Current Project / Women Leadership / Women's Movement

Published: 02/01/2013

There are not that many books on Indonesian women’s movements that are based on research. There are even less books on Indonesian women’s movements that are written by Indonesian authors. Potret Pergerakan Wanita di Indonesia (Portrait of Women’s Movements in Indonesia), published in 1984, is especially valuable because it provides historical narratives on Indonesian women’s organizations and movements from the “Pioneering Period” of 1880-1910 to the post-independence period of 1945-1965 from the perspective of an Indonesian women activist and academician author, Sukanti Soerjocondro. The book has become a classic reference on women’s movements in Indonesia. It highlights the fact that, for example, marital issues especially polygamy and divorce, education, and women and children trafficking, which women’s organizations are struggling with currently, were important issues in the 1920s.


There are more research-based books on women’s organizations and movements in Indonesia written by foreign academicians. The published books of Cora Vreede-de Stuers,1 Susan Blackburn2 and Saskia Wieringa3 were among the most influential works on women’s movements in Indonesia. De Stuers focuses on women’s organizations in Indonesia in the 1920s when the country was still colonized by the Dutch. The 1920s marked an important political development in Indonesia, which Soerjocondro called the period of the “Emergence of National Consciousness” among Indonesian women. In line with the spirit of the Youth Congress that was held on 28 October 1928 in Jakarta, the first Women Congress was convenedon 22 December 1928 in Yogyakarta. Meanwhile, Susan Blackburn and Saskia Wieringa’s works examined women’s organizations and movements in Indonesia from the 1920s to 1965, which marked the beginning of Soeharto’s New Order.


In the New Order era, President Soeharto exercised a tight political control over civil society organizations, including women’s organizations. Women’s movements were repressed systematically by stigmatizing progressive women’s organizations such as Gerakan Wanita Indonesia/Gerwani (Indonesian Women’s Movement) (Wieringa, 1999). Soeharto’s regime constructed a discourse to depoliticize women and view them as submissive and obedient social actors. During the first decade and a half of Soeharto’s rule, the only women organizations that were able to operate were those that were sponsored by the government such as Dharma Wanita, Dharma Pertiwi and PKK (Family Welfare Education).


The declaration of 1976-1985 by the United Nations as the UN Decade for Women marked the growing awareness of women’s rights and gender injustice in Indonesia and it gave room to the emergence of women’s NGOs in Indonesia such as Kalyanamitra, which focused on developing a centre of information and communication for women; Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity), which worked to empower and organize women migrant workers; and a number of other women NGOs that worked on reproductive health issues in Jakarta and outside of Jakarta such as Rifka Annisa in Yogyakarta. During the same period of time, university intellectuals started to develop Pusat Studi Wanita (PSW or Women Research Centre) to conduct studies on women issues. The first PSW was initiated by a number of lecturers at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences of the University of Indonesia and established in 1979.


Mass violence and looting and burning activities that erupted in big cities in Indonesia in May 1998 signalled the end of Soeharto’s New Order regime. The chaotic period painted a black history of Indonesian women. Among the casualties of the mass violence were dozens of (ethnic Chinese) women who became victims of rapes and other forms of sexual assaults. The sexual violence acts incited many Indonesian women to get organized and demanded government’s accountability, which led to the establishment of the National Commission of Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan). Violence against women became one of the most important works of Indonesian women’s organizations in the post 1998 period.


After Soeharto stepped down from power, Indonesia started to go through a series of democratization processes. The introduction of decentralization policies later on opened up the opportunity for women to participate in public decision making processes to make planning and budgeting gender responsive. The introduction of direct election provided women with the opportunity to demand for more women representation in the parliament both at the national and local level. Indonesian women organizations developed strategies to effectively provide economic and political empowerment to promote women’s leadership and enable them to make use of the opportunities to participate in public decision making processes to improve their social, political and economic positions. Women’s organizations were struggling to transform their organizational forms, improve leadership quality and develop networking at the international, national and local level to improve the effectiveness of their programs in making laws and regulations and budget allocations gender responsive. To put it in different words, for them the governance system is not a democracy if it is not gender responsive.


