Village Context

Dimensions of Context: Constraining and Enabling Women’s Influence

Similar to the district level, there were two key sets of dynamics in village contexts which had implications for efforts to improve gender inclusion, women’s collective action and the implementation of the Village Law, namely: The village-level institutional and policy setting, and the socio-political and economic context. Many village dynamics were similar to the discussion above of district dynamics in the ways in which they constrained or enhanced women’s influence, albeit on a smaller scale and in ways that were much more personal for villagers, especially given the deep interconnectedness between members of village communities.

district context village context collectivities collectivities pathways 1 pathways 2 pathways 3 outcomes
Variation in village context

Key themes in the analysis of village context are outlined below.

Village level policy and institutional settings

Similar to the district-level context, policy and formal institutional settings varied between the study villages at the onset of activities supported by MAMPU. Such context dynamics were crucial in helping or hindering women’s collective action and efforts to improve women’s influence and gender inclusiveness. Key dimensions of the village institutional setting included:

  • The degree to which the village government, including the Village Head, was likely to quickly support new gender-oriented initiatives,
  • The degree of existing inclusion of women in village decision-making forums and structures of power,
  • How village budgets tend to be prioritised, and
  • Whether Village Regulations and other initiatives had already been introduced to strengthen women’s empowerment.

Overlapping with this in the institutional environment was the nature and form of other organisations and institutions present and the gender dynamics of these organisations. This latter dimension will be discussed further in the discussion of the socio-political and economic context.

Supportive village government

The degree to which the village leadership—in particular the Village Head—already supported or was open to supporting gender inclusion in decision making at the outset helped or hindered the efforts of village women to improve women’s influence, particularly in relation to the implementation of the Village Law. In places such as the Cirebon Research village in West Java (discussed further below), the North Hulu Sungai District in Kalimantan, the East Lombok District in NTB (particularly after the new Village Head was elected) and the Tanggamus research village in Lampung, the village government, and the Village Head were open to new initiatives that sought to increase women’s influence. Village Head support for gender-inclusiveness was strong indicator, but not the only signal of contextual conduciveness. In other villages, government leaders were more resistant at the outset and took some convincing over time through a range of actions discussed in subsequent sections, such as in the research villages in Bangkalan in East Java and TTU in NTT, among others. Such support from influential village actors was also subject to change over time, particularly at critical junctures such as elections, when support for gender-inclusiveness could change with a new village leadership and administration, a point which we will return to in Section 8.

The onset conditions in many villages in Indonesia, including a subset of those in our research ‘intervention’ sites, are reflected in the features the two research ‘control’ villages and not dissimilar to some of the dynamics identified in other studies (e.g. Syukri et al., 2017, 2018). As is described in Box 11, in the Gresik ‘control’ village in East Java there has been very little women’s collective action through groups or other avenues and no known history of CSO intervention. In fact, the village government rejected the idea of introducing broader community empowerment initiatives, initiatives to support women, and the presence of CSOs in this village.

The two women’s groups that were present in the village are commonly found throughout Indonesia and the research sites—the state corporatist PKK (Family Welfare Empowerment Organisation) and Posyandu (village maternal and child health group). Fatayat, the women’s organisation affiliated with the Islamic mass organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, also organised prayer groups. However, few women participated regularly in the PKK and those that did were of limited diversity and tended to be family members of the present and former village leadership. Others joined periodically, particularly because the village government decided women could only receive Program Keluarga Harapan (Family Hope Program, a conditional cash transfer program, or PKH) via the PKK in an effort to boost its flailing membership numbers. The leaders of the PKK and Fatayat were also the same people. The Posyandu was a forum in which a small number of women periodically participated, mainly to access visits from the midwife or nurse for basic health checks, particularly for their children. There was almost no inclusion of women in decision-making forums beyond inviting representatives from the PKK leadership (the chairperson, and sometimes the treasurer or secretary), as is the case in most villages.

