Fighting for women's rights in Indonesia


The story of women in Indonesia is inseparable from the development of the Indonesian nation itself. Indonesia was swept up in the global wave of anti-colonial national liberation movements in the mid-20th century, declaring its independence in 1945 after almost 350 years of Dutch colonial rule. The key leader of Indonesia’s national liberation struggle, Sukarno, went on to became the country’s first president.

Sukarno’s presidency was characterised by his desire to develop the country in an independent direction, politically and economically. Sukarno was one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, which included other important Third World countries such as India and Egypt, and which aimed to forge a third path through the Cold War between the US-led capitalist camp and the Soviet Union. Sukarno’s progressive, independent stance was broad enough to encompass friendly relations with the huge and popular Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), which at the height of its influence had more than 20 million members.


This was a time of ferment and activity of the masses in Indonesia, and women were no exception. The PKI’s women’s organisation, Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia – Indonesian Women’s Movement) was one of the largest women’s organisations in the world. Gerwani was formed in 1950; in 1957 it had 650,000 members, and by 1963 it had grown to approximately 1.5 million members.

While Gerwani was formed primarily on the basis of struggling for women’s rights and shared a common goal with other women’s organisations of reforming Indonesia’s marriage laws, it also took a strong anti-imperialist position and was involved in the larger struggle for national self-determination and independence led by Sukarno and the PKI. Gerwani campaigned on economic and political empowerment for women, particularly in rural areas, as well as supporting workers’ and peasants’ struggles.

The fact that Gerwani’s platform and activity were not constricted to “women’s issues” has been criticised by liberal feminist academics in Australia. In an article entitled “Women and the Nation”, Susan Blackburn laments that Gerwani “sold out its specifically women’s concerns in favour of wooing Sukarno’s support through a strong anti-imperialist orientation”. However, Blackburn misses the point that in Third World countries women’s rights are inseparable from the struggle against imperialism.

Blackburn’s criticism is patronising in its assumption that the women in Gerwani did not consciously choose to direct their efforts towards national liberation rather than “specifically women’s concerns”. This view dismisses women’s ability to play an equal role in the great issues affecting their nation rather than simply restricting themselves to a narrower agenda of “women’s issues”.

Ironically, views such as Blackburn’s mirror the ideological constructions of the Suharto era, which sought to narrow women’s vision to the domestic sphere and only reluctantly acknowledged their right to count themselves as citizens.

Back into the home

In 1965, as Sukarno’s presidency looked likely to come to an end due to his health, there were growing tensions between the PKI and the military. The kidnapping of seven generals and the mysterious deaths of six of them were used by Suharto as the excuse for a military coup against Sukarno, although later one of those involved gave evidence that Suharto had been involved in planning the conspiracy. The coup was followed by a campaign of mass killings and persecution of the PKI and its associated mass organisations. Within one year, at least one million people were murdered and 700,000 imprisoned. Gerwani members were singled out for demonisation, being blamed for the sexual mutilation of the kidnapped generals, accusations later proved to be completely false. Young generations after that era were routinely told that Gerwani had a negative influence on society and that its members were morally depraved.

Suharto’s New Order regime replaced Gerwani with a new organisation, Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga (Family Welfare Movement) or PKK. In place of the outward-looking, anti-imperialist Gerwani, the PKK was a strategic part of Suharto’s campaign to push women back into the domestic sphere with an emphasis on community health, family planning and education. The structure of the PKK, which still exists in contemporary Indonesia, mirrors the government bureaucracy; thus the national leader of the PKK is always the wife of the president of Indonesia, and so on through the ranks.

Women and women’s mass organisations were given limited functions in the 1970s, the International Decade of Women. In a five-point program, the first four points were dedicated to women’s roles as wives and mothers, with their key responsibilities squarely centred on the home, while only the fifth point acknowledged women as citizens. Women were also incorporated into Suharto’s second Five Year Plan (1974-1979), which was aimed at “improving living standards and social welfare services”.

Within the overall plan, the PKK and married women in particular were prescribed the function of promoting and implementing two new national programs, the family planning program (KB) and the family welfare program (PKK – the same initials as the organisation). The family planning program involved a progressive element of the new Marriage Law of 1974, which increased the minimum age for marriage and increased restrictions on men’s right to marry multiple women. However, even these reforms were aimed at reducing population growth rather than giving women greater rights and capacity for self-determination.

While the KB and PKK were ostensibly aimed at improving the welfare of children and the “professionalism” of housekeeping, the 10-point plan for women was virtually impossible to implement because the government did not allocate funds to make the goals realisable.

Correspondingly, the new emphasis on women’s role and responsibilities in the national development plans of the government did not address women’s rights. The Suharto New Order’s programs and policies in relation to women have been dubbed “state-ibuism” (ibu = “mother” in Indonesian). Their ultimate agenda was erasing memories of the Sukarno era, when masses of women were moving into political action and the public sphere, and redefining women in a purely domestic mould, reducing their previous confidence to a servile, domesticated submissiveness.

