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Women's Empowerment In Indonesia: Where To Now?

26/10/2016 12:50 PM AEDT | Updated 26/10/2016 12:50 PM AEDT
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Jasmine Jaffar
Kalibiru Community in Jakarta, Indonesia

Women's empowerment is one of the most important socio-political factors contributing to development in the Global South, and Indonesia is no exception.

As more and more women become educated, join the workforce and take on active roles in political and social life outside child-rearing, Indonesian women and their agency continues to be a vital life force for the world's largest Muslim country. The adversities faced by Indonesian women, especially those living on or beneath the poverty line, are incredibly large and complex.

Despite Indonesia's increasing GDP, economic inequality has remained, with 40 percent of the population still living near or below the poverty line. The work done by local organisations to combat poverty and raise standards of living for women across the country is invaluable and continues to play a huge role in addressing issues of gender inequality in Indonesia.

It is notable that in a time when Australia's aid budget has been gutted, women's empowerment programs are still receiving support in Indonesia. Across Indonesia, women's crisis centres for domestic violence and empowerment organisations are working with women to increase their participation in public life, lift them out of poverty and address violence against women. These programs work on increasing access to education, health, employment and higher standards of living -- however the truly ingrained systemic and cultural violence against women, structural poverty and abject neglect of these issues by governments, remains a humanitarian crisis throughout the world. After all, women's rights are human rights.

In Sulawesi, an Eastern Indonesian island, patriarchal Bugis-Makassar culture continues to perpetuate the marrying off of young girls for dowries. District of Maros has a definitive problem of child marriages, with children as young as 12 years old being effectively sold like property. While bearing anything from physical abuse to sexual assault, child brides must immediately cease their education and take on domestic labour in their husband's home. Rural villages, particularly coastal regions, do not have any access to sanitation or clean water, with women trekking up to four hours on foot to reach wells. A complete lack of reproductive healthcare means no access to contraception, abortion or even basic pregnancy check-ups, leaving these young girls with some of the highest rates of maternal and infant death in the region.

The extent of poverty and systemic disregard for women's lives is only compounded by local parliaments neglect of rural areas. Just as Aboriginal communities in rural Australia struggle to access adequate healthcare, education and even clean water, so too do Indonesian parliamentarians rarely travel to rural communities. This allows them to turn a blind eye, and leaves the door open to rampant corruption. Nepotism in the distribution of government welfare is rife, often restricting knowledge of social protection programs, let alone access, to a very privileged few.

So how are local organisations and women's groups helping communities that face so many structural barriers to better welfare?

MAUPE (Community development for woman empowerment) is a local NGO in the town of Maros that works with parliament to advocate for marginalised communities and pass local laws that empower women. This relationship creates a local dialogue on women's rights, and bridges the gap between parliamentary members and local communities. So far in Maros, MAUPE and their partner BaKTI (Eastern Indonesia Knowledge Exchange), have helped to push through implementations of a maternal and infant healthcare law, and are currently working on child protection legislation to prevent child marriage and improve mortality rates throughout pregnancy and birth. Both legislations are at the district level. This relationship with the government is invaluable in helping poverty-stricken women navigate government bureaucracy, so they can finally access essential social security.

MAUPE also funds Women's Schools to educate women on feminist discourse, encourage political engagement in village planning and boost participation outside the domestic sphere. From literacy to public speaking, these schools have hugely impacted the lives of women who were restricted from openly communicating with their own families, let alone discussing their needs at public planning meetings, or running for village head, or even parliament.

Unfortunately, even when pro-women laws are passed they often don't filter down to rural areas, which are more influenced by local customs than by the legal system or government policy. Marriage under the age of 16, for women, is technically illegal on a national level in Indonesia, however the system does not extend to the thousands of girls married without paperwork -- exponentially increasing future problems of obtaining healthcare cards, enrolling their children in school, renting or owning property and even formal employment.

Even when child marriages do have paperwork, the legal system is largely inaccessible anyway. Similar to the Australian legal system, most impoverished women have no hope of making it to a court because of the exorbitant lawyer fees and court costs. This distinctly disadvantages the most marginalised women within communities. Community legal centres and free legal assistance is one of the areas volunteers and civil society are working to develop, however parallel to community legal centres in Australia, cuts to government funding and year-to-year contracts, do not support continued development. Neither national nor local Indonesian governments prioritise legal assistance and many organisations are precariously funded through other avenues.

Many Indonesian women's organisations see Australia, and Australia's support of their programs, as a model; a country that has solved all of these problems in their own country and are now working to help other countries. However it must remain clear that tackling poverty and gender inequality is something both countries must continue to work towards together, particularly when one in six Australian women experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

The work done by local organisations like MAUPE is taking invaluable steps to addressing gender inequality and poverty in Indonesia. Without these programs, thousands of women would not have the tools and opportunities to partake in life outside raising children and household work. By teaching women how to articulate political issues, MAUPE's Women's Schools impart how important their contributions to public life are. Women's growing participation in shaping their lives, the lives of their communities, and the futures for all women in the region is one of the most important and successful parts of MAUPE's programs.

However the question remains, what responsibility does the government have to address gender inequality, instead of leaving it to NGOs, volunteers and civil society actors to do the work for them? The poverty and patriarchal culture Indonesian women face will not be solved overnight and there is also no way to undo the abuse and oppression so many have already experienced -- every child marriage does immeasurable damage, not only to their life, but the lives of their children, and the community as a whole. The only way forward is for Australia and Indonesia to invest in women's rights and humanity, both at home and abroad, through government and non-government organisations, so that we can play even the smallest role towards ending violence against equality and justice for women.

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