Indonesia: New group fights for women’s rights

API-K activists on International Women's Day, March 8, 2015.

A new group has been established to campaign for women’s rights in Indonesia. In December, more than 100 women met in Jakarta to launch Indonesian Women’s Action – Kartini (API-K), which has begun campaigning for women’s rights in the workplace, home and society.

Participants came from 32 cities across Indonesia. They included women who are involved in existing women’s networks, students, workers and urban poor. They spent three days discussing issues facing women in economics, politics and culture.

Compared to countries such as India, there is not a large and active women’s movement in Indonesia. The left-wing People’s Democratic Party (PRD) initiated the conference to build a broad organisation that can connect the struggle for women’s rights to the broader struggle against neoliberalism.

The PRD sees the fight for women's rights as part of the ongoing struggle for democracy and national liberation.

One of the most discussed issues at the conference was violence against women. According to the National Commission for Women, during the years 1998-2011 there were 93,960 cases of sexual violence against women.

Other issues discussed were the high maternal mortality rate, the low representation of women in parliament and the fact that 5 million Indonesian women are illiterate.

Women workers face sexual harassment and discrimination. Many women who work in garment factories are forced to work overtime without pay and are also expected to carry out most domestic work. The conference agreed on a campaign to lift women's wages and encourage the government to build cooperatives.

Delegates agreed on a number of demands around reproductive rights, such as the right to childcare, menstruation leave and maternity leave.

The conference also condemned the practice of forcing women who apply for some government jobs to undergo a virginity test. In February, the town of Jember in East Java dropped its plans to conduct virginity tests before women could graduate high school after an outcry from students and their families.

Human rights activists have called the practice an “unscientific, cruel, degrading and discriminatory treatment that a woman should never experience.”

Conference organiser Vivin Sri Wahyuni told Green Left Weekly many conference attendees were inspired by Indonesian women who had fought for their rights in the past.

This was reflected in the decision to name the new organisation after Raden Ajeng Kartini, a national hero who fought against gender inequality and colonialism at the turn of the 20th century.

Left-wing feminism was strong in Indonesia before the savage repression that crushed the left carried out by the Suharto dictatorship in 1965-66. After Indonesia declared independence in the 1945, political space opened up for women to organise and fight for equal rights.

A women’s group affiliated with the Communist Party of Indonesia, Gerwani, gained more than 1 million members. But many of these women were murdered or jailed under Suharto.

Vivin said: “Gerwani was stopped by Suharto. We want to show the spirit of Gerwani is alive at this conference.”

A key aim of the API-K is to bring about change through mass action. The group is being built through grassroots action committees in each city working in their communities.

To coincide with International Womens' Day on March 8, API-K activists held rallies around the country. In Jakarta, a rally was held outside the office of Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection.

API-K chairperson Minaria Christyn Natalia said many Indonesian women still experience discrimination and sexual violence, Berdikarionline.com reported. She said the government's economic policies impoverished most Indonesian women, noting: “Poverty in Indonesia is currently taking [a] female face, because most of the poor and vulnerable to poverty are women.

“Neoliberalism also threw a number of tasks that should be borne by the state onto women. The effect of privatisation is the removal of the duties of the state in matters of education, health, and others, into tasks borne by housewives.”

The protesters urged the Ministry of Women to design programs for women's economic empowerment, particularly through the development of cooperatives.

[Mel Barnes is a member of the Australian Socialist Alliance who attended the API-K's founding conference in December.]

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