Women’s Life Stories

The life history excerpts of these village women offer unique insights into women’s aspirations, the challenges they have encountered and their achievements across multiple scales and domains, illustrating the lived complexities of women in rural Indonesia, particularly those from vulnerable groups. The stories shared highlight women’s own pathways of change and their resilience and determination often in the face of resistance from their families and communities, to ultimately reduce rural gender inequities and bolster gender inclusiveness.

Introduction: Women Driving Change in Indonesian Villages

Indonesia’s cultural and religious diversity, as well as the sheer size of the archipelago, means that the country faces complex challenges when it comes to upholding women’s rights and working towards gender equality. In many rural areas especially, poverty levels are high and education levels are low. Furthermore, entrenched socio-cultural norms and beliefs often place restrictions on women’s mobility and choices, confining women mainly to the domestic sphere, and out of public life and decision making. Many women, particularly those experiencing the most severe and chronic poverty across multiple dimensions of their wellbeing, often do not have the basic knowledge, paperwork or even confidence to access social services. Poverty also leads many women to seek income outside of their local communities, for example, through migrant labour that is often poorly organised, uses illicit channels and carries high risks. Access to healthcare and knowledge of, for example, reproductive health is also limited, and gender-based violence is a reality for many women.

Over the past two decades of reform, Indonesian women and the Indonesia’s women’s movement, including many civil society organisations (CSOs) concerned with gender equality and inclusion, have successfully advocated for new or revised legislation, policies and programs to help tackle these inequalities. Among these changes, since 2004, political parties have been obliged to ensure that 30 percent of nominated candidates are women.[i] These gender quotas have fast-tracked women’s equal representation as political candidates, particularly in the 2019 elections in which 40 percent of contenders were women.[ii] Another important achievement is the passage of the 2004 Law on the Elimination of Domestic Violence,[iii] which was the result of intensive lobbying by representatives of the Indonesian women’s movement and their collaboration with government leaders. The Law has provided legal mechanisms to protect women from violence, including the criminalisation of marital rape. These legislative changes are notable achievements and have strengthened the work of many CSOs, which deliver their own programs and services to support and empower women across the country’s diverse regions. However, at the same time, many challenges remain and especially in a country as diverse as Indonesia, in which improvements remain uneven, especially in poor and rural areas. Women’s political presence, especially, is still constrained, particularly in rural Indonesia where women are at risk of being excluded from political processes.[iv] Cases of domestic violence against women remain high, with over 430,000 reported cases in 2019.[v]

Alongside democratisation, Indonesia also embarked on an ambitious decentralisation program that shifted political and economic power from the central to subnational levels of government. Implemented from 2001, these laws and policies have been key to increasing democratic decision making at the local level, including the participation of communities in processes to determine development priorities. The enactment of the 2014 Village Law is another important step in this process. Under this new Law, each of Indonesia’s 75,000 villages receive funds from the national budget for their development priorities and initiatives through the Village Fund allocation to the village budget. The Law’s emphasis on gender equity and democratic decision making offers opportunities for increased women’s participation in village governance.

This edited volume is part of collaborative research conducted in 2019 by an all-female research team from The University of Melbourne and Universitas Gadjah Mada on Women’s Collective Action and the Village Law in Indonesia. In this research, we considered the extent to which, and through what mechanisms, local collective action by women influenced the implementation of the Village Law in manners responsive to the needs of women. This included the ways women sought to exercise voice and took action, as well as the role and strategies used by CSOs to support these women. Extensive analysis presented in Diprose, Savirani, Setiawan and Francis[vi], finds that, despite many challenges, village women across the Indonesian archipelago are making changes for themselves and their communities, thereby challenging social norms and other structural barriers to gender equality. The support provided by CSOs[vii] to village women in these places has also helped some of Indonesia’s most vulnerable women, including the female heads of families, to tackle the challenges they face, through improving access to social protection programs, the protection of migrant workers, improvement of working conditions, women’s health and nutrition, and in responding to cases of violence against women while advancing prevention efforts. More than that, as is evident in women’s stories presented in this volume, it has helped facilitate greater agency for these women. While some women may have already been on this path at a slower and incremental speed, for others CSO support has presented new opportunities, that to many women were unimaginable.

This volume shares the life journeys of 21 women from rural villages from Sumatra, to Java, to Kalimantan, Sulawesi and East and West Nusa Tenggara (for ethical reasons, all names have been anonymised).[viii] In each of these villages, CSOs introduced and/or strengthened interventions to support gender inclusion, women’s collective action and empowerment. The life history excerpts of these village women offer unique insights into women’s aspirations, the challenges they have encountered and their achievements across multiple scales and domains, illustrating the lived complexities of women in rural Indonesia, particularly those from vulnerable groups. The stories shared highlight women’s own pathways of change and their resilience and determination often in the face of resistance from their families and communities, to ultimately reduce rural gender inequities and bolster gender inclusiveness. The stories also illustrate the important role CSOs—those that are focused on gender inclusion and facilitating grassroots women’s agency and empowerment—can play in supporting women’s voice and agency as they undertake this journey.

These stories demonstrate how women’s collective action has led to many diverse outcomes at the village level. Together women have successfully shaped village policy and contributed to village incomes. For instance, Tari (Labuhan Batu, North Sumatra), Laeli (East Lombok), and Yohana (North Central Timor), were actively involved in the drafting of village and district regulations on the rights of women and children. In Central Lombok, the survey of migrant workers conducted by Gita and other village women with Migrant CARE’s regional partner the Panca Karsa Association, was invaluable in changing village-level policy on improving the protection of prospective, current, and former migrant workers. In North Hulu Sungai, South Kalimantan, Hj.[ix] Aminah played a key role in the establishment of the BUMDes – the Village-Owned Enterprise. In Gresik, Cirebon and Bantul, women’s collective action also led to women being increasingly included in village decision-making forums.

