Background to Village Law

In 2014, Indonesia embarked on an ambitious agenda to devolve some authority for local development to village authorities through the Village Law, with budgets directly channelled to nearly 75,000 villages across the archipelago to implement local-level initiatives. Significant authority for decision making and associated budgets had already been devolved to district governments in 1999 (and some more limited authority devolved to provinces) through the regional autonomy Laws. [1]

Under the 1999 laws, villages were established as autonomous units of government, located within districts. Under other democratisation reforms, direct popular elections of the executive, from the President to Governors, District Heads, and Village Heads were also introduced.

With these decentralisation and democratisation reforms, villagers quickly became accustomed to their new-found authority as desa (villages)[2] with their own elected Village Head (and government made up of administrative officials) and Village Representative Council (BPD).

The introduction of the 2014 Village Law might be considered the third arm of decentralisation in the ways it has bolstered decentralised decision making across the archipelago and has recognised diverse forms of governance at the village level. The Law has sought to clarify the status of villages within Indonesia’s governance structure but also to further codify participatory community decision making in determining village development priorities. The Law recognises village and customary diversity across the archipelago and emphasises the goal of poverty reduction in village development, to be implemented in ways that are gender-equitable and based on democratic decision making. With a designated annual budget of some USD75,000—in many cases more in more highly populated, geographically vast, or poorer localities—villages can respond to village-specific needs and customise and implement initiatives to tackle the challenges they face.

In 2014, a new Ministry of Villages, Disadvantaged Regions Development, and Transmigration (Kemendes, herein the Ministry of Villages) was established to oversee the significant policy change and institutional changes introduced by the 2014 Law, together with the Ministry of Home Affairs that has long had authority for decentralisation.

Gender inclusion and collective action

Meanwhile, over the past two decades of reform, Indonesian women, Indonesia’s women’s movement and many of Indonesia’s civil society organisations (CSOs)—including mass women’s organisations—concerned with gender inclusion have made significant inroads to improve gender equity through advocacy for new or revised legislation, policies and programs. Government agencies too, often but not always as a result of such advocacy, have, in a number of sectors and cross-cutting initiatives, introduced or revised legislation and regulations centrally and regionally to create policy frameworks that better accommodate women’s needs, strengthen their rights and endeavour to ensure women are involved in decision making—the gender quotas in Indonesia’s electoral system are one example. Programs have been introduced under such policy frameworks to target broad improvements in social protection such as health, education, employment and in alleviating poverty, which have important implications for women.

While notable achievements have been made over the past two decades—for example, Indonesia has achieved ‘medium equality’ between men and women according to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) 2018 rankings—such improvements have been incremental and uneven, particularly in rural areas. Structural inequalities remain. Each region in Indonesia also has its own development needs and challenges, particularly given the diversity of geography, infrastructure, service needs, population densities, levels of poverty, and socio-cultural norms, especially around gender roles, with patriarchal attitudes and behaviours that are especially acute in some regions making it more difficult to reduce barriers to gender inclusion.

As the burden of poverty often disproportionately falls on the shoulders of the women in Indonesia’s poorest families, many programs—introduced or delivered by government, CSOs, mass organisations, or other agencies—target women as the first line of defence in poverty reduction. Indeed, tackling poverty, improving protections and the recognition of rights as well as access to services is an ongoing agenda for large-scale development programs, cross-regional women’s organisations and networks, and thousands of smaller organisations found in many of Indonesia’s districts. While such programs may have incrementally improved the position of women, or women may have gained new skills and access to services, these may, but do not necessarily address the underlying structural impediments to wider gender inclusion in decision making.

Thus, many in Indonesia’s women’s movement, both individuals and organisations, have also had the broader goal of changing social and political structures to be more inclusive of women. This has been to ensure that women are involved in the structures of power that set agendas, create or influence legislation, policies and programs, and shape socio-cultural norms, which ultimately have implications for women’s wellbeing. As a vast, diverse archipelago, such political and social structures exist in multiple domains and at multiple levels, from villages to districts to provinces and nationally.

Within Indonesia’s multi-level governance framework, the changes introduced under the Village Law have provided a significant opportunity for women to increasingly influence village governance and development decisions. This research investigates how women’s collective action has influenced governance and decision making, development initiatives, and broader structures of power in Indonesia’s in rural districts and villages, with a particular focus on the implementation of the Village Law. While we predominantly focus on the implementation of the 2014 Law in villages, we also situate this within district dynamics, given Indonesia’s multi-level governance structures.

We explore two dimensions of such collective action and the interactions between them. We focus on grassroots women’s collective action in rural Indonesia—the actions taken by village women to improve their wellbeing in general, but also to exercise power and voice to influence decisions which affect them, particularly in relation to village development and decision making. We also investigate broader CSO advocacy and support provided to rural village women through grassroots groups to improve gender inclusion and empower women. The targeted strategies and adaptive actions undertaken by these organisations also constitute a more structured organisational form of women’s collective action in Indonesia’s localities. In exploring these two dimensions, and the interactions between them, we seek to understand the ways women’s collective action has influenced village and district environments, and ultimately Village Law implementation.

