The Island Women’s School: Women’s Collective Action in Advocacy for Basic Needs

Ulya Niami Efrina Jamson
Hening Wikan Sawiji

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This case study examines the establishment of an informal Women’s School (Sekolah Perempuan) in an island village in Pangkajene and Islands District, South Sulawesi. With the support of KAPAL Perempuan in partnership in South Sulawesi with the Community Empowerment Study Foundation (YKPM), island women organised to form grassroot women’s groups in each island in the village, under the banner of the informal ‘Women’s School’. The School has become a vehicle for women’s advocacy to respond to many complex challenges they face as island women, among others, restrictive social norms that limit women’s opportunities, and lacking access to basic infrastructure to meet their needs such as electricity and clean water, and lacking access to economic support and social protection programs.

Island women have augmented their intrinsic and practical skills by participating in various training and education for group members, such as education on gender equity and ideology, leadership trainings, as well as development of knowledge and technical skills on accessing government’s social protection programs. Moreover, the Women’s School has become a mechanism through which island women can develop their network of support, not only from fellow island women, but also with the district and village government.

The Women’s School has effected several positive changes in the village. First, women’s active participation in Women’s School activities helped them to raise critical awareness among themselves and other women, especially on gender equity, rights and their access to social protection programs, and to be more confident in voicing out their opinions and aspirations. Second, improvements of women’s instrinsic and practical skills enabled them to collectively participate in village decision-making forums from which they had previously been marginalised. Third, their advocacy in these forums has resulted in fulfilment of basic needs, not only those of the women, but also the needs of the island people in general. According to these women, their most significant achievement is gaining a Village Fund allocations for women’s savings and loans activities. Savings and loans opportunities helped meet women’s needs for financial capital for new businesses and livelihood alternatives. Furthermore, women’s advocacy has resulted in securing support and funds for the development of basic facilities such as clean water, sanitation facilities, and solar-powered electricity, as well as government recognition of fisherwomen that enable fisherwomen to access government-funded fishing equipment.

These early successes of the Women’s School groups initially occurred with the strong networked support of the village and district governments. Yet, political situation in the village changed when a new Village Head was elected, who sought to exclude these women from village decision-making meetings, which weakened support for Women’s School activities. Such political dynamics have also delayed the passing of a draft village regulation that would have legitimised the Women’s School as a strategic partner of the village government. These dynamics indicate that despite some early wins, in restrictive and patriarchal village power structures, changes in women’s influence may sometimes only be partial and incremental.

In contrast with some of these setbacks in support for women at the village level, women’s political participation both at the district and village level strengthened in other ways. One of the group leaders of the Women’s School nominated as a candidate of district legislative elections in 2019. She had the backing elite political figures in the district. Although her candicacy was unsuccessful, her political participation was an expression of women’s agency that was uncommon in the district and she has provided inspiration for others to express their aspirations. In addition, women’s everyday political is evident in the establishment of a Complaints Post in the village for challenges encountered in social protection programs. The Post signifies an alternative form of women’s collective action in participating in village development processes, albeit informally in the midst of inconducive political environment in the village. The Post also embodies women’s symbolic stance in monitoring the delivery of social protection programs in their islands. Furthermore, the Post provides an informal space for women to develop solidarity and share information. The case study demonstrates how increasing women’s expressions of agency through collective action, as well as developing their networks, has empowered them in advocating for their needs, and brought benefits to the island community at large. The case study also illustrates how the trajectory of women’s collective influence is not always upwards and positively linear over time. The trajectory of women’s collective influence might also differ between village and district levels. Nevertheless, the ongoing presence of some supporters of the Women’s School in the village, and much support from the district government, as well as women’s own perseverance has helped to sustain the group’s women’s empowerment activities.

In this video, we describe the changes that were enacted in the district of Pangkajene and islands in South Sulawesi, where the conduciveness context at the outset was considered to be highly difficult. Here an informal Women’s School was founded across the islands, raising awareness of gender equality, and began the development of collective participation in village decision-making and advocacy for allocation of funds for women’s savings and loans.

Read other case studies in the same sectoral focus area of social protection.