Women’s groups, with the support of CSOs, have also increased knowledge of and access to social and administrative services, expanded women’s skills in voicing the needs of their communities, as well as strengthened women’s economic empowerment. In Bangkalan and North Hulu Sungai, Mita and Hj. Farah were actively involved in enhancing women’s access to vital documents, including birth and marriage certificates, through PEKKA’s Village Consultation and Information Service Clinics.[x] In Lampung and Gresik, Sulis and Lastri helped women access the National Health Insurance Scheme (Badan Penyelenggara Jaminan Sosial, BPJS). Similarly, in Gresik, Cirebon and Tanggamus, Lasinem, Srikandi, and Sulis enhanced women’s knowledge of and access to health information and checks, particularly for women’s reproductive health. Savings and loans groups in many villages strengthened women’s economic opportunities and capacities, which was also achieved by offering women skills training to develop their own small enterprises, as illustrated by the stories from Central and East Lombok. Meanwhile, in the Pangkajene islands, Laila and Julianti applied the advocacy skills they learned through participation in the Women’s School group—supported by KAPAL Perempuan—to successfully campaign for solar-powered electrification and access to clean water. Women in a diverse range of village contexts have thus increased political inclusion and actively participated in and influenced decision making. Their stories document the journeys women experienced individually and collectively, with the assistance of civil society organisations, to achieve these outcomes.

When writing these stories of women’s journeys, the interviewers have sought to foreground women’s own voices and expressions. This approach of prioritising women’s direct speech and ways of telling their own stories stems equally from a commitment to feminist research methods and is a reflection of the relationships that were forged with women and communities during the course of this research.[xi] These narratives recount deeply personal experiences and trajectories of change, describing women’s resilience in the face of adversity and their determination to overcome these challenges.

While these stories focus on individuals, many women expressed their views and experiences in terms of ‘we’, rather than ‘I’. In sharing their hopes for the future, women consistently referred to the needs and potential of women in the village rather than their personal goals. For example, when asked about her hopes for the future, Farah, from North Hulu Sungai in South Kalimantan answered that she was ‘motivated because I wish to become more knowledgeable and shape women to become leaders’. This illustrates that while these stories narrate an individual journey, they are also intrinsically connected to a collective experience and shared aspirations. This introduction places these stories into the context of a rich history of Indonesian women’s organisations. It then ties together the common threads from these life stories to weave an understanding of the processes through which women empowered themselves in groups, and what women gained through these journeys of personal and collective growth.

Antecedents to Indonesian Women’s Organisations: Enabling and Constraining Change

Indonesia has a long history of women coming together to advocate for improvement in women’s lives. The early 20th century saw the emergence of women’s newspapers such as Poetri Hindia, Poetri Mardika, and Soenting Melajoe. These contained testimonies in women’s words of challenges faced and efforts to develop their communities and promote education.[xii] This period also saw the rapid development of women’s collective action through networks, mass organisations and women’s groups. In 1914 the women’s organisation Sapa Tresna, which later became ‘Aisyiyah, was established. Affiliated with the modernist Islamic mass organisation Muhammadiyah, this organisation sought to promote the education of women and girls. The traditionalist Islamic mass organisation Nahdlatul Ulama established its women’s wing Muslimat in 1946, followed four years later by Fatayat for younger women, similarly focusing on women’s education and health. While in so doing these organisations addressed crucial issues for women, they did not explicitly advocate for female political participation or civil and political rights. These Islamic organisations continue to have significant influence today: they are well-established throughout the country and have been able to reach the grassroot levels of society.[xiii]

The rise of nationalism and the immediate years following independence provided an impetus for women’s political participation: women were actively involved in political life and established women’s organisations. However at the same time, government rhetoric assigned women the role of ‘mothers of the nation’ and ‘weavers of national unity’, a hegemonic role that they were largely unable to contest.[xiv] Even the left-wing women’s organisation Gerwani, affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), did not question women’s maternal characteristics, but fused this with political activism.[xv] The period of relative encouragement of women’s organisation and political participation came to an abrupt and violent end following the 1965 coup, as did many other forms of organisation and political participation.

Under President Suharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998), women’s groups at the community level virtually disappeared with the exception of religious groups (such as prayer groups) and the PKK (Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga, the Family Welfare Guidance organisation).[xvi] Under the New Order, the formation of state corporatist organisations—such as the PKK—was part of the state’s control mechanism which sought to depoliticise society and expected to obey the state ideology Pancasila.[xvii] As such, the PKK was subordinated to the male-dominated state and reflected in its structure in which its leaders were the wives of government officials. Moreover, New Order state policy promoted nuclear families and motherhood, and women’s roles were confined to the domestic sphere.[xviii] At the village-level, the PKK became the only women’s organisation that had official endorsement and disseminated the state’s official gender ideology of wives and mothers’ responsibilities to serve male heads of families and raise children.[xix]

However, from the mid-1980s and throughout the 1990s some women became involved in broader movements and networks of activists that drew extensively on global human rights movement and feminist ideas that sought to counter the regime and its gender ideology. Women’s organisations that emerged in this time include the resource centre Kalyanamitra, LBH-APIK (Legal Aid Foundation – Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice) and Yasanti – the Annisa Swasti Foundation.[xx]

The end of authoritarianism in 1998 saw the opening of space for civil society organisations and was indeed a catalyst for increased women’s political action.[xxi] New women’s networks, unions and other civil society organisations emerged nationally and locally throughout Indonesia, including many of the civil society organisations discussed in the research that formed the basis for this volume. At a state level, there was also increasing recognition for women’s rights and issues as illustrated by the establishment of the independent National Commission on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) in 1998. The post-authoritarian period also saw some changes to organisational structures of women’s organisations established by the New Order. The PKK changed its name to the Family Welfare and Empowerment organisation, stressing ‘empowerment’ rather than ‘guidance’ as its key function. While the PKK still remains under the auspices of the Ministry of Home Affairs, its leaders are now elected and the organisation has tried to prioritise women’s participation in politics and gender equality.[xxii] However, the PKK continues to be influenced by development priorities set by the central government and their traditional focus on women’s roles as mothers and wives has been difficult to change. In many instances PKK membership has tended to be dominated by village elites and there are limitations to the extent to which the organisation pushes for an empowerment agenda, particularly among the most vulnerable of rural women.