Box 11: Gresik Control Village—No CSO Presence and Resistance to Empowerment Initiatives

The Gresik research ‘control’ village is an isolated village that mainly relies on the fishing industry for its economy (BPS Kabupaten Gresik, 2019). The village has a fish market and a village market, and compared with its two neighbouring villages that have neither of these, it has a reasonably strong economy reliant on small businesses in the fish trade. Fewer villagers earn their incomes as fisher people compared with neighbouring villages (BPS Kabupaten Gresik, 2019). The village is difficult to reach and can only be accessed by two routes. The first is by a single lane, poorly maintained side road, 9 km from a main road, approximately an hour’s drive from the capital of Gresik. The road is surrounded by salt farms, milk fish farms, and shrimp ponds that stretch for 2 km on either side of the road. These farms frequently flood, and the road is almost inaccessible during the wet season. The other is via a two-hour boat trip from the district capital, although this route is usually only used by fisher people.

All villagers are Muslim and both Islamic and cultural festivities are celebrated by sharing food with neighbours. However, other than that, villagers are disinclined to undertake their daily activities together or organise through formal groups. They do not organise through fisher people’s groups, village-owned enterprises (BUMDes), savings and loans groups, nor through small business groups. In contrast to agrarian societies that may rely on collective farming and other collective production in swidden agriculture, as a coastal society, livelihoods in this village have tended to be performed individually over generations, as was explained by one villager (5 November, 2019): “Going to sea does not require a lot of people, even with just two people you can go to sea [to catch fish] and get money.”

Women in this village encounter many of the same challenges found in other research villages, ranging from domestic violence to financial dependence on their husbands, and there are very few collective activities. With the exception of state-corporatist women’s groups (the PKK and the Posyandu), and prayer groups run by Fatayat, the Gresik research ‘control’ village has few women’s groups (with limited membership and diversity) and a limited number of groups in the village more widely. It has also never had a CSO conduct activities in the village. The Village Head is resistant to CSO presence or empowerment programs, arguing that they create social conflict with the changes they introduce. In his view, the village had experienced such ‘conflict’—or what might be the tensions that sometimes emerge with changing processes or challenges to the status quo ways of allocating resources—as a result of, what he perceived to be, data inconsistencies saw some villagers get benefits from government social protection programs while others did not.

One villager explained (12 November, 2019) “I do not agree with empowerment [programs]. [The programs] do not empower people; rather they create conflict in the village. [The conflict] then makes it harder for the Village Head or other village officials. So it is better to not have any empowerment programs, because the villagers are already empowered. Just make a program that suits our needs better, such as constructing an access road to our village.”

There is very little involvement of women in village decision making in this village. Few people over all and even fewer women attend village decision-making meetings such as MusDes, and participation is by invitation from the village government. The only women invited are from the PKK, which sometimes sends representatives. There is only one woman on the Village Consultative Council (BPD), who was appointed based on instruction from the subdistrict to include a female representative—this representative was also chosen from the PKK.

Very few villagers go to decision-making meetings, and even then, they only tend to participate when financial incentives are offered—programs that offer no incentives lack participants in meetings or other activities. Moreover, when the income generated from the villagers’ livelihood surpasses the incentives offered for participation in government programs, villagers are less inclined to give up their time to participate. One villager explained (8 November, 2019) “In this village, with a little bit of work, they can get money…It is difficult to encourage [the villagers] to participate [in activities], when there’s no money offered.”

As the villagers are more inclined to participate in programs when financial incentives are offered, they tend to be enthusiastic about government programs such as Bantuan Langsung Tunai [Unconditional Cash Transfer Program, or BLT] and Program Keluarga Harapan [Family Hope Program, a conditional cash transfer program, or PKH]. Villagers can access the PKH via the PKK on instruction from the village government.

The village, in the view of many villagers, receives little attention, and few visits, from the district government officials and others, given the difficult access routes to the village. A common view was that, “It’s rare to have the government visit us. Sometimes subdistrict government officials do, but usually we have to go to the subdistrict [capital] for which we have to travel ‘via the ponds’ for 9 km. Not to mention civil society organisations, they never come here. At the very most, we have college students coming to do their KKN [Kuliah Kerja Nyata—compulsory community service program].” 11 November 2019.

