Indonesian women struggle against poverty, discrimination and exploitation

International Women’s Day is still much less known among Indonesian women than May Day is among Indonesian workers. This is not surprising because the struggle for the liberation of women developed only several years after reformasi - the movement that toppled the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. Then there was a mushrooming of different kinds of women’s organisations, communities, non-government organisations (NGOs), research institutions and legal aid that openly advocated women’s social and political rights.

Before reformasi, for 33 years the Indonesian people lived under the dictatorship of Suharto, who suppressed politically and organisationally the ideas of women’s liberation and equality. Not killing only ideas, the regime also killed or imprisoned thousands of activists from the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani) in 1966. Suharto maintained that women are a complement of men; the organisations introduced by the dictatorship were “housewife” organisations and family welfare groups.

There is still no mass women’s movement that continuously campaigns for and organises women around women’s issues. Many women’s organisations are NGOs and research centres. They are usually involved in various committees to support legal or parliamentary lobbying for reforms such as a 30% quota for women in legislatures or against domestic violence. These committees are usually institutionalised in the hands of several big NGOs and never develop into a mass movement. This partly explains why International Women’s Day is still largely unknown.

Most oppressed

The poorest Indonesian women are workers, village housewives, young women and urban poor women. They suffer the most from the economic and political policies of the pro-imperialist government. According to the Indonesian Health Demography Survey, in 2008 the maternal mortality rate was 320 per 100,000 births, the highest in Asia. Around 6.5 million Indonesian women are illiterate, twice the number of illiterate men, and women’s participation in higher education is lower. According to the Indonesian Statistics Bureau, Jakarta region, women are 88% of the unemployed in Jakarta.

These numbers are worsening because women are laid off more often than men because they are not considered family heads. When economic crisis hit Indonesia in 1997, it largely destroyed manufacturing industries (garments, textiles, electronics and beverages). Women workers, who were mostly employed in those industries, were the ones who suffered massive lay-offs.

There are frequent violations of women’s rights in the workplace. Workers’ rights are still unknown by many women workers. They don’t know that they have the right to unionise, to maternal leave and to menstruation leave with full payment. Women workers also receive lower wages than their male counterparts, especially in terms of allowances.

In this situation, poverty is an urgent problem for women. Capitalism and imperialism have destroyed women’s chances of being economically independent. Cuts to education and health care subsidies and the privatisation of higher education have cost women the most. It’s no wonder the Millennium Development Goals of lowering women’s mortality and illiteracy rates have not been met. These facts are reinforced by the impact of the current capitalist economic crisis, which has made the prices of basic foods skyrocket.

There is no official prohibition on women enrolling in school, but in a strongly patriarchal culture, women from poor families will always be second in line to receive education. The pro-imperialist government has nothing to lose from the fact that women are a minority in education, as it is also in favour of women being the cheapest reserve army of labour. It’s not surprising that millions of Indonesian migrant workers, without proper skills and unfamiliar with workers’ or women’s rights, have been sent abroad, mostly as domestic workers. Many of them experience sexual abuse, rape, unwanted pregnancy, physical abuse and trauma, sometimes to the point of driving them to suicide.

Indonesian women are losing ground as regards to the democratic right to control their own bodies. There are now 151 regional sharia laws and “pornography laws” that regulate women’s bodies and behaviour. It happens frequently that the sharia laws are used to criminalise women workers or prostitutes. They are also used as justification by some reactionary Islamic groups that frighten and abuse women - mostly prostitutes or women who have to work until late at night - on the street.

The right of women to fully control their own bodies, including having access to safe abortion, is still very far out of reach.

Perempuan Mahardhika

The organisation Perempuan Mahardhika (Free Women) was established in Jakarta in 2006 as a tool for women activists struggling for women’s rights in different areas of society. Perempuan Mahardhika organises working women, women students, village or peasant women and urban poor women. It has been fully involved in the struggle for liberation of the Indonesian people and of women through political activities, cultural struggles and grassroots organising. Perempuan Mahardhika is aware that fundamental change can take place only if it involves the direct participation of women and all working people.

Perempuan Mahardhika believes that the struggle for women’s liberation and equality is a struggle to change society, the economic system and power. Unity in struggle and a mass women’s movement are key methods to win the demands of the majority of women. That is why Perempuan Mahardhika always takes part in or initiates the support of any women’s demand in the form of mass action and mobilisation. International Women’s Day is one of the occasions on which Mahardhika has campaigned every year since 2006.

This year Perempuan Mahardhika, together with different left and democratic forces, commemorated IWD in seven cities: Medan (North Sumatra), Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Makassar (South Sulawesi), Ternate (North Maluku), Samarinda (East Kalimantan) and Mojokerto (East Java). The general theme was “SBY [President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] and [Vice-President] Boediono, parliamentary political parties and elites have failed to maintain democracy, to provide welfare and to protect women from exploitation, violence and sexual discrimination”. There were also specific demands according to the situation in each city.

In Jakarta, Perempuan Mahardhika supported the Committee of Women’s Liberation, which campaigns mostly for women workers’ rights like maternity and menstruation leave, against sexual harassment in the workplace, for reasonable wages, protection for domestic workers and women migrant workers, employment that is productive and free from exploitation, free health care and education and against discrimination against LGBT people.

In Yogyakarta, Perempuan Mahardhika supported the Indonesian Women’s Movement, which has similar demands with stress on the need to abolish or revise all discriminatory laws, such as the “pornography law”, “anti-prostitution” regional laws and the 1974 Marriage Law. In Makassar, Samarinda and Ternate, the demands were similar.

Ironically, in Yogyakarta most of the women’s NGOs in the committee named Yogyakarta Women’s Network held an action calling on people to hug each other to commemorate IWD. They also shook hands and said “Happy Women’s Day” to people in the street. Do they know how rare happy days are for the majority of women in Indonesia’s economic and political system? History has shown there will be no achievement of women’s rights without confronting patriarchal and capitalist governments - and those confrontations are life and death struggles for most women.

[Zely Ariane is an activist with Perempuan Mahardhika and national spokesperson of the Political Committee of the Poor-Peoples Democratic Party (KPRM-PRD).]