Facilitating and Building Women’s Agency

As discussed above, despite long histories of women’s organising and pre-existing women’s groups, across research sites in this study, at the onset of the period that this research covers, women were not necessarily included in decision-making processes nor did they participate in groups that aimed to challenge power structures and gender norms. Barriers to gender inclusion in particular are often shaped by social norms on gender roles and the way structures of authority and power are configured in societies, often privileging particular networks, families and other groups who have long been involved and influential in village life and political decision making.[xxiii] New legislation—particularly the 2014 Village Law in this context—has not necessarily resulted in more inclusive village development decision making and priority setting despite its aims and efforts to enhance community driven development,. This is particularly the case for more vulnerable women such as those experiencing poverty and challenges across multiple economic and social realms.[xxiv] In many villages throughout the archipelago, even in the instances that there is an allocation from the Village Fund for women, these are usually assigned only to the PKK, which is typically dominated by elite women, reinforcing class-based divisions within local communities.[xxv]

An initial step taken by many of the CSOs involved in the study that provided support to village women with the goal of improving women’s empowerment did so by collaborating with, diversifying and extending the membership and focus of existing women’s groups, or by establishing new groups and initiatives. As is outlined below and in other comparative analysis, these groups provide a safe space for women to connect with other women, enhance their knowledge and awareness, and build skills.[xxvi] Women’s participation in these groups and activities facilitated greater agency and the propensity for their collective action. The stories in this edited collection chronicle the experiences of women in different parts of Indonesia—contexts that, at first glance, may have little in common. In some places, villagers have been very resistant to women taking on roles in public life and village development whereas other villages were much more conducive towards women’s participation.

In our research, it was evident that there were some cohort experiences among those women who took on stronger leadership roles in driving collective action. Some women were, based on prior life experiences, more readily able to take on more influential or leadership roles when such opportunities arose. Others had not considered that they had this ability, which particularly applied for women from more vulnerable groups.

An example of a woman who had no experience in women’s organisations at all was Lasinem in Gresik, who came from a poor family and held the perception that the role of married women was in the domestic sphere. However, the Women’s School offered her the opportunity to expand her knowledge. Lasinem gradually became more active and eventually became a leader. Other women initially had little interest in joining women’s organisations, as the story of Tari shows us, as they believed there was little benefit for them to do so. But Tari too, over time, became more active in her group and eventually emerged as a leader.

Then there are women, who had little prior involvement in women’s organisations but through other life experiences had more confidence thereby lowering the barriers to becoming involved in women’s collective action and village governance. Husnul (East Lombok) for instance had extensive experience in supporting her family though sewing and making crisps—while her husband worked overseas in Malaysia—which brough her in close contact with the local community. The confidence of younger women, such as Mita and Gita, was bolstered by their prior education and their roles as teachers, which enabled them to more quickly take on leadership roles and mobilise other women in their communities.

Some women were also more prominent in driving collective action because of their experience in junior roles of village governance or because of other types of connections (i.e. family), which they could use to gain support for women’s issues. Mariana (Tanggamus), for instance, was appointed Hamlet Head in 2006. Ati and her niece Mita (Bangkalan) are related to influential social figures in the village, which has enabled them to gain the trust of the Village Head and other leaders.

Of the women featured in this edited volume, only one—Yohana from North Central Timor—became involved in women’s activism at a young age and founded FPL’s local partner organisation, YABIKU. But for most women surveyed in this volume of life stories, their experience in women’s organisations at the village level was connected to the state-corporatist organisation PKK (seven of the 21 women in this volume) and in providing grassroots health services through Posyandu (Integrated Health Post – for ten women), including Husnul in East Lombok, Aminah and Farah from North Hulu Sungai, as well as Hatini and Srikandi in Cirebon. While these women were often able to draw upon organisational skills and their experiences gained in state-corporatist organisations, all highlighted the ways their experiences in new women’s organisations provided them with new skills, capacities and knowledge. Cumulatively, this empowered women and enabled them to seek and achieve change in their villages through the journeys outlined in the volume. Moreover, what the women’s stories also show is that while prior experiences were helpful, they were not essential for women to take on leadership roles. In fact, the stories powerfully convey that irrespective of individual backgrounds and differences, all women were able to lead action with encouragement and support from their peers and CSOs.

Commencing and Sustaining the Journey: Facing and Overcoming Challenges and Fears

Household tensions and expectations

These stories equally portray how many women, like Ati, face continued expectations of domestic and care work alongside community involvement and operating small businesses. In Ati’s case, the expectation that she would be home to be with her children after they returned from school resulted in her resolving to only attend activities that finished before 4pm in the afternoon. Her Pekka[xxvii] group accommodated her needs by making a suitable schedule.

For many women, engaging in women’s groups or activities was not without challenges, as actively participating in activities outside the household directly and indirectly challenged the norms about women’s mobility and domestic roles. Lastri, for instance, explained that her husband did not give permission for her to join the Women’s School. Mia, from Deli Serdang, North Sumatra, described a similar reaction from her husband, who did not want her to go to hotels and restaurants for BITRA meetings; venues considered to be unacceptable for women. However, they persisted and by showing their husbands how the newly gained information benefited their families, over time, these women gained the support of their husbands.

Lacking confidence

The new opportunities that women took up also brought to the fore some of their fears. Many had a distinct lack of confidence in public speaking and in interacting with the representatives of government offices. For instance, Aminah, a former migrant worker and single parent from North Hulu Sungai, described that she felt fear and a lack of confidence in communicating with government officials. Laila, a fisherwoman from Pangkep, was similarly afraid and explained that before joining the Women’s School, when she ‘saw a government official in his uniform on the pier and [she] hid, [she] was scared, scared of saying something, scared to be wrong.’