Industrial employment

However, during the 1970s, as the state sought to further confine women in the home, Suharto opened Indonesia to increased foreign investment. During the ’70s and ’80s, foreign-led industrialisation brought millions of young women and girls into employment in the new factories, predominantly in the textile, garment and footwear industries. By 1990, 8.2 million people were working in manufacturing, compared to approximately 3.5 million in 1980. This entailed new generations of women finding themselves in the public sphere and having to redefine themselves as workers instead of simply as aspiring wives and mothers. In that process, they also began to rediscover the spirit of resistance that Suharto had been so successful in suppressing in earlier years.

In Indonesia’s factories, where wages and conditions are some of the worst in the world, these young women began to take action and organise to improve their conditions. In 1994 a young woman worker, Marsinah, in East Java, who was raped and murdered for organising her female co-workers, became a household name and symbol of resistance. Dita Sari, law student and member of the People’s Democratic Party, became internationally recognised as a labour organiser who was jailed in 1996 and who famously refused a $10,000 human rights award from multinational Reebok in 2002. This resistance was not confined to factory workers. In 1998 members of a women’s group protested against a government milk price hike. The repression of their peaceful protest contributed to sparking the mass uprising against Suharto that toppled him later that year.


The opening of the post-Suharto democratisation (reformasi) signalled a new era for Indonesia and for women. Along with democratic elections and the proliferation of free media, women were finally able to form their own independent organisations and networks that could begin to campaign and advocate on behalf of women, without the straitjacket of New Order diktats regarding a woman’s place.

However, in Indonesia today women are still heavily oppressed. While Suharto is long gone, the fundamental problems still remain. Indonesia is a poor Third World country in which more than half of a population of 240 million live on less than US$2 a day. The current government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is further entrenching Indonesia’s weak position in the world economy by signing the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement, which will allow Chinese imports to flood the local market, undermining the weak Indonesian industrial sector and potentially resulting in the loss of millions of jobs (possibly up to 7 million). Especially affected will be the textile sector, which is dominated by women.

Indonesia’s political system remains fundamentally unreformed, Indonesia is still one of the most corrupt countries in the world (ranking 110 out of 178 nations in Transparency International’s 2010 corruption index), and the military continue to interfere with civil matters and are active in violently repressing organisations such as the Free Papua Movement.

Within this difficult context, women face a range of specific extra problems. In the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, Indonesia is ranked low in terms of women’s participation in national politics, education, work force participation and health (420 women out of 100,000 die as a result of complications during childbirth – 100 times the rate in Australia ).

Some major human rights issues facing women include prostitution and human trafficking. In 1998 the Yogyakarta Free Children Society estimated that there are at least 650,000 prostitutes in Indonesia, while UNICEF estimated that at least 100,000 women and children are trafficked for sexual exploitation each year, mainly to Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and the Middle East. Hypocritically, while the government takes little action to curb trafficking, in 2008 it passed the infamous anti-pornography law, which metes out long jail terms for a range of activities such as possession of pornographic material or sexual public performances, and displays of “public nudity” (a term that can be flexibly applied, especially to women) can result in up to 10 years jail and $500,000 fines.

Another major issue is migrant labour. Hundreds of thousands of Indonesian workers accept contracts in other countries or attempt to migrate to those countries to escape unemployment and poverty. These migrant workers often have very little legal protection and rights in the host country, and women workers face the possibility of harassment, violence, sexual abuse or even death at the hands of employers.

Rediscovering radical practice

Furthermore, Suharto’s ruthless destruction of progressive organisations broke the continuity of struggle and radicalism. Progressive groups of all persuasions still have to work hard to rediscover and re-institute those ideas and practices. Women’s groups are no exception.

Left groups face a constant pressure of losing activists to the pervasive NGO-ism that dominates Indonesian civil society. A well-worn path for activists is to move from left politics to a position within an NGO and perhaps finally into a government position or even seat in parliament. The high-profile activist Dita Sari’s career progression from radical labour activist to a position within the Labour Ministry is only the most recent example. The pressure to work within the mainstream rather than struggle for fundamental change has to be seen within the historical context of a mass slaughter aimed at the destruction of the most progressive and active layers within Indonesian society. The weakness of the left today is still a result of that event.

However, many left and women’s groups are active today with the goal of reinvigorating the fighting spirit of the people. One of those groups is Perempuan Mahardhika (Free Women), which was established in 2003 by a conference involving 98 participants from eight provinces in Java, Bali, Sumatra and Kalimantan, but has since expanded into Papua, East Nusa Tenggara and East Java and has more than 1400 members and 15 local committees. According to one of the founders of Mahardhika, Vivi Widiyawati, “The conference identified three key aspects of women’s oppression in Indonesia: the capitalist system, patriarchal culture and militarism. Secondly, we identified the importance of direct participation of women in the struggle for their own liberation and, thirdly, we decided to build a mass women’s organisation on a national scale. We also strive for unity between the women’s movement and the broader struggles of the poor majority. We also respond to government decisions or political attacks on women as they arise.”

Mahardhika is focused on developing grassroots women’s committees and running educational programs on the basic rights of women, the political movement, feminism, democracy and how to organise. One of the key projects of Mahardhika is its Feminist School program, specifically aimed at young women and particularly on university campuses. Mahardhika will be holding its third series of Feminist Schools on the last weekend of February in Yogyakarta, Jakarta and Ternate and is hoping for the participation of hundreds of young women.

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