This village rejected options to introduce a Women’s School (Sekolah Perempuan) group in the village as a part of the Gresik district government’s initiative to replicate these Schools in other villages. The village government did, however, support one infrastructure project that women described as important, namely constructing an Early Childhood Education Centre (PAUD) on village land. This project was advocated by the leader of the PKK predominantly through her ties with, and informal lobbying of, the Village Head. The Gresik control village, unlike other villages, did not have a PAUD at the time.

In the control village in the Pangkep District in South Sulawesi, the situation was reasonably similar to that of the Gresik control site, with only marginally more diverse forms of associational life available to women. Again, the village had a PKK, but in this case the PKK had established an internal savings and loans group and collaborated with a sewing group—mainly for a small subset of elite women in the village. It also had a Posyandu whose members were the same as that of the PKK. In contrast to Gresik, it also had a state-corporatist Women Farmers Group (Kelompok Wanita Tani, KWT), which again had the same members as the PKK and a few additional members.

Compared with the Gresik ‘control’ site, there was slightly more women’s representation in village governance (See Box 11)—albeit in a limited way and with no implications for gender-inclusive priorities in the implementation of the Village Law. The prior female Village Head had held the position at a time before the Village Law was implemented, and in her words, “I had very little resources and didn’t want to encourage women too much and get their hopes up, as I was limited in what I could do”—although she did support one teacher (a woman) to get funding for an Early Childhood Education Centre (PAUD) building from the district government. When the new Village Head (the former Village Head’s nephew) was elected, he appointed three female members to the village government under the Village Law, although these were all his family members. He also set up a village-owned enterprise, a café, to be run by and for the benefit of three female members of his family. Thus, while endogenous change for gender inclusiveness in village government can occur without ‘external’ intervention, in this village it was predominantly for the benefit of the Village Head and his family, and there were there were no other village initiatives that focused on gender inclusion or proposals funded under the Village Law that were put forward by women.

As with Gresik, participation in the village development planning meeting (Musrenbangdes) and other village decision-making meetings such as MusDes in the Pangkep ‘control’ site was by invitation only. Only the chairperson of the PKK, the KWT and the Posyandu were invited. In the most recent meeting, the PKK and KWT attended for 10 minutes to sign in, and then spent the rest of the time cooking for the meeting. One woman, the same teacher who had advocated for the PAUD with the district mentioned above, has managed to make her way to the Musrenbangdes several times to advocate for funds for renovation of the PAUD, but with little backup each time this has been rejected. One woman had also made her way onto the BPD as an elected candidate as she had become well known through running a fishpond, but as with Gresik this was the extent of women’s representation. She was the only woman who spoke up in village decision-making meetings, while the three female village government staff who were the Village Head’s family members tended to remain silent or not attend.

Policy and budget priorities

Similar to the district level, policy and budget priorities at the village level also influenced the possibility of focusing on women’s priorities and gender inclusion. While this was in some ways related to the socio-economic wealth of particular villages (if villages had bigger budgets, they might be more able to fund a variety of activities) it did not always follow that wealth was correlated with village appetites for supporting women’s priority activities. Social norms, instructions from above, leadership preferences and many other aspects informed what villages had already deemed to be priorities at the onset.

Infrastructure was deemed a priority in many regions for village budgets, more so than ‘soft’ development initiatives (education, health, learning, skills development, safehouses and protection, etc.) and services. This was in part due to the prevailing needs across much of the archipelago, particularly in poorer areas. It was also due to the way that the Village Law was rolled out early on and village governments sought guidance on implementation. Given how new the initiative was, the Ministry of Villages sought to identify priority areas for villages in the first few years. Priority areas included infrastructure (aligned with President Widodo’s development priorities), water reservoirs, and village-owned enterprises to create livelihoods opportunities. These did not always align easily with empowerment agendas focused on services, education, awareness raising, knowledge generation and a range of diverse activities. Under a new Minister of Villages Regulation released in late 2019, the suggested priorities have been widened to include many of the aspects that women have deemed to be priorities in our research sites. However, given the lag to implementation and the timing of this research, how these changes might impact on gender inclusion across the archipelago will be more evident in future research.