However, despite these challenges women persevered, and their confidence grew after initial uncertainty. This was a result of the support provided by women’s groups and the training that the women received. Mia’s confidence, for instance, faltered when she was asked to speak in public but, as she recounted, ‘I kept trying, I just forced myself to be brave’. Similarly, Lastri who said she used to tremble even when she was only asked to introduce herself, found the confidence to speak in public. Even Hatini, who was more experienced in expressing her opinion in public, was initially reluctant to do so, yet after taking part in ‘Aisyiyah’s cadre program considers herself ‘confident to talk, to put forward [my] opinion.’

Resistance to women taking on leadership roles or challenging influential actors

Women were not only faced with challenges and resistance as they started becoming active in women’s groups, but also as they emerged as female leaders. Veronika, for instance, faced pressure from her family after a family member was involved in a domestic violence case. Veronika’s family asked her not to pursue the case. Veronika recounted how she explained to her family that the case ‘needed to be handled and reported to the police. It should not be silenced, and it cannot be finalised by the family’.

Sometimes, strong measures have been taken to silence women. Julianti, for instance, recalled how after she challenged village government officials and schoolteachers about low teacher attendance at a local school, the principal threatened her with black magic. After she became very ill for two years, a dukun (traditional healer) told her that she had fallen victim to black magic. While she was ill, Julianti was advised by those who visited her to stop her activities in the Women’s School, as they believed this had made her ill. Julianti, however refused to give up her advocacy for families and education: ‘the larger the challenge, the more I like it. I am an island girl, big waves pass, they just pass.’

Facilitating and Building Skills, Capacity and Confidence

Through group activities in safe spaces, women did not only gradually become more confident in skills such as public speaking. Livelihood skills training generated significant improvements in women’s economic independence and capabilities. In several stories, women told of their aspirations for their children to continue their education. Hatini attributes the ability to secure education for her children to the enhanced economic skills she gained as an ‘Aisyiyah cadre. Similarly, Hj. Nisa in Central Lombok gained skills to sew school uniforms for her children and make and sell cakes and other snacks in the La Tansa group for ex-migrant worker women. This collection of stories also illustrates how women like Hatini and Tari brought home knowledge and skills they gained and taught their daughters about gender equality, inspiring young women to join women’s groups and pursue higher education to work for gender justice.

The information and skills women received also enhanced their confidence in standing up for themselves at home. Julianti’s husband, for instance, demanded that she no longer be involved in the Women’s School. Julianti, however, refused and attributed her confidence to do so to the training she received through the Women’s School, which in her view, made Julianti value her own body, and self, more. Lastri, a Women’s School member in Gresik, felt empowered to access health services that her husband mistrusted and, with her friends, challenged a nurse who requested her husband’s signature to access care.

Beyond the domestic sphere, the support and trainings offered by women’s groups also helped many of the women featured in this edited collection feel more confident in interacting with government officials and speaking up for women’s needs. Farah, for instance, explained how now she was confident enough to speak up whether it was at the village or district level. Similarly, together with other Pekka members, Aminah advocated for a Village Regulation to set up a Village-Owned Enterprise (BUMDes), requiring her to deal with various representatives from the village government. Meanwhile Lasinem—who initially rarely went to the Village Office —also became more confident to express her opinions in public, including in official village meetings.

Enhancing Knowledge and Awareness

When read together, these life stories show that we can identify a number of shared themes and stages of empowerment for women living in a diverse range of village contexts. For many women, initial exposure to and engagement in women’s organisations led to both surprise and confusion. Lasinem for instance, described how the knowledge about gender at the Women’s School contradicted all she had learned at school and from her parents. Similarly, Lastri’s experience illustrates that for women who had previously not been involved in any organisation, receiving an invitation to a group meeting alone was cause for confusion.

At the same time, this novelty also made many women curious. Widyati in Bantul, for instance, told that she was interested to join any organisation, ‘to gain experiences’. Meanwhile, Tari—who was initially not interested in joining FPL’s local partner SPI Labuhan Batu at all—was surprised that she found the information interesting and gradually became more involved and, eventually, became a group leader.

Through their active participation in women’s groups, women together enhanced their knowledge of a wide variety of issues including governance structures, healthcare, civil rights and access to social security programs. They did not only become more aware of gender issues in their own lives, but also became more sensitive towards the issues that women face in their local communities, creating a sense of solidarity among them.

Creating Networks, Building a Sense of Purpose

Women also found comfort in their fellow group members and networks. Almost all women referred to the ability that these groups gave them to curhat, or to confide in others. Julianti, for instance, described how much she enjoyed coming together with other women: ‘I did not know anything about these four islands, … and now I do. I received lots of inputs from friends, and we could share [our experiences]. [I now have] many friends from other villages, we are close like family’. Similarly, Farah explained that through the Pekka women’s groups she was able to express her frustrations and receive support from other members. Laeli described the support she received as ‘predominantly mentally. With many acquaintances, it is not [as] difficult [as it might be]’. This environment led women to recruit more members, thereby growing and diversifying membership of the groups.

Women also benefited on a deeply personal level. Many women described changes within their families, including improved bargaining positions, increased awareness of gender equality and a more equal distribution of household chores. Other changes are often intangible and hard to measure or express. Widyati, for instance, described how participating in Yasanti’s gender classes over two years boosted her self-belief. Similarly, Mariana felt that before she took part in FAKTA-DAMAR gender awareness classes in Tanggamus, she ‘didn’t socialise or believe in [her]self’. Mariana now feels more confident and comfortable taking a lead role in events in her work with the PKK, as what she learned ‘was truly beneficial’. Laeli, the head of a Constituent Group in East Lombok, also felt self-assured to access the network that BaKTI field staff introduced her to in order to certify her small business.

For women like Srikandi in Cirebon and Lastri in Gresik, women’s groups also provide a sense of purpose and space to continue education. As Lastri described, while she was unable to continue her formal education to the high school level, ‘as it happened, at the Women’s School I had an opportunity to continue school’, and that she ‘still has a desire to learn.’ For other, typically younger, women like Mita and Gita who are the first in their families, and in Mita’s case community, to graduate from university, participating in women’s organisations has provided opportunities for them to gain employment and skills to certify businesses. With the self-belief and assurance gained, both Gita and Mita have been able to both pursued careers and establish families, thereby challenging social norms that married women have no role beyond the domestic sphere.

