INDONESIA: Gender Equality: What Should the Govt's Strategy Be in 2011?

Sunday, January 2, 2011
Jakarta Globe
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

There were so many tasks left unfinished by the government in 2010 related to gender equality. The gaps are seen not only in the increasing cases of domestic violence, but also in the commodification of working women (Read: female migrant workers).

Gender equality programs are traditionally part of the annual development strategy announced by the president. Thus, it is important to review the achievements of previous programs in designing a strategic plan for 2011.

In 2010, we saw President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issue Presidential Instruction No. 3 as a blueprint for development. Part of its agenda was to encourage gender equality through women's empowerment. Policy makers have assumed that women's empowerment always brings equality.

The Presidential Instruction stipulated that gender equality programs and women's empowerment should be undertaken through gender responsive economic access: In salaried jobs and in entrepreneurship. Gender equality is assumed to be an automatic realization of equal access to economic opportunities for men and women.

The question is: How can women's empowerment through economic access lead to women and men having equal roles in both the domestic and public domains? To answer this, let's look at the results of some of the women's empowerment programs sponsored by multinational corporations and NGOs.

Multinational corporations are very active in pursuing the goal of women's empowerment, usually by employing the idea of entrepreneurship for women. But most of these entrepreneurial programs for women, within home-based or community-based schemes, aim to highlight the role of women in the context of their contributions to family care.

What this indicates, sadly, is that even those involved in women's empowerment efforts are themselves still trapped in the mind-set that family care is the absolute responsibility of women and that men do not have to bother spending their time or energy on family care and other household duties.

Thus, by carrying out their entrepreneurial activities at home, women are still expected to carry out their household responsibilities.

This shows that the spirit of gender equality is only nurtured up to the point of “how to equally involve women in economic access.” It disappears at the point of “how to attain equality by eliminating sexual divisions of labor,” especially at home.

Does this mean that women and men can be equal in accessing means of subsistence, but that they cannot be equal in sharing household duties?

The idea of, for example, Women-Headed Household Empowerment (PEKKA) is more progressive because it strives to change the role of women from housewives into heads of family. That initiative actually contradicts the 1974 law on marriage.

Even so, promoting the idea of women as breadwinners is a strategy that has been accepted by women in many communities. And it is more acceptable than trying to push for gender equality through the reinterpretation of religious doctrines, which is a strategy that often faces resistance, including from the women themselves.

It can be said that the women's needs-based movement has become a more successful strategy in the gender equality struggle compared with the value interpretation-based movement.

However, this strategy — the economic empowerment of women — is still too focused on cases where the husband is not present in the household or does not fulfill his responsibility as the breadwinner. Consequently, the empowerment is extended to those women who are widows, divorced, unmarried or neglected; as if a wife could only exercise her right to be considered an equal to her husband only in the absence of the husband.

So, how can we assure that men and women are treated as equals in all conditions, including in the case of women with a “complete family”?

Several days ago, I was speaking with some women at an Integrated Service Post (Posyandu). I discovered that the difficulty of ending the sexual division of labor is mainly the result of impediments men face in undertaking household duties, as well as the problems faced by women in utilizing existing economic access.

The women at the Posyandu said they could not rely on their husbands to perform household duties. It was, they said, not because the husbands were unwilling to do the work, just that they were not accustomed to it.

Many women's empowerment programs have helped improve equal access to economic opportunities. The government's efforts have also helped in this. But the need to have men recognize and become more accustomed to their role in performing household duties has not been facilitated by the government.

I do not intend to reverse the role of men and women: Men as house husbands and women as the sole breadwinners. Rather, I see the possibility of equally sharing roles. Therefore, women's empowerment is not enough to achieve gender equality. It has to be accompanied by family-based empowerment.

Based on the reaction of the women at the Posyandu, there are some social needs of both women and men that were not been addressed by the 2010 Presidential Instruction.

They need an institution that not only helps women gain economic access, but also helps men become better acquainted with family care, child education, healthy cooking, so that the husband and wife can eventually share these household responsibilities equally.

Despite all the different assumptions when it comes to root causes of gender inequality, the truth is that it is the lack of focus on helping men and women fairly divide their responsibilities that is primarily to blame for the continued problem.

We already have some facilities in our own communities that could potentially play a greater role in bridging this gap. The Posyandu, for example. Institutionally, these posts still carry the image of advocating for “women as the key of family care.”

But the needs of the people, especially women, who routinely access the Posyandu should trigger a rethinking of the role that these posts play in our lives. They should strive to educate and train both men and women about household duties and, if necessary, to also serve as day care institutions.

It would be appropriate to say that one of the government's priorities this year for its development-related policies should be to reconcile the gender equality agenda not only with women's empowerment programs, but also with family empowerment projects that would help end the sexual division of labor.

The emphasis this time around should be more on the direction of women's empowerment programs.

Also, we should not be afraid to confront the marriage law, which is still unfair to women because it reflects the sexual division of labor.

The most important thing is to provide women the help they need to meet their social needs. They should no longer be held hostage by the marriage law. We, as a country, should make use of the tools of democracy to see to it that men and women enjoy equal roles.