Where women’s self-identified needs or those advocated by women’s groups were aligned with what the village government already conceived to be priorities, or could be framed as such, there was less resistance to requests from women. This also worked in reverse—if women’s priorities (or those of women who advocated with the support of CSO partners) were not aligned with what were normally conceived of as village priorities, then it was a much more difficult context for women to navigate and have influence.

Participation in decision making

One of the key ways that influence is exercised in villages is through the village decision-making meetings such as MusDes (musyawarah desa) where decisions are made through deliberation and consensus building. Inclusion of women in MusDes was one of the most important indicators of the degree of existing influence women had in each village at the outset and this varied across the research villages.

In general, analysis found that as more women became involved in such decision-making forums, with some taking on leadership within and outside government roles, this better facilitated women’s influence and the introduction of concrete initiatives driven by women. It also led to slow changes in the structures of power to be more inclusive of women. In some villages, it was very uncommon for more than a handful of women, if any, to attend village decision-making meetings prior to CSO interventions. The village leaders were resistant to change in these areas. This included the ‘intervention’ research villages in places such as Bangkalan, East Lombok and Pangkep, and both the research ‘intervention’ and ‘control’ villages in the Gresik District. Such areas were deemed to be less conducive to gender inclusion and women’s empowerment at the onset, requiring additional efforts and special strategies for women to overcome the obstacles discussed throughout this report but particularly in Sections 4, 5 and 7.

Other regions displayed more conducive environments reflecting an environment similar to the Pangkep research ‘control’ village, both in terms of already having women in decision-making positions or being open to supporting new empowerment initiatives. For example, in the Cirebon research village, while it was generally not the norm for women to attend village meetings (the village was considered moderately conducive at the outset), over time this changed and women also influenced the implementation of the Village Law.

The following excerpt from one of the case studies illustrating a Story of Change shows such openness and how the interaction between multiple village context features, women’s collective action and CSOs supporting village women (in this case with the support of MAMPU Partner, ‘Aisyiyah) can lead to change. While we go into such support in later analysis, we use the example of the Cirebon research village to give early insights to such processes and the importance of networked collective action involving village women and, in some cases, other actors as a means of influencing change. In this study location, women collaborated through groups, introduced new initiatives and changed practices in the village to be more gender-inclusive. The times for village meetings were shifted to afternoons so that women could attend and new Village Regulations on priorities for women were introduced. Over time, the Village Head became increasingly supportive and open to greater gender inclusiveness, new organisations and gender-oriented initiatives, even when they did not align with the existing social-institutional affiliations in the region. (See Box 12).

Box 12: A Story of Change in Cirebon—Promoting More Inclusive Village Decision Making and Development

The Cirebon research village in West Java reflects many villages in Indonesia, particularly on Java island. It has a predominantly Muslim population (90%) and most villagers are affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). According to village monograph figures, only 30% of adults continued education after finishing primary school, and only 17% of adults have finished both junior and senior high school. The village lacks good school infrastructure, and many people, including women, quit school to find work.

“The main problem for women in this village is education. For good reasons or not, many women go to school, but only 30% [go beyond primary school education]. We have a tea factory nearby that employs women…There was an incident…about underage workers in 2011. The issue [of the factory] employing underage workers who were mostly girls was brought to the local police.” Village Head, 25 February 2019.

For a long time, people in the village, particularly women, had limited opportunities to participate in decision-making forums such as MusDes, MusDus, and Village Development Planning Meetings (Musrenbangdes). This was because women were perceived to lack sufficient education to have input into village decisions, and these forums were held at night. The latter limited women’s opportunities to attend, given the prevailing social norms in which it was considered unsafe for women to leave the home after dark and they also had other household responsibilities. The development priorities set by the village have also tended to focus mainly on infrastructure—63% of the village budget is allocated for infrastructure, while around 8% is allocated for community empowerment, and 2% for the Posyandu, although this is slowly changing.

