Giving Indonesia’s Women Head of Households A Fighting Chance
June 18, 2014
The Indonesian Bureau of Statistics estimates that out of 65 million households, approximately 9 million – or nearly 14 percent – are headed by women. Studies from field reviews of World Bank-financed national community development projects have shown that vulnerable widows were not joining collective decision-making and were especially vulnerable to second-generation poverty coming from their catastrophic loss. Female single household heads generally occupy a marginal position in all aspects of life and are denied opportunities. In a male-dominated society like Indonesia, where gender sensitive laws – such as the Marriage Law of 1974 that dictates that only a man or husband can be legally considered a head of household – are rare, support for these women is essential.
I, like so many Indonesian women, know these challenges all too well. I grew up in Pontianak, a port city on the island of Borneo, as one of 10 siblings with a domineering father figure who my mother had to rely on completely financially. While the situation inspired in me a sense of independence and motivation to become a student activist at university, in 2000, I felt first-hand the discrimination and stereotyping as a divorcee in a society that discriminates based on marital status. I knew then that I wanted to do something about this injustice.
At the time, there was no development project in Indonesia that worked specifically with widows and women head of households. To fill this gap, I helped start Women-Headed Household Empowerment Program (PEKKA). PEKKA was originally developed in the year 2000, from the initial idea of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (KOMNAS PEREMPUAN), to document the life of the widows in conflict regions, and the intention of the Kecamatan Development Program (PPK) to respond to the request of the widows in conflict-affected Aceh.
Since then, PEKKA has expanded from a few Indonesian villages in 2002 to over 1,300 communities today, from a handful of women living in conflict zones to over 25,000 members participating in some 800 cooperatives spread across 19 out of the country’s 33 provinces.
Despite daunting obstacles and setbacks, our vision remains true today – strengthening women’s economic possibilities and solidarity as a way to improve their lives and their capacity to act, as a way to advance their political participation in society as dynamic, caring, smart and sensitive citizens, capable of navigating the twists and turns of power that shape their contexts. At the outset, we made a strategic choice to use women’s economic empowerment as an entry point with the clear belief that it would lead to better lives for women and their families.
PEKKA works to transform the lives of women heads of families – in effect, the poorest of the poor – by applying a combination of feminist popular education and community organizing processes to the building of cooperative forms of saving and microfinance. While the women benefit from much-needed access to cash, the ultimate goal of PEKKA is more ambitious: to build a grassroots movement of women-led economic cooperatives that empower women individually and collectively to transform their lives and their communities, and challenge the structures and belief systems that breed discrimination and poverty. This movement and the cooperatives embody an alternative solidarity-based economic and political culture which they promote in their families and communities.
Emerging from this process are countless women able to make a difference in their villages and their own lives and the lives of their families, both economically and politically. In addition to taking on leadership roles in their cooperatives, some have gone on to become paralegals serving the legal needs of their cooperative members as well as their communities. Some have even created and built local community centers that serve the entire village, providing a place for meetings, recreation, and adult education. Together they have successfully pressed the government to expand its judicial system to rural areas and fought to obtain legal status for women-headed families. PEKKA women have big dreams – creating shelters for older women, local hospitals, schools, their own bank, being elected village leaders, and sitting in Parliament.
PEKKA organizers have been the initial catalysts for forming the community-based cooperatives and the broader movement, providing training and accompaniment as the groups evolve as well as further support for emerging initiatives such as advocacy, community centers, and paralegal development. As the cooperatives spread and demonstrate success, women come to PEKKA to help them form their own community savings and loan groups and join the movement.
However, it wasn’t always so. During our first three years of existence, PEKKA looked like it was going to be a failure. Door to door organizing was difficult in a context of armed conflict where women faced daily uncertainties and danger and, even more so, since they expected to receive loans from outside sources rather than working themselves to save small amounts as part of creating a cooperative. PEKKA leadership and their allies consider patience, a realistic long-term vision of change as well as feminist popular education and movement building strategies key to PEKKA’s successes.
Ongoing relationships with JASS, an international feminist organization founded in 2003, and other key partners have deepened and expanded our vision and reach. Going forward, PEKKA is exploring ways to examine how these strategies and synergies work concretely in Indonesia’s diverse context – analyzing successes, failures, and challenges – in the belief that they will help provide insights to other colleagues supporting women’s economic and political empowerment and democratic processes.
Guest contributor Nani Zulminarni is the National Coordinator of PEKKA, and recipient of The Asia Foundation’s 2014 Lotus Leadership Award, honored today, June 18, at the fourth annual Lotus Leadership Awards gala in New York City. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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