Meanwhile, changes at the level of village government include increased inclusion of women in village decision-making forums, while within many communities there is an enhanced awareness of gender issues. Both in North Sumatra and East Lombok, women have become more confident to report on cases of domestic violence. In North Central Timor, Veronika emphasised how being a member of the paralegal group that responds to cases of domestic violence has shaped her sense of identity and commitment to justice which ‘must be upheld, where there is wrong it is wrong, and what is right must be protected.’ The strong motivation expressed by Veronika is also evident in many other stories. Srikandi states that the 2019 recognition of her work by President Joko Widodo has motivated her to do more for the village community and especially women. This demonstrates how women reconfigured their sense of identity through the knowledge, capacities and networks gained through women’s groups.

Structure of the Volume

The volume is structured around five core themes and focus areas. The first section contains eight excerpts of life histories that show how women have improved access to social protection. Four of these women—Ati, Mita, Aminah and Farah—are members of their village’s Pekka Union (Serikat Pekka). Through PEKKA’s Village Consultation and Information Service Clinics, these women and their colleagues in Bangkalan in East Java and North Hulu Sungai in South Kalimantan have assisted villagers in gaining vital citizenship documents, such as identity cards, marriage certificates, and family cards, which are required to access social protection and assistance programs. In both places, Pekka Unions have provided a supportive meeting place for the female heads of families—who are among some of the most vulnerable to poverty—and mutual support through savings and loans groups. This section also shares the journeys of four women who are members of KAPAL Perempuan’s Women’s School groups: Lasinem and Lastri from Gresik, East Java; and Laila and Julianti from Pangkajene and Islands District in South Sulawesi. These stories provide us with insights into the process of learning about gender equality, and in the cases of Laila and Julianti, the application of skills developed in women’s groups to advocate for community needs.

The second section features the journeys of Gita and Nisa and their work to promote safe migration and support to former migrant workers and their families in Central Lombok, supported by Migrant CARE and its local partner the Panca Karsa Association. Gita’s story shows how involvement in participatory data collection and policy advocacy and change led her to have the self-belief and assurance to pursue her teaching career in a disadvantaged community. Nisa’s journey begins by describing her experiences as an overseas migrant worker in Saudi Arabia and her financial challenges after returning to Lombok, both of which led to the creation of the La Tansa group for ex-migrant worker women who support each other and have collectively developed livelihood skills.

The third section concentrates on two women’s contributions to improving the working conditions of homeworkers. The story of Mia, a member of the Prosperous Homeworkers Union (SPR Sejahtera) in Deli Serdang, North Sumatra, describes her leadership journey and how through representing women homeworkers she gained confidence in dealing with government officials. The story of Widyati, a member of the Creative Mothers group in Bantul, Yogyakarta, portrays how learning about labour rights, safe working conditions and gender enabled business expansion and for the group to be represented in the formulation of the village’s mid-term development plan.

The fourth section shares the journeys of four women who have worked to improve women’s health and nutrition. As Balai Sakinah ‘Aisyiyah members and reproductive health cadres, Hatini and Srikandi in Cirebon, West Java, have expanded their involvement in community healthcare from members of the PKK and Posyandu to leaders in responding to women’s needs and socialising the importance of early detection for cancers. Both stories portray the deeply personal nature of this work, which Srikandi refers to as her ‘obligation’ (kewajiban). In Tanggamus, Lampung, Sumatra, Sulis and Mariana’s life stories similarly suggest that gender awareness and leadership training can extend and develop existing community leaders. Sulis and Mariana participated in, and now are leaders of, FAKTA-DAMAR’s gender mainstreaming classes. Both stories demonstrate how women put into action new understandings of gender equality in their own lives and families and sought to teach others.

The final section focusses on the journeys of five women who have worked to reduce violence against women in their communities in North Sumatra, East Lombok, and North Central Timor. In Labuhan Batu, North Sumatra, Tari has represented the Labuhan Batu Independent Women’s Union (SPI) at village meetings and was integral to the drafting and implementation of a 2018 Village Regulation on the Protection of Women and Children. In East Lombok, Laeli is the Chairperson of the Mele Maju Constituent Group in which Husnul is also a member. Together they have worked to provide paralegal support to victim-survivors of domestic violence and have successfully advocated for village funding be allocated to improving health services. In North Central Timor, Veronika has also worked in providing paralegal assistance to victim-survivors and describes how she is proud to have gained knowledge and experiences from her work. Veronika cites Yohana, whose life history is also presented in this section, as a major source of inspiration. Yohana, the founder of the Forum for Service Providers (FPL) regional partner YABIKU served as a DPRD representative from 2014 – 2019, during which two regulations on the protection of women and children were successfully formulated by a coalition of organisations and were ratified as district regulations. From legislation to frontline support, this section highlights the many ways in which women are supporting victim-survivors and working to change the gender and social norms that make many women reluctant to report their experiences of violence.

By showcasing women’s own words, turns of phrase, ways of expressing emotion, and perceptions of change this volume contributes valuable situated perspectives on community development and gender in rural Indonesia. These stories are snapshots of how women consider and tell their journey so far: major moments that have punctuated their lives; influential relationships and friends; new knowledge and opportunities. This edited volume offers windows into women’s strength and resilience in the face of gender norms that restrict the socially acceptable spaces and roles for women, poverty, and other challenges. These life journeys do not follow a linearly progressive narrative structure, but rather underline the importance of mutual support from friends and civil society organisations that enable women to overcome resistance and barriers. Each story finishes by looking outwards at each woman aspirations and hopes, a reminder that while these women have achieved significant positive change, they remain aware of and focused on addressing present challenges, expanding participation, and creating further opportunities for a better future.