There have been no books that are based on research that look at women’s organizations and movements in Indonesia in the post 1998 period as part of the wider social transformation process. The scope of Soerjocondro and Wieringa’s works only went as far as 1965. Published books on Indonesian women’s movements under the New Order were characterized by partial analysis and were not based on methodologically sound researches. WRI designed and conducted this research with the goal to fill the gap. WRI looked at Indonesian women’s movements within the context of political democratization that took place after 1998. Inevitably the accounts also went back to the New Order era because many of WRI’s respondents were women’s NGOs that were established and carried out their activities during the New Order period.


WRI conducted the research not just to look at the character and activities of women’s organizations but also to capture the concept of women’s leadership that is considered suitable for the women’s organizations during the post 1998 social transformation period. Following the advice of Srilata (2010), WRI looked at gender-based power relations in the post 1998 social transformation within the context of local empowerment and global influences. One of the global influences was transmitted into the country through the concept of good governance that was promoted by the World Bank (Ungpakorn, 2003; World Bank, 2000) and UNDP in the early 2000s. A number of women’s organizations, including WRI’s respondent Pekka, were involved in the PNPM national poverty reduction program that was formerly piloted by the World Bank before it was replicated nationwide. One goal of PNPM was to improve the governance of poverty reduction programs by providing the funds directly to communities, hence by passing the corrupt officials at the local level. Another transmission of global influence came from the relationship of WRI’s respondents such as Hapsari, ASPPUK, Kapal Perempuan, Pekka, LBH APIK, LP2M, Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia (KPI), Kalyanamitra, Migrant Care, Ardhanary Institute, Solidaritas Perempuan and the National Commission of Violence Against Women with foreign donor agencies such as Ford Foundation, Asia Foundation, Tifa Foundation, Hivos, Partnership for Good Governance Reform, Oxfam, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, and others.


Therefore, WRI decided to conduct field research in five areas in Indonesia. Three of them were located outside of Java and WRI made use of the research to look at the local dynamics of women’s movements. Jakarta was selected as the fourth research location because the Jakarta-based women’s organizations dealt with women’s issues at the national level and they were directly in touch with global influences.


The result of WRI’s research in the four areas showed the strengthening of women’s roles in the society, even though they had not succeeded in achieving gender equality, which was considered as a long term impact. Women’s organizations in the four areas had been able to facilitate women, to some degrees, to push for gender responsive policies and budget allocations and increase political representation both at the local and national level. However, Goetz’s (2009) warning should not go unheeded. According to him, gender sensitive governance cannot be achieved through women’s representation alone since implementation of gender sensitive policies requires the transformation and improvement of public sector’s capacity. The studies in the four areas showed that women’s organizations played only limited role in promoting public sector’s accountability. Their involvement was focused more on facilitating grassroots women to participate in the bottom up Development Planning Assembly at the village and district level.


Goetz’s arguments confirmed the result of a study conducted by Rodan, Hewison and Robison (2006) that showed the difficulties of turning around local governments to become democratic, let alone gender responsive, because economic, social and political powers within the local government reacted to maintain the status quo that benefitted them. Facing such challenges, Indonesian women’s NGO sconducted long term education strategy to mainstream gender into policies and budget allocations.


Goetz’s (2009) argues that global influences in general and good governance agenda in particular should expand cultural and political alternatives for women, allowing them to push for more room for participation in public decision making institutions. Good governance agenda, implemented through decentralization, is expected to promote better understanding of public officials regarding the needs of local women and the provision of good quality services at the grassroots level. However, social transformation in Indonesia did not go in a linear way. Research result from Padang and Lombok showed that local institutions were not always receptive to global influences. Local responses to external influences could become counter-productive to the efforts to open up more space for women. The emergence and strengthening of religious organizations and local sharia regulations in the two cities presented a setback for women’s movements.


WRI’s research in the five areas looked at women’s organizations and movements within the context of social transformation that swept Indonesia after 1998. It was an attempt to capture the leadership, organizational and empowerment strategies of Indonesian women’s movements to make democracy in Indonesia gender responsive. Progresses and setback were examined by looking at the dynamics involving local, national and global influences. ***