First, village women advocated to change MusDes meeting times. Since 2018, MusDes forums have been held on Sunday afternoons, so that more people, including women, can attend. Women who attend Musrenbangdes include female village officials and ‘Aisyiyah (a MAMPU Partner) cadres and members of the Balai Sakinah ‘Aisyiyah (BSA) women’s group established in the village. According to the Village Secretary, Sutianti—who is also a cadre associated with ‘Aisyiyah focused on reproductive health—30% of participants in the 2018 Musrenbangdes were women. Hatini, a BSA member and another reproductive health village cadre, described how many women felt nervous about participating in the meeting: “I was scared, in my mind I kept wondering if the proposal was the wrong path. My fear was that it shouldn’t be me, I shouldn’t make a proposal here.” Hatini, Cirebon research village, 2 March 2019.

Despite feeling nervous about participating, Hatini successfully proposed that the village invest in a new set of rebana musical instruments (tambourines) for the local women’s group. “Yes it was accepted. [But] it doesn’t matter if it was successful or not. The important thing is that we proposed it.” Hatini, 2 March 2019.

Second, there are growing changes in this village in terms of women’s organisational structures, influence, women taking up leadership positions and driving new initiatives, which has increasingly seen the support of and interactions between village women and the Village Head (Kuwu in local language), with whom many had little contact previously. The Kuwu has strong authority in village governance in Cirebon District, and plays a key role in decision making. The current Kuwu in the Cirebon research village has offered a new leadership approach, welcoming opportunities offered by collaborating with external actors, such as ‘Aisyiyah, NU-affiliate organisations, and USAID. He is increasingly concerned with gender inclusion and women’s empowerment, having witnessed many of the benefits provided by earlier initiatives and through his growing networks with village women. While women seem to welcome women’s participation and speaking up in formal village forums, most women tend to also relay their suggestions informally to the Village Head through their growing connections with him.

In the Cirebon research village, there are strong religious values and ties to NU. However, the Kuwu supported ‘Aisyiyah’s entry to the village to support knowledge sharing and activities focused on reproductive health, even though they are associated with another mass Islamic organisation Muhammadiyah, rather than NU. ‘Aisyiyah supported the establishment of the BSA women’s group in the village. The BSA group is a forum for village women of childbearing age (defined as 15–49 years old) who come from disadvantaged backgrounds to learn about women’s reproductive health and family planning. Village women become ‘Aisyiyah reproductive health village cadres through the BSA and run these education programs for women, with assistance from ‘Aisyiyah at the regional level. These women acted as agents of change, sharing knowledge other village women.

The women’s groups in the Cirebon research village provide spaces and ways for village women to be involved in policy making processes at the village level under the Village Law. Their collective action directly shaped a 2017 Village Regulation on Women’s Reproductive Health. Village women actively contributed to the formulation and drafting of this Village Regulation, bolstered by leadership and organisational skills from their group activities, and increased knowledge of reproductive health issues, gained from cadre training.

Women also established other new initiatives and groups, such as Women’s Farmers Groups (the KWT, mentioned above). The Kuwu supported women’s efforts (who were backed up by ‘Aisyiyah), to establish the KWT and its Nutritional Garden (Kebun Gizi) in 2019. The KWT group focuses primarily on maintaining the Garden, providing agricultural training, and creating livelihood opportunities for poor women in the village. The KWT group also plays an important role in ensuring women’s collective action and participation through routine farming activities. Through the KWT, women proposed to shift the Nutritional Garden to a more strategic and fertile location in the MusDes.

Hatini, a BSA member and reproductive health cadre, was chosen as the head of the Nutritional Garden. Her daughter describes how this position provided livelihood and leadership opportunities for her mum: “I have seen really positive [impacts] for my mum. Now she is not scared when she is trading [in the market]. Whatever she does she pushes forward herself. For the Nutritional Garden she has been supported by her family and ‘Aisyiyah. Before she wasn’t very brave in public. Now, thanks be to God, she is confident to be social in groups and in organisations.” Hatini’s daughter, Cirebon research village, 3 March 2013.


Many villages have begun to introduce regulations, particularly given their authority under decentralisation, which has been further bolstered by the Village Law. Introducing regulations in Indonesia is a key policy lever, as regulations are used to commit subsequent governments to the agenda of prior administrations, but also it is often difficult to introduce new policies or programs without the administrative authority provided by a regulation. This includes regulations for policy implementation that often stipulate budget commitments. It is harder for subsequent administrations to revise or abolish these regulations without undertaking the work to build coalitions of support to do so, although they may be lax in implementing the regulations of prior regimes.