Research questions and methodology

To fill distinct gaps in existing studies identified further in Section 2, this study aims to answer the overarching research questions: in what contexts, to what extent and through what mechanisms has local collective action by women influenced the implementation of the Village Law, and what is the role for CSOs in this process? Answering these questions includes analysis of:

  • The ways village women have sought to exercise voice and take action (and changes over time) through collectivities, groups and networks among themselves and with others, and their experiences of change over time,
  • The role of and strategies used by CSOs in supporting these women, and undertaking inter-related advocacy at village and district levels,
  • How these dynamics have varied in different contexts, including constraints and opportunities, and
  • Ultimately, the pathways (varied) by which such action have influenced the implementation of the Village Law.

The study uses multi-level comparative case analysis drawing from extensive qualitative data collected for this study involving more than 600 people, especially more vulnerable rural women. We support this mixed-methods qualitative research with additional analysis of quantitative monitoring data from 27 provinces. Through analysis of in-depth and life history interviews with more than 450 people, more than thirty focus group discussions with another 150 people, process tracing of changes over time in villages and districts (case studies of village Stories of Change), village social network analysis, village and district context analysis, and CSO organisational analysis, we identify the pathways through which women have sought to exercise voice, take action to influence the implementation of the Village Law. We also reflect on if and how CSO support has bolstered women’s empowerment in different contexts.

From Sumatra to Java, to Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and East and West Nusa Tenggara, data was collected throughout 2019 in nine provinces and 12 districts where there are different livelihood options, levels of poverty, geography and infrastructure, services and programs, resource endowments, population densities, religious affiliations and social and customary norms. Given the study has a specific focus on village-level dynamics, we not only conducted district (and some provincial) research, but also extensive research through long stays in 14 villages; one in each of these districts where CSOs have introduced or strengthened support for village women, and in two villages where there were no known CSO interventions (one on Java and one off Java).

This research was supported by the Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (MAMPU) program, although the analysis presented is that of the authors. As a collaboration between the Indonesian and Australian Governments, the MAMPU program aimed to support women’s empowerment and improve gender equality in Indonesia in partnership with Indonesian women’s organisations. Through its partnership approach, MAMPU supported 13 large national or regional women’s organisations and consortium networks that focus on different sectoral issues of concern for women while seeking to support village women and strengthen women’s skills, capacity and opportunities to exercise voice and influence in Indonesian society. Many of these large-scale national organisations and consortiums have provincial and district organisational CSO partners as well. By the end of 2019, MAMPU had directly and indirectly supported 122 partners at national and subnational levels in 147 districts and municipalities and 1,137 villages across 27 of Indonesia’s 34 provinces.

To undertake this study and to initially connect with village women, nine of MAMPU’s 13 national partners and a further six subnational partners of these organisations collaborated with the researchers, supporting and providing iterative feedback on the design and analysis, and facilitating (one channel among several) access to research sites. Each of the 15 CSO and mass women’s organisations included in the study (herein collectively referred to as CSOs) are outlined in Section 2 (in the sampling frame) and more information on the scope and scale of their work beyond the research sites is outlined in Annex 3.

The targeted support for women and advocacy undertaken by those CSOs involved in the study has focused on five key issues for women—social protection, reproductive health and nutrition, protection for migrant workers, better work conditions and reduced discrimination against women in the informal sector (in particular for homeworkers) and reducing violence against women, in particular domestic violence. These issues were also the five focus areas of the MAMPU program. This study also captures Village Law implementation dynamics in relation to all of these five focus issues through research in 12 ‘intervention’ districts/villages. For comparison, we also investigate the dynamics of gender inclusion and women’s possible influence on the implementation of the Village Law in the two ‘control’ sites, one village in the Pangkajene and Islands District (South Sulawesi Province, Sulawesi Island) and a second village in Gresik District (East Java Province, Java Island). As mentioned, there were no known interventions or support for village women undertaken by CSOs in these two places. Research from these ‘control’ sites is used for comparative analysis with ‘intervention sites’ to better highlight if dynamics varied in terms of:

  • Grassroots expressions of agency and collective action,
  • If, and which dimensions of CSO support for village women may have facilitated or bolstered women’s agency, collective action and influence on the implementation of the Village Law and wider gender inclusion, and by which pathways, and
  • Which dimensions of change might be more endogenous to the processes underway in Indonesian villages with the implementation of the Village Law.

While the CSOs involved in the study are many and varied (as are all of MAMPU’s other partners), they have one aspect of their approach in common—working with and through grassroots groups alongside broader advocacy. These organisations have supported village women to establish new groups (often but not always exclusively for women) or they have supported and collaborated with existing village women’s groups and organisations in villages, with aim of supporting village women take a more socially transformative role through collective action. In many cases these organisations also undertake advocacy and other structured forms of collective action to reduce the impediments to women’s influence with the broader structures of power, both within and outside Indonesia’s formal systems of governance.

