How Women are Transforming Indonesia

In a series exploring women in international affairs, Isabel Dunstan speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj about the rise of the women’s movement in Indonesia.

Interview Updated 13 June 2023 Published 20 May 2019 7 minute READ

Isabel Dunstan

Former Academy Associate, Asia-Pacific Programme

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

Southeast Asia has one of the highest records of gender-based violence in the world and Indonesia was recently ranked as the second most dangerous place for women in the Asia-Pacific. What is the state of women’s rights in Indonesia?

It is true that Indonesia has high rates of violence against women, however, it’s difficult to know the realities of women’s experiences because, in the past, the data has been somewhat unreliable. This has been due to reasons such as a lack of reporting mechanisms available to survivors of violence and the fact that discussing sexual violence is a taboo and, if reported, can result in stigmatization which limits the number of survivors who have come forward.

However, the first reliable nationwide survey on gender-based violence in Indonesia was conducted in 2017 by the Indonesian Ministry of Women and Child Protection and the United Nations Population Fund. Interestingly, it showed that Indonesia’s rates of violence against women are on par with the global rate, which is that 1 in 3 women are affected by sexual violence in their lifetime.

It’s therefore difficult to generalize that Indonesia is an unsafe place for women because it’s an extremely diverse country. There is a growing middle class while there is pervasive poverty. There is religious diversity, where the eastern-most province of Aceh is the only province in the country where Sharia law is enforced, whereas in the western-most province of West Papua, the dominant religion is Christianity and the ways of life are completely different.

Nevertheless, violence against women is high in Indonesia and can happen in all places – rich or poor, east or west – and has different manifestations, from street harassment, to trafficking, to domestic violence.

In some parts of the country, there are high rates of child marriage too and, according to UNICEF, 14 per cent of girls in Indonesia are married by the time they turn 18 which is shocking when we think about how child marriage limits girls’ access to education and makes them more vulnerable to sexual violence and therefore restricts their futures.

Child marriage is high in Indonesia in part due to rooted gender norms, low levels of education and discriminating legislation, such as the marriage law, which states that, although it is legal to marry at 21, girls can marry at 16 and boys can marry at 19 with parental consent. But, this can be even lower, meaning parents could get their daughters married at as young as 13. So the law is fundamentally unfair between girls and boys and the women’s movement in Indonesia has been fighting extremely hard to reform legislation that discriminates against women and girls.

From the country’s first female president, Megawati Sukarnoputri​, to incumbent finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati – who was voted ‘Best Minister in the World’ in 2018 – and maritime​ and fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti – who has become notorious for her tough stance against illegal fishing activities – how are women progressing in Indonesian politics?

Indonesia has come a long way since becoming a democracy in 1998. Before that, the second president and dictator, Suharto, ruled the country for almost 32 years and increased the inequality gap between men and women during his reign.

Since the fall of Suharto, however, gender equality is explicitly enshrined in Indonesia’s constitution and the country has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

The country has also been undergoing a process of democratization which has involved slowly decentralizing its power. This means that greater authority has been distributed to the 34 provincial governments outside of the capital of Jakarta.

Furthermore, to aid gender equality, a quota system requiring political parties to be made up of 30 per cent women has been put in place, although remnants of Suharto’s old system of cronyism remain, limiting the impact of the quotas translating to more women in provincial parliaments.

But the defining approach to furthering gender equality in Indonesia has been through gender mainstreaming and gender-responsive budgeting which can be seen throughout provincial administrations in the country.

This means there is the intention to ensure infrastructure, health and education outcomes include results that address specific gender equality gaps. The challenge for effective gender mainstreaming, however, is the political will to translate the approach into well-resourced programmes from one province to another.

Indonesia has come a long way since becoming a democracy in 1998. Before that, Suharto, ruled the country for almost 32 years and increased the inequality gap between men and women.

Nevertheless, we have just seen Indonesia go through the most incredible presidential and legislative elections last month which was won by the current president, Joko Widodo, who has often been called the ‘Barack Obama of Southeast Asia’, and whose existing cabinet has the highest number of women in the country’s history. This is not simply a matter of filling seats in the cabinet with women – such as the wives and sisters of male politicians – because it’s required by law. But, rather, there are some incredible female political figures who are there because they are strong, smart and capable.

You’ve rightly mentioned Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, who is a fabulous role model for a lot of women particularly women who have not had tertiary education because she entered politics through an unorthodox route.

Then there’s Minister of Finance, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who is also the former leader of the World Bank and is such an inspiration to a lot of women who are looking to work in public life because of her experience as well as her work to include gender mainstreaming in state budgets.

There is also Minister of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection, Yohana Susana Yembise, who is a Papuan woman, as well as many more female public figures.

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Indonesia's Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, has become famous for her approach to illegal fishing. Partnering with Google, Pudjiastuti is aiming to catch illegal fishing boats in real-time. Photo: Getty Images.

Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, has become famous for her approach to illegal fishing. Partnering with Google, Pudjiastuti is aiming to catch illegal fishing boats in real-time. Photo: Getty Images.

— Indonesia's Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, has become famous for her approach to illegal fishing. Partnering with Google, Pudjiastuti is aiming to catch illegal fishing boats in real-time. Photo: Getty Images.

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How has having more women in political office affected the domestic policy and legislative agenda for women, for example, has gender equality benefitted from more female representation in political leadership?

This is an interesting question. In my opinion, unfortunately, the leadership – including the women currently in political positions of power – are not pushing gender equality issues as much as they could be.

President Joko Widodo made gender equality a cornerstone of his agenda during his presidency, and is currently a global ambassador for the #HeForShe campaign, making it his mission to fill his cabinet with strong, smart and capable women. He has also spoken about amending the child marriage laws. However, we are still waiting for some of his promises to come to light and have an impact on the legislative council and in provincial administrations around the country where there are currently very low levels of women.

The women’s movement, on the other hand, has been instrumental in lobbying for three key draft bills to get passed right now although it is facing considerable resistance: the sexual violence bill, the domestic workers bill and rights for indigenous people.

The leadership – including the women currently in political positions of power – are not pushing gender equality issues as much as they could be.

There is currently a domestic violence bill which means it is illegal for a man to commit violence against a woman in a home. But the sexual violence bill addresses nine specific definitions of what constitutes different types of sexual harassment including street harassment, workplace harassment and marital rape.

The second bill is about the protection of domestic workers because there are an extraordinary number of domestic workers, who are often women, that are unrecognized in the labour market. They don’t have workers’ rights and their employers are not obliged to pay minimum wages. This means that domestic workers are far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because there’s no legislation to protect them. This piece of legislation, if passed, would guarantee labour rights and protections to domestic workers.

The third piece of legislation is the protection of indigenous people. There are millions of people who identify as indigenous in Indonesia and protecting them is about protecting their land rights since there are a lot of issues around land-grabbing. This is land that a lot of indigenous people rely on for their survival, with women at the centre of that, because women play such a significant part in the management of natural resources.

Interestingly, President Joko Widodo did not go anywhere near these three pieces of legislation during his election campaign, particularly the sexual violence bill, because of the resistance coming from conservative Islamist groups although it’s important to note that there are a number of Islamic groups in Indonesia advocating in favour of these bills. But there is a lot of tension between the president and his vice-president, Ma’ruf Amin, who is the leader of the Islamic Council and is responsible for a number of the groups advocating against this legislation.

The women’s movement in Indonesia has been growing, with thousands of women marching in cities across the country last month, in support of gender equality. Who are some of the key figures in the women’s movement in the country and how are men responding to their demands given that Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country?

There are so many. Indonesia has its own heroes in gender equality throughout its historical narrative and many of them throughout these marches are celebrated. These include Cut Nyak Dien, who was a freedom fighter from Aceh who fought against the Dutch, leading her own army in the 1880s. She’s often talked about as one of the country’s heroes.

Then there’s Kartini, who was a young Javanese advocate for girls’ and women’s education, who died following childbirth in 1904, and then Marsinah, who is an under-celebrated labour rights advocate who was murdered as a result of a labour rights movement that she led in East Java in 1998. So Indonesia has some really amazing female heroes.

In terms of today’s movers and shakers, they are walking in the footsteps of these historical figures. For example, Anindya Restuviani – known as Vivi – leads a group called Hollaback Jakarta which is a global anti-sexual harassment movement doing amazing things around body positivity and she has been vocal in pushing forward the legislation around anti-sexual harassment and did a lot of lobbying to make sure street harassment was included in its definitions.

There’s also an organization called the Asian Muslim Action Network that’s led by Ruby Kholifah, who was a recipient of the N-Peace Award, which is an award that celebrates those advocating for peace in the Asia-Pacific. She leads an organization which goes deep into grassroots communities across the country and talks with women to improve conflict-resolution and peace-building, and also promotes a lot of digital literacy, because disinformation is currently aggravating a lot of tension in grassroots communities.

From Cut Nyak Dien, to Kartini, the women’s movement in Indonesia is walking in the footsteps of historical figures.

In terms of how men are receiving it, I do think there are a large number of men who are supporting gender equality in the country but unfortunately there has not been enough high-level public awareness campaigns or genuine leadership from high-level male leaders or male celebrity influencers until recently.

Longstanding gender norms are still entrenched in modern Indonesian society, particularly regarding the roles of women and men, and it’s important to note that these ideas became entrenched in society during the colonial years and even more so during Suharto’s regime as a strategy to control society.

Western influence during humanitarian relief and disaster recovery, too, shaped how women were seen as victims not change-makers. That’s probably not going to change for a long time, but within this social structure, I hope that rights are afforded to minority groups within a socially-accepted framework.