Nonetheless, as Village Regulations related to gender inclusion, women’s priorities and broader women’s empowerment begin to be ratified and implemented in different places in Indonesia, this increases the likelihood of longer-term institutional support for gender inclusion. At the time CSOs gained MAMPU support in 2013, there were no examples of research villages (both in control and intervention sites) with Village Regulations that pertained specifically to women’s priority issues or empowerment agendas, although some regulations did exist at the district level where there was a history of gender focused advocacy, such as in Tanggamus in Lampung (see Box 5). However, as is evident in the case of the Cirebon research village above (Box 12) and as we shall see in later sections, this changed over time.

Socio-political and economic context

As with districts, variation in the village socio-political context was also important for enabling or constraining women’s influence in the village and gender-inclusive decision making. In places where power was concentrated in the hands of a small few, it was more difficult to change social norms and gain funding for women’s initiatives in the event that the existing socio-political and cultural environment did not already support the inclusion of women in decision making. In places where power was more dispersed, there were more avenues for change. The role of the Village Head was important, particularly administratively, for improving the position of women in villages. But this was not the only key to unlocking support for more gender-inclusive decision making—how support could be garnered was also contingent on the way social organisations, networks and structures of power were configured. We will see in later sections, the ways women—through groups and networks, and backed up by CSOS—were able to use multiple sources of pressure to navigate the village context, and to collectively advocate for and influence change.

Similar to the district level, prevailing social norms on the role of women in public life—which shaped attitudes and behaviours towards women and of women themselves—enabled or constrained the efforts of women to exercise voice. There was significant variation in these dynamics across all villages in the study. Key aspects are outlined in Figure 8 and discussed further below.

Figure 8: Key Aspects of the Socio-economic and Political Setting that Shape Women’s Influence
Village power dynamics

Interrelated with the institutional environment above (and village leadership support) was village power dynamics, particularly among the village leadership, made up of coalitions and factions. This was an important aspect of context that proved a barrier to entry or a supportive factor for new gender-focused grassroots initiatives in villages. It also shaped efforts to facilitate women’s groups, networks, voice and collective action. More conducive village environments had supportive leaders with the widespread legitimacy who:

  • Encouraged others in villages to change practices, processes and priorities in situations where women were at a disadvantage,
  • Engaged with new initiatives introduced by village women or separately/together with CSOs touched on cultural taboos or challenged established practices (especially in funds disbursement), or
  • Sought to change established practices in relation to the inclusion of women in decision making or priority setting.

In some places, there were factional splits between the village administration (such as the Village Head and government staff) and the Village Consultative Council (Badan Permusyawaratan Desa, BPD). In such cases, if either party supported an aspect of the empowerment agenda that represented something new or a significant change then it was in the interests of the opposition to try to undermine this agenda.

We certainly saw such politicking in the research villages in Central and East Lombok, and North Hulu Sungai, among others. In the Central Lombok research village, for example, the new Village Head was elected from outside the ‘nobility’ or established ranks, and petty theft increased in the weeks following his inauguration. Interviewees argued that the increase in theft was deliberate and organised so as to demonstrate the new Village Head was unable to ‘control’ the village and as such he had little legitimacy. In turn this meant that any new gender-inclusive initiatives he endorsed faced some resistance.

Similar resistance was encountered by a new Village Head in East Lombok (Box 13), while in the North Hulu Sungai research village, the Village Consultative Council despised the Village Head for personal reasons. In both cases, such actions sought to destabilise the new Village Heads and show that they had insufficient authority to reign in dissenting ranks. In both cases, women’s groups, and CSOs new to the village had to carefully manage their interactions with such politics at the onset of their activities and especially across election periods (see further discussion in Section 8).

Box 13: Change and Resistance in East Lombok

In East Lombok, a new Village Head who was previously a Hamlet Head was elected with a significant degree of support from village women. Prior to this, he had been involved in the work of BaKTI to introduce Village Constituent Groups, made up of many and women, which sought to connect villagers to political leaders in the district. He had already supported a more open and inclusive agenda in hamlet-level meetings (MusDus) and been actively involved in the Village Constituent Group. He beat the ‘nobility’ in this village to gain the position of Village Head, which upset the establishment.