Given that the research draws from a sample of sites where MAMPU CSO Partners have sought to support village women by working with and through grassroots groups, the study thus captures dynamics pertaining to this particular type of CSO intervention focused on gender inclusion. Although, it also captures many wider experiences of collective action over time in an extensive array of regions in Indonesia beyond this intervention. Even so, other CSOs, organisations, agencies and programs may use a different approach, which may have implications for women’s collective action and influence on governance and structures of power that are not explored here.

Nonetheless, the findings remain helpful for a range of audiences in understanding how grassroots women’s collective action might be supported by group structures of different kinds that involve women, and how, or via what mechanisms, external actors (not just CSOs) might help bolster women’s influence in villages and beyond. That is, even if not working with or through CSOs as partners in initiatives to bolster gender-inclusion and women’s influence in governance and other power structures, some of the features of the ways CSOs have supported women in the research sites to facilitate or augment their agency certainly constitute important learning for other settings, actors and agencies concerned with gender-inclusive governance, structures of power, and socio-economic development.

Focus: The experiences of some of Indonesia’s most vulnerable rural women

It is important to note that many of those MAMPU partner organisations that work in rural areas have endeavoured to access and support some of the most vulnerable women in Indonesia, who are often the poorest of the poor in villages that themselves tend to have high aggregate levels of poverty. This includes female-headed families, survivors of domestic and other forms of gender-based violence, or homeworkers with precarious livelihoods and often below-subsistence incomes, among others. Thus, in collaborating with such organisations for the research, the study has tended to capture in ethnographic detail the voices and experiences of more vulnerable rural village women who have often experienced multiple-dimensions of poverty, and how they take action to influence development and decision making. These are the women that often fall through the cracks of poverty alleviation and social protection programs, tend to have lower formal education levels, and may be significantly socio-economically, politically or even geographically isolated.

The study also captures the experiences of other women in the rural research sites, some of whom may still experience significant challenges but do not (or no longer) have the same heightened degree of vulnerability. However, there may be further pathways for collective action (with and without external support) in other places and for other people than are captured here. The findings, nonetheless, are helpful for other agencies, programs, and facilitator networks, among others, in understanding pathways and mechanisms that might bolster women’s collective action and gender inclusion, particularly for vulnerable women in Indonesia’s rural localities.

Building blocks: Understanding pathways

Each section in the report overviews the research results and contributes to building a framework for understanding how women’s collective action has influenced the implementation of the Village Law and variation in outcomes (Figure 1). The framework was developed through iterative analysis of multiple sets of research data and comparative case analysis and can be used to explore a larger sample of villages in other research and possibly using quantitative instruments at scale.

In the analysis we first establish the key features of context that have constrained or enhanced women’s collective action and influence on the Village Law (Section 3). This is followed by an overview of the key Village Law impacts identified in the study and women’s general perceptions and experiences over time of increasingly expressing their voice and undertaking efforts to influence village governance and decision making (Section 4). We then identify the main forms and patterns of women’s grassroots collective action and the underlying drivers that have bolstered women’s influence in the research villages (Section 5). In the discussion in Section 6 we also explore if and how MAMPU CSO Partners have contributed to grassroots collective action through support for women via village groups, particularly in terms of support for strengthening different forms of social capital and women’s individual and collective agency to take action. In Section 6 we also unpack the different structures and models of support provided by CSOs that have informed their on-the-ground activities and variation in ways they have supported women in villages across the research sites, including the advantages and trade-offs of different aspects of these models of support.

We then continue our discussion of pathways to analyse both the planned and unplanned strategies MAMPU Partners have used to reduce barriers to gender inclusion and to support women’s empowerment in Indonesia’s rural localities, with a particular focus on the ways they have navigated different constraints and opportunities in the varied contexts where they have sought to drive women’s collective action and influence (Section 7). This includes the important dimensions of their work with government and non-government actors in villages and districts to help facilitate women’s empowerment and their involvement in policy and other decision-making processes. The research focuses on both the dynamics in villages and the broader district environment in each case that have affected village dynamics.

The final step seeks to bring together the comparative analysis of impacts and pathways to establish patterns of the ways women have been able to influence village governance and power structures, and the implementation of the Village Law (Section 8). We first revisit the question of the role of CSOs in supporting village women, focusing on how and to what extent they have more broadly contributed to gender inclusion and women’s empowerment, collective action and influence. Through comparative analysis, we then seek to establish district and village context dynamics have both affected and interacted with women’s collective action and the strategies undertaken by MAMPU Partners, and if and how this has had influence on the implementation of the Village Law.

Figure 1: Framework for Analysis


[1] Law No. 22/1999 and Law No. 25/1999, which were later revised through Law No. 32/2004 and Law No. 23/2014 on Local Government. In the 2014 Local Government Law, some of the authority of districts, particularly in relation to policies and smaller-scale licences in the resource sectors was wound back and shifted to provincial governments.
[2] Under the 1999 Law, villages were designated to be autonomous units acknowledged in the national governance system (as compared with their previous status as the smallest administrative unit within the government hierarchy) with the authority to govern and administer local communities based on their origins and local customs. This opened up the space for villages to take a form more aligned with their customs and traditions.