[i] Law No. 31/2002 and Law No.12/2003.
[ii] E.S. Prihatini, “Electoral (In)quality”, Inside Indonesia 135 (January – March 2019): https://www.insideindonesia.org/electoral-in-equity.
[iii] Law No. 23/2004.
[iv] A.M. Pratiwi, “The Policies, Practices, and Politics of Women Representation in Political Parties: A Case Study of Women Members of Parliament in Regency/City-level Legislative Council Period 2014-2019”, Jurnal Perempuan 24:2 (2019): 151-163.
[v] Komisi Nasional Anti Kekerasan Terhadap Perempuan, Kekerasan Meningkat: Kebijakan Penghapusan Kekerasan Seksual untuk Membangun Ruang Aman bagi Perempuan dan Anak Perempuan. Catatan Kekerasan Terhadap Perempuan Tahun 2019 [Violence Increases: Policies for the Elimination of Sexual Violence to Build a Safe Space for Women and Girls. Notes on Violence Against Women in 2019] (Jakarta: Komnas Perempuan, 2020): https://www.komnasperempuan.go.id/file/pdf_file/2020/Catatan%20Tahunan%20Kekerasan%20Terhadap%20Perempuan%202020.pdf.
[vi]R. Diprose, A. Savirani, K.M.P. Setiawan & N. Francis, 2020, Women’s Collective Action and the Village Law: How Women are Driving Change and Shaping Pathways for Gender-inclusive Development in Rural Indonesia. The University of Melbourne, Universitas Gadjah Mada and MAMPU. Available at: www.mampu.or.id and http://www.demisetara.org.
[vii] The CSOs in this research, partners of the Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (MAMPU), were ‘Aisyiyah (women’s organisation associated with the Islamic mass organisation Muhammadiyah), BaKTI (The Eastern Indonesia Knowledge Exchange Foundation), BITRA (Indonesian Foundation for Rural Capacity Building), DAMAR (Institute for Women’s Advocacy) and its district partner FAKTA as a part of PERMAMPU (Consortium of Women’s Organisations in Sumatra), FPL (Forum for Service Providers) and its local partners YABIKU (Village Women’s Care Foundation, East Nusa Tenggara) and SPI (Independent Women’s Union, North Sumatra), KAPAL Perempuan (The Institute for Women’s Alternative Education) and its local partners YKPM (South Sulawesi) and KPS2SK (East Java), Migrant CARE and its local partner the Panca Karsa Association (West Nusa Tenggara), PEKKA (Female-Headed Families Empowerment Program) and Yasanti (Annisa Swasti Foundation). These CSOs have varied internal structures, i.e. some are aligned with mass organisations, whereas others are foundations or institutes. Some CSOs work independently, whereas others work in partnership with other organisations. For a comprehensive discussion of CSO internal structures and the models of support for women’s groups provided, as well as opportunities and trade-offs associated with each structure, see R.  Diprose, A. Savirani, K.M.P. Setiawan & N. Francis, 2020, Women’s Collective Action and the Village Law, Section 6.
[viii] Research was conducted in nine provinces, twelve districts and fourteen villages (twelve villages were core research sites and two control village sites). In-depth interviews were conducted with more than 450 people, and another 150 were involved in thirty focus group discussions.
[ix] Hj. stands for “Hajjah” and is the title for a woman who has performed the Hajj to Mekka.
[x] Klinik Layanan Informasi dan Konsultasi – KLIK.
[xi] S.B. Gluck, “Women’s Oral History: Is It So Special?”, in T.L. Charlton, L.E. Myers and R. Sharpless Thinking about Oral History (New York:AltaMira, 2008), 129-131, 139; R.I. Rahayu, “Menulis Sejarah Sebagaimana Perempuan: Pendekatan Filsafat Sejarah Perempuan [Writing History as a Woman: Approaches to the Philosophy of Women’s History],Jurnal Sejarah dan Budaya (2016): 109.
[xii] S. Blackburn, Women and the State in Modern Indonesia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 18; B.A. Beech Jones, “Narrating intimate violence in public texts: Women’s writings in the Sumatran newspaper Soenting Melajoe” In K. McGregor et al., Gender, Violence and Power in Indonesia Across Time and Space, (London & New York: Routledge, 2020), 19-28.
[xiii] S.B. Gluck, “Feminism and the women’s movement in the world’s largest Islamic nation”, in M. Roces & L. Edwards (eds.), Women’s Movements in Asia. Feminisms and Transnational Activism (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), 21-33.
[xiv] S.G. Davies, “Women in politics in Indonesia in the decade post‐Beijing”, International Social Science Journal 57:184 (2005): 232.
[xv] S.E. Wieringa, “The birth of the New Order state in Indonesia: sexual politics and nationalism”, Journal of Women’s History 15 (2003): 70-91.
[xvi] Migunani, Women’s Collective Action for Empowerment in Indonesia: A Study of Collective Action Initiated by Partners of the MAMPU Program (Yogyakarta: Migunani and MAMPU, 2017), 2.
[xvii] M. Nyman, Democratising Indonesia. The Challenges of Civil Society in the Era of Reformasi (Denmark: NIAS Press, 2006).
[xviii] K. Robinson, Gender, Islam and democracy in Indonesia. (London & New York: Routledge, 2008).
[xix] K. Robinson, “Indonesian National Identity and the Citizen Mother”, Communal/Plural 3 (1994): 65-81.
[xx] Blackburn, Women and the State, 27-8.
[xxi] Davies, “Women in Politics in Indonesia”.
[xxii] Kurniawati, H.D., Indonesian women and local politics: Islam, Gender, and Networks in post-Suharto Indonesia (Singapore: NUS & Kyoto University Press, 2015), 45.
[xxiii] Diprose, Savirani, Setiawan and Francis, Women’s Collective Action and the Village Law in Indonesia.
[xxiv] M. Syukri, P.P. Bachtiar, A. Kurniawan, G.M.S. Sedyadi, Kartawijaya, R.A. Diningrat & U. Alifia, Study of the Implementation of the Law No. 6/2014 on Village: A Baseline Report (Jakarta: The SMERU Research Institute, 2017).
[xxv] Diprose, Savirani, Setiawan & Francis, Women’s Collective Action and the Village Law.
[xxvi] Diprose, Savirani, Setiawan & Francis, Women’s Collective Action and the Village Law.
[xxvii] PEKKA refers to the organisation, the Female-Headed Families Empowerment Program, whereas “Pekka” denotes unions (serikat) and groups formed and led by village women.

