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Friday, April 13, 2007

Widow in Indonesia

Shattering the myth of the 'rapacious widow'Julia Suryakusuma, Jakarta

Even before my first husband died in 2001, I knew widows in Indonesia got a raw deal. Isolated and discriminated against, they are regarded with pity and fear. Pity because they're on their own and have to fend for themselves; and fear because they could lure husbands away. They are regarded by others as potential marriage wreckers.

This is especially true of young, attractive jandas—the term used in Indonesia for both widows and divorcees.

Jandas are seen sexually initiated, hungry and deprived of sexual sustenance in the absense of a regular sexual partner. If you don’t believe me and want a depressing insight into the Indonesian psyche on widows try Googling janda muda.

This is of course a cruel distortion of reality. Not all jandas are on the make—on the contrary, they are often the poorest of the poor.

In Indonesia, the loss of an adult male usually means the loss of the main source of income.

For poor families, this is devastating—and invariably plunges them into poverty. Children suffer because their mothers are unable to pay for their education. They are pulled out of school and made to work, often initiating a cycle of poverty that can last for generations. Not a happy thought.

From the time I started seriously studying women in Indonesia in the mid 1980s, I often felt extremely vexed that women without husbands don’t seem to exist. Not officially, at any rate.

Government programs provide resources including capital, training, credit and income generating programs—but only to the legal head of household: a man.

This is stipulated in the 1974 Marriage Law. Women are considered legal dependents of men and the rights and needs of widows, divorcees and single women are just not recognized.

The reality is, however, there are a many households in Indonesia with a woman as its head – as high as 25 percent in some areas, due to high rates of divorce and desertion.

In conflict zones such as Aceh, the levels are higher still. Shocking.

So imagine my relief when I discovered the Program for Women Headed Households (PEKKA), a development project that works with widows. – wow a first.

On a recent work visit to Sukabumi and as part of a research project with my new husband, Tim, I met a group of PEKKA women while we were surveying their knowledge of religious courts.

These courts sit parallel to the civil courts across the archipelago and deal primarily with questions of marriage, divorce and inheritance.

Clearly these are things that matter a lot to women.

I had heard about PEKKA before and had met Nani Zulmarmini, the group’s national coordinator, but had never really had anything to do with its members. So I was delighted to meet a group of PEKKA women in a tiny village near Sukabumi. There were about 20 of them, ranging in age from 30 to 60. they were very simple women and most worked as farm or plantation laborers. Some of the oder ones were illiterate while others hardly spoke Indonesian properly.

Because I am from West java, my Sundanese enabled me to easily establish a rapport with them. In addition, I did field research in 1984 in another sub district of Sukabumi so I felt very much in my element.

I was shocked at hoe poor they were. Some earned only Rp. 200.000,00 per month and they had to support dependents. Fortunately PEKKA was on the scene, helping them establish extra income generating activities and giving out scholarship for children.

Because without PEKKA, the children of Sukabumi’s jandas would be expanding the ranks of Indonesia’s many millions of child laborers.

Since it was founded in 1999, PEKKA has reached more than 6,500 women in more than 300 villages across 38 sub districts in eight provinces: Aceh, West Java, Central Java, West Kalimantan, West Nusa Tenggara, East Nusa Tenggara, Southeast Sulawesi and North Maluku.

Before PEKKA existed, no development project in Indonesia had ever worked with widows, especially in areas of large-scale conflict. In the New Order, women’s programs had to be channeled through the Family Welfare Movement (PKK), which was sponsored, and aimed at wives only – as if no other type of women existed.

In areas like Aceh – where thousands of men have been killed over decades of conflict and by recent natural disasters, and where the entire adult populations of some villages consists of widows – the notion would be laughable, if it were not so utterly tragic.

But there is some good nes today PEKKA has a special programs in Aceh. Besides income generating and microfinance activiti4s, PEKKA also offers vocational, leadership and legal training, as well as literacy, bookkeeping, and health classes. PEKKA also offers a social fund for older women and for those who can’t work – like Bu Amina, who at 104, is undoubtedly the oldest PEKKA member in Tampoek Blang village.

Sudarmi is another PEKKA member in Aceh. After her husband was gunned down she was given the chance to become a photographer through a unique program PEKKA had devised to help women bolster their confidence. While she was hesitant at first, after some training, she grew to love it, and now hopes to become a professional photographer.

Sudarmi was one of 20 women whose work was exhibited in Washington in 2004. This event was hosted by the World Bank, which, with the National Commission on violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), is the main supporter of PEKKA.

PEKKA really has transformed the lives of hundreds of widows, female heads of households and their dependents.

More importantly, in the long run, it is slowly changing social attitudes.

Thanks to PEKKA, widowed or divorced Indonesian women who are poor, uneducated, illiterate, unskilled, dependent and diffident have become empowered and in charge of their lives, and able to make a positive contribution to society.

The writer is the author of Sex, Power and Nation. She can be contacted on

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