In East Lombok, the village office was set on fire, just after the new Village Head was inaugurated in an effort to destabilise his leadership. Factional splits remain to this day. However, new initiatives proposed by and supported by women have since come to fruition in this village, as they are more confident in attending meetings and advocating for change.

Social structures, organisations and values

Social organisations in Indonesia range from mass organisations, including mass religious organisations, CSOs, youth sports clubs, savings and loans groups, prayer groups, as well as livelihoods associations and groups, among others. Branches of mass organisations such NU and Muhammadiyah (each with different religious affiliations) and other organisations such as martial arts associations often have affiliated groups in villages. NU and Muhammadiyah also have women’s branches—Fatayat and Muslimat with NU, and ‘Aisyiyah with Muhammadiyah—that predominantly focus their attention on health and education. There are also state corporatist organisations, that have been established, endorsed and sometimes funded by the state—with a long history pre-dating the reform era—but which operate in communities. These organisations are discussed further in Sections 5 and 6. There are also looser social networks that exist outside of formal organisations based on family, ethnic, religious, customary, livelihood, business or other ties.

These salient identity groups, social organisations, institutions and networks around which communities are organised, as well as their leadership, have the potential to influence customs and social norms in communities. This has implications for social attitudes, behavioural norms and traditions relating to gender roles, representation, rights and responsibilities (or what might we call the 4Rs) in public and private life. These social interests—through informal and formal political associations and as lobby groups—also have connections to policy decision makers, giving such social organisations significant influence. Social organisations and structures, religious and customary norms, family loyalties and hierarchies, and the type and density of social networks varied significantly across the village research sites, which had significant implications for how, and the degree to which, women could exercise voice and influence (Sections 4 and 5), and the ways CSOs could support them to navigate social dynamics in the contexts where they lived (see Section 7).

In some villages there were diverse social institutions ranging from livelihoods groups, to savings and loans groups, religious and customary groups, and all manner of social groupings in which villagers, including women, participated. This tended to produce a diversity of views and forms of representation. In other places, there was less diversity in social organisation and particular types of social and religious groups dominated—this was certainly the case in places such as Bangkalan (see Box 6) in which women tended to only participate in prayer groups and other religiously-affiliated activities. If women sought to change norms, then there was significant resistance or apathy in communities and from social and political leaders at the outset.

However, conservative social values did not always align entirely with the degree of homogeneity of religious and ethnic groups in each village, particularly if the leadership was open to change. In Box 12 above, we see that in the Cirebon research village, most of the population was Muslim, but the leadership was open to building knowledge of more sensitive topics such as women’s reproductive and sexual health. In the Gresik research ‘intervention’ village where informal ‘Women’s Schools’ (Sekolah Perempuan) were established, the Village Head supported committing some of the Village Fund for the Schools despite his conservative values. This commitment occurred as a result of women’s collective action.

The nature of informal politics

Closely related to the way social and organisational structures informed social values was the way social institutions constituted an informal source of political power and authority—outside the formal dimensions of village/district governance—with influence over formal institutions and policy and political decision making. This also shaped the landscape for women’s collective action at the onset and over time.

For example, in Bangkalan, policy and political decision making has tended to be significantly influenced by family-based politics and the pesantren (see the discussion above in the section on political economy). This also tended to intersect with formal politics—many key state positions were held by members of the same family over generations. In TTU, the Catholic Church had significant influence on communities and customary institutions and the Church’s leadership was a key source of support for political candidates. The Church’s leadership also had influence in communities and gained influential positions in government. In some cases, such as North Hulu Sungai, power was concentrated in particular individuals whose attitudes—whether conservative or progressive—were highly influential. In other contexts, such as the Cirebon research village, power was less concentrated in the hands of a few, giving broader avenues for women’s groups to influence change in norms or rules.

While not discussed in detail above, how informal networks between actors helped shaped opportunities to influence policies was also a key feature of district contexts. For example, in Pangkep, the Head of the District Development Planning Agency (Bappeda) who had close ties to local CSOs, helped open doors with the District Head for new initiatives. Similar dynamics were also found in other districts such as Tanggamus.