Improving access to social protection programs

Thirty-eight-year-old Ati has been Pekka group coordinator in her village in Bangkalan since 2015. She is also principal of a kindergarten, which she established in 2013, and runs her family household. Ati married at the age of eighteen and currently has two children. Together with her husband from the same village, Ati owns a marquee and sound system rental business which is well known in the area. As the Pekka union group’s leader, Ati plays a crucial role in organising its activities, notably Qur’an recitation, and integrating them with materials about women’s empowerment and equality.

Twenty-three-year-old Mita is the second child of a former Hamlet Head in a village in Bangkalan district. She has been active in Pekka since her aunt Ati invited her to join in 2015. While she was studying at university, Mita worked as a teacher at a kindergarten which she and Ati established and taught children to read the Qur’an at her family’s small prayer house (langgar). Mita is the first woman in her village to graduate from university. Since Mita graduated from university in 2018, approximately twenty young people from the village have pursued higher education.

Thirty-year-old Lastri is the Gresik District Women’s School coordinator. She was born into a poor family and is the youngest of three children. Lastri, who is from this village, married a man from a neighbouring village and now has a son and a daughter. As Lastri’s family works as farm labourers who earn a low wage, they often found it difficult to pay for everyday needs, let alone for her education. Lastri was able to continue her education to middle school as she found a school which would provide her with a scholarship. After her own experience of cervical cancer, Lastri and the Women’s School initiated early detection checks for cervical cancer and other health conditions which commonly affect women in the village.

Thirty-one-year-old Lasinem is a leader of the Women’s School in a village in Gresik district. She is the second of three children and her parents’ only daughter. Lasinem comes from a poor family and her father worked as a gardener at a kindergarten. Her family’s economic situation meant that Lasinem was not able to continue schooling to high school. After getting married, Lasinem managed the household and did not join any village-level organisations. At the time, she thought that marriage established a barrier between domestic and outside spheres; domestic tasks were in a woman’s sphere while tasks outside the house were for men. After joining the Women’s School, Lasinem’s point of view about women’s participation in organisations opened and she became more empathic about the challenges women face.

Hj. Aminah who is currently fifty-one years old is an influential woman in her village in North Hulu Sungai, South Kalimantan. In her family village, Aminah is the Head of the Female-Headed Families (Pekka) union. As the head of the union, Aminah has many responsibilities, including leading meetings, holding events, compiling reports on group activities, and reporting to the PEKKA Foundation. Aminah and other Pekka members successfully advocated for a Village Regulation on a Village Enterprise (BUMDes) of fish farming and stock raising.

Forty-six-year-old Farah is leader of the Pekka Setia Kawan group in her village in North Hulu Sungai District, South Kalimantan. In 1989, Farah got married soon after graduating from Islamic middle school (madrasah), however this relationship soured after her husband was unfaithful and asked for a divorce several years later. Farah’s life has been challenging as her separation meant that Farah had to shoulder the family’s economic burden by herself and raise her three children. Farah played a large part in the establishment of the Pekka “Faithful Friend” (Setia Kawan), a group designed for married women – those who before this group’s establishment could not join the union.

Thirty-year-old Laila is an empowered woman leader in her village in the Pangkajene and Islands district who heads one of the Island Women’s School groups. Laila began to be active in the Women’s School and keenly participated in training and discussion sessions. In large and formal forums, Laila shared her life story of being a fisherwoman and the challenges she faced. Since 2015, Laila has served as a Neighbourhood Head (Ketua Rukun Tetangga – RT) on her island. In 2016, following strong advocacy from the Women’s School, the government officially recognised Laila as a fisherwoman, which means she is entitled to the same services and protections as her male counterparts.

Julianti, who is currently twenty-four years old, is Head of the Women’s School Seaweed Farmers Group in a Pangkajene and Islands district village. After she finished primary school, Juli’s parents were initially reluctant to send their eldest child to another island for the first time to continue her education, but eventually allowed her to because Juli travelled with her school friends from their island. Juli joined the Women’s School because of her strong commitment to keep learning; an unremitting energy which she had not been able to apply in a formal educational setting. After joining the school, Juli’s prominence was demonstrated when she was elected as secretary and then group leader.

Protection of migrant workers

Twenty-seven-year-old Gita is Head of Villages that Care for Migrant Workers (DESBUMI) in a village in Central Lombok. She is a young graduate who chose to apply the knowledge and experience she gained through higher education to empower her local community, rather than finding a job in a major city. The most significant change which Gita experienced since becoming involved with DESBUMI is that she has become more aware of social issues in her local area. Before becoming the leader of DESBUMI, Gita was not aware of the issues faced by migrant workers in her village, such as the problem of illegal agents, wages, and experiences of violence.

Hj. Nisa is the head of the La Tansa Migrant Worker Observer group. Nisa has her own experience as an ex-migrant worker who was employed in Saudi Arabia. She left for Saudi Arabia for the first time in 2005, when her first child was four years old. In March 2013, she decided to return to Lombok permanently and not work as a migrant worker again. With the help of DESBUMI cadres, Nisa and thirty other former women migrant workers established the Migrant Worker Observer Group La Tansa so that former women migrant workers and their families could establish livelihoods from activities like crafts and making traditional cakes.

Improving working conditions

Mia is a woman homeworker who has been influential in the establishment of a homeworkers’ union in Deli Serdang. Mia, who is in her forties, is currently the secretary of the Regional Representative Council of the Prosperous Homeworkers Union (Serikat Pekerja Rumahan SPR – Sejahtera). Mia is a fast learner and has high commitment to everything she undertakes. This is demonstrated in her organisational work in which she, for instance, pays her own transport costs when she attends SPR meetings in other areas. She participated in public hearings and revision forums for the drafting of district regulation with SPRI, BITRA and the district government, and was requested to attend a public hearing with the Ministry of Manpower about employment regulation.

