentarians and the concern over the Gender Equality and Justice Bill, I feel optimistic when I think of women like Tri and Siti who remain politically engaged. 

The fact that there is a record number of female candidates in these elections is also a cause for hope. 

Lecturer Tetty Juliaty and 23-year-old youth leader Gloria Pradita are first-time candidates who campaigned door-to-door, hoping to rid Indonesia of the money politics for which it is notorious. Both said they decided to run because they were fed up with increasing corruption, ineffective policies and an uncaring government. 

Whether or not they win seats in the elections, the emergence of female politicians of this calibre can only be a good thing.

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