Cultural taboos and social norms

When a key challenge encountered by village women was one that touched on cultural taboos (such as domestic violence in some regions, women’s reproductive health, and ending child marriage in other regions), or was focused on an issue of less interest to the village or district leadership, this created significant constraints for women’s collective action and influence at the outset—signalling a difficult environment for strengthening gender inclusiveness in decision making.

For example, in a number of research areas, gender-based violence, in particular domestic violence, was not an issue widely and publicly discussed, with often few policies or regulations available to enact programs to aimed at reducing such violence. Women’s efforts to build broad support from the public and the political leadership to prevent such violence was severely constrained, given the sensitivity of the issue. Similar dynamics were encountered in regions such as Bangkalan where reducing child marriage (see Box 14) has proved a challenging and sensitive issue to address in policy and grassroots activities. Child marriage is interrelated to issues around social protection and ensuring legibility for poor citizens so they have the appropriate documentation to access services and programs.

Box 14: Child Marriage in Bangkalan

A major issue for women in Bangkalan District (and also in Central Lombok District) is child marriage, which, according to the District Office of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection, accounts for 17% of all marriages in the district. Actual levels of child marriage may even be higher as many child marriages are informal and not recorded by the government. Indeed, many in the region do not have legally recognised or registered marriages and it difficult for women to obtain documents such as KTP (identity cards) and Kartu Keluarga (Family Cards—KK), which they need to access various government welfare and social protection programs. Aside from religious norms that hasten marriage, child marriage is seen as a solution for breaking the poverty cycle by reducing the number of dependents in a family. While at the time of the research there were regulations that stipulated the minimum age of marriage for women was 16 (a recent amendment of the Marriage Law in 2019 raised the age that women can get married from 16 to 19), marriage before this age could take place with a recommendation, or ‘dispensation’ from the religious court, as was outlined by one government official:

“The Marriage Law stipulates that the minimum age for marriage is 16 years old, while Islamic rules allow girls as young as 9 years old to marry. In Madurese culture, child marriage is a way to fulfil religious norms. It is common for arranged marriages or engagements to be organised for children in junior high school, so there are lots of cases where children are married as soon as they finish school. The Office of Religious Affairs allows for marriage under the age of 16 as long as it comes with a recommendation from the Religious Court. Without this recommendation, the [request to officiate a] marriage will be denied. To avoid this procedure, lots of child marriages are just carried out religiously, without being recorded in the civil registry.” Office of Religious Affairs (KUA) official, Bangkalan 20 February 2019.

Variation: Social networks and the structures of formal and informal power

As we shall see in Sections 5 and 7, understanding the structure of social networks in village contexts was crucial for women to access and influence authoritative figures in village life and for CSOs to enter villages, navigate challenges and leverage opportunities to support village women. Social networks and the ways power is structured, varied significantly across the village contexts.

In some villages power was concentrated in the hands of a few, whose sources of power were drawn from both their formal positions in the state with the authority to make policy decisions and their informal sources of social power and legitimacy that meant they had influence over social norms too. In such situations there were limited options at the outset for women to exercise voice other than to find ways to garner support from these influential leaders. This was certainly the case in the Gresik research ‘control’ village, and in the research ‘intervention’ villages in Bangkalan, Labuhan Batu, and Pangkep, which were also deemed to have difficult contexts for pursuing empowerment agendas. In some places these networks were shaped by economic interdependence and types of livelihoods (such as in the fishing sector in Pangkep), in others by family connections (such as in Bangkalan), or in family and customary systems (such as in NTT). In others, power was dispersed among more actors, creating greater opportunities for women to seek support from a variety of actors for their agenda, such as in the Tanggamus and North Hulu Sungai villages. We explore the importance of social networks further in Section 5 and 7.

District Context
Collectivities: Existing & New
Pathways of Influence: Women’s Agency & Collective Action
Pathways of Influence: Structures and Support for Women’s Groups & Agency
Pathways of Influence: Planned and Adaptive Strategies
Outcomes: Village Law