Widyati is a forty-three-year-old homeworker and handicraft business owner in Bantul. She grew up and graduated from high school in 1993. She then moved to Batam to work in an electronics factory until returning to the village in 2008. Widyati is an active and recognised contributor to her local community. She currently manages the early childhood education centre, is a Posyandu cadre for the elderly, a member of a working group for the village PKK. Widyati joined the Creative Mothers’ Women Homeworker Union in 2016, and through its courses has developed her leadership capacities and self-belief. Widyati was chosen as a women’s representative for the formulation of the village’s Medium Term Development Plan and the 2020 Development Work Plan.

This video discusses two villages, one in Yogakarta and the other in North Sumatra, where women engaged in various forms of collective action to gain official recognition and improvement of homeworkers’ rights.
Improving women’s health and nutrition

Hatini is a thirty-nine-year-old ‘Aisyiyah cadre from a village in Cirebon district. Like many villagers, Hatini only has a primary school education. This low level of education has produced a widespread lack of self-belief, including for Hatini. Before joining ‘Aisyiyah, Hatini was considered a very shy person. Hatini carries out all her activities as a cadre with tenacity and has developed her individual leadership skills. At the end of 2018, Hatini, who many know to be hard working, had the opportunity to manage ‘Aisyiyah’s Nutrition Garden – a small garden for growing vegetables. Armed with the leadership skills she gained from ‘Aisyiyah cadre training, Hatini quickly started to carry out her tasks as leader, including managing the division of tasks between members and distributing their harvest.

Srikandi, or Sri as she is usually known, is a forty-eight-year old housewife and ‘Aisyiyah cadre. Twenty years ago, Sri moved to the village from an area on the outskirts of Cirebon city and now has three sons. As a health volunteer without a wage or reimbursement for transport, Sri often educates women in her village about reproductive health. She also visits patients to inform them about diseases and to encourage them to seek and maintain treatment.

Forty-five-year-old Sulis is the eldest of three children and grew up in the research village in Tanggamus district. At the time of research in 2019, Sulis had been in her position as Head of the Community Welfare Section for thirteen years. Sulis’ concern for her community led to the Village Head selecting her to take part in DAMAR’s program and become of its leaders. Over time, Sulis applied what she learnt in FAKTA-DAMAR classes and felt able to talk to her husband about how to understand gender equality. She explained to him how community notions of women’s roles and importance were social constructions and that women and men both have important roles in society.

Forty-seven-year-old Mariana is the only female Hamlet Head in her village in Tanggamus district. In 2006, Mariana was selected as Hamlet Head by the Village Head to replace her father. As well as being a village government official, Mariana also runs their household and has worked as an early childhood educator since 2008. Mariana is the coordinator of the FAKTA-DAMAR gender awareness classes for women, men, as well as teenage girls and boys in her village. Mariana reflects that she has created significant change in her household, especially about the sharing of domestic chores. At first, Mariana thought that her husband was responsible for financially providing for the family, while she should take care of the house and bring up the children. But, over time, this perception changed as she shared information she gained at training workshops with her husband and children, and they too realised the importance of sharing domestic chores.

Reducing Violence against Women

Tari is the Deputy Head of the village Independent Women’s Union and Head of the Community Based Service. She is forty-five years old and began to be involved in the Independent Women’s Union in 2015, when she was invited by the then Head who is her neighbour. Tari has experienced many changes since becoming a member of the Independent Women’s Union (Serikat Perempuan Independen – SPI), including becoming more confident to voice her opinion in public, developing her leadership capabilities and improving her group work skills. Tari feels that joining SPI has opened her eyes to the problems which women face. Through training about how to respond to domestic violence, Tari became more confident to mediate couple’s problems.

Laeli (forty years-old) is the Head of the Constituent Group in a village in East Lombok. She moved to this village after she married and ever since has been active in village community life. Laeli is also the Deputy Head of the PKK. Laeli took part in training for the drafting of the 2018 Village Regulation on the Protection of Women and Children. Her integral role in the drafting of the Village Regulation and articulating its content in public forums demonstrates her leadership skills. Through her work with the Constituent Group, Laeli now believes in herself more and is confident to express her thoughts in public forums. She also has greater awareness of difficulties faced by women in her community.

Husnul is fifty-two years old and a member of the Constituent Group in a village in East Lombok. Husnul’s husband left for Malaysia shortly after they married, when she was pregnant with their first child. In Malaysia, her husband did not earn a proper wage and faced difficulties as an illegal migrant worker. Husnul tried to earn a livelihood for her family by sewing and embroidering as well as working as a cook at the community health post. In 2018, Husnul and her family turned a corner and started a business making banana and cassava crisps. In the Constituent Group, Husnul is head of the Support Division. She has become a contact person for women, particularly from her hamlet, to talk about their problems. Husnul has natural social skills and finds it easy to get close with others and make women feel comfortable to talk about their personal problems.

Mama Veronika is forty-two-years-old and a courageous leader in her village in North Central Timor in East Nusa Tenggara. Since 2013, she has been active in women’s empowerment activities as the Head of the Fauana Women’s Farmers Group. Her involvement in prevention of violence against women and championing women’s rights increased when the Amnaut Bife Kuan Association (YABIKU) entered the village and began to support the Women Farmers Group in 2014. Mama Veronika has persistently advocated for women’s rights and against a perception of women which has been shaped by adat (customary) values and conservative interpretations of Catholicism. One of Veronika’s largest achievements as a member of the Paralegal Group was when she had to respond to a case of violence involving her own family. Veronika upheld her sense of integrity, professional competence, and commitment to women’s safety and resisted the pressure from her family to not report the violence.

In discussions about violence against women and women’s empowerment in North Central Timor, one name nearly always emerges: Yohana. Yohana is the founder of the Amnaut Bife Kuan Association. Since 1999, she has been working in women’s empowerment with YABIKU, and from 2014 to 2019 she served as a member of the North Central Timor House of Representatives and led the formation of District Regulation on the Implementation of the Protection of Women and Children. Yohana – or Mama Yohana as she is known – has a deep connection to Timorese women and feels that there is still so much more which needs to be done to improve their welfare.