Organising women in Indonesia


By Marina Carman and Chris Latham

JAKARTA — On November 9, we met with activists from Forkap (Women's Communication and Action Forum) at the University of Indonesia.

Forkap was formed after a student demonstration in early 1998, during which activists noticed the relatively passive and behind-the-scenes role that women had played compared to men. The new organisation, established by students who are now affiliated to the National Student League for Democracy, set out both to increase consciousness around women's rights on campuses and to assert that women must lead alongside men in the movement for full democracy.

Forkap activists stressed the importance of knowing the history of women's struggles in Indonesia in order to understand the situation of women today. They explained that women played a central role in the struggle against Dutch colonialism, and that the Indonesian Communist Party led a large women's organisation — Gerwani, or Indonesian Women's Movement — before former President Suharto took power in 1965.

The Suharto regime physically and ideologically attacked all progressive organisations, including those fighting for women's rights. It promoted women's traditional role in Indonesian society and declared that women's involvement in politics was immoral. The regime established its own women's organisation, called Kowani (Indonesian Women's Commission).

As more democratic space has opened up following Suharto's forced resignation and the election of a new government, many new non-government organisations have emerged.

Forkap activists said that the creation of new organisations which are independent of the state is a positive development, but they were critical of these NGOs for focusing on lobbying the new government and operating on the "elite" political level, rather than organising women at the grassroots. Many NGOs fail to challenge the restrictions of women's traditional role, they said.

They argue that it is impossible to win women's liberation in Indonesia if you limit your aim to equality within the current system. For Forkap, the struggle for women's liberation is tied to the struggles against the role of the military in Indonesian politics and for complete democracy.

We discussed with the activists many of the problems confronting Indonesian women. A member of the National Peasants Union said that women's role in village life is largely confined to that of mother.

Fees are charged for all levels of education and, since male children are given priority, women can attend school only if there are no sons or if the family can afford to pay for more than one child. Forkap has been part of a campaign against an increase in university fees.

Because women are seen as only a secondary source of income for the family, they are paid less than men (even when they are working in the same factories, doing the same work). The rape of women workers is widespread, and sexual favours are often demanded in exchange for promotions. Because the level of unemployment has been very high since the economic crisis of 1997, many women enter prostitution to earn their living.

So far, Forkap has concentrated on distributing basic propaganda such as newsletters and organising educational meetings around women's rights. November was a "month of actions" for Forkap, which held weekly discussion sessions on understanding women's oppression and strategies for liberation.

On November 25, Forkap will hold a demonstration against sexual and domestic violence against women. This action is in part a response to an NGO-organised rally around the same theme last year in which women were encouraged to wear white to emphasise their peacefulness and innocence, and which ended in a picnic.

Forkap is also attempting to organise prostitutes in a campaign against government plans to close down brothels and for better working conditions. Closing the brothels, says Forkap, is not a solution if the women have no other means to make a living; it will merely force many women into more dangerous work situations.

Forkap has found it difficult to develop a program and demands around women's liberation because the living experience of feminist activism in Indonesia is very limited. They were therefore keen to discuss the issues and experiences with Australian activists.