Where Are Indonesia’s Women Leaders?

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ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

Where Are Indonesia’s Women Leaders?

With the election over, Indonesia gears up to celebrate women’s day. It’s a timely reminder of how far women in leadership have to go in the nation.

Where Are Indonesia’s Women Leaders?
Credit: Umar ben on Unsplash

There was something missing among the main candidates for Indonesia’s presidency in February’s election: women.

Indonesia has already had a woman as president: In 2001, Megawati Sukarnoputri became president of the largest Muslim nation in the world. Most people are surprised to hear this. When they think about Indonesia, they think about how gender equality remains a significant challenge.

They’re not wrong. The country of 270 million is struggling with issues including limited access to education for girls and underrepresentation of women in leadership roles. The country scored 69.7 percent in the latest World Economic Forum gender report card. With a global gender gap rank of 87, it sits just below the middle of the world index.

The Roadblocks to More Female Leadership

Megawati finished her term as president in 2004, meaning it’s been 20 years since the country had a female leader. In last month’s election, only a few women ran.

Increasing women’s participation in decision-making needs to happen by promoting women’s leadership and representation in political, economic, and social spheres through measures such as quotas, affirmative action policies and leadership training programs.

Social norms, however, present a roadblock. While women’s right to leadership in Indonesia has been implicitly guaranteed in the constitution, traditional social roles and, more recently, the Islamist resurgence in Indonesia, have served as social barriers to the acceptance of women as leaders. Gender norms still emphasize the role of women as mothers and care givers in Indonesia, contributing to women’s low rates of participation in the formal workforce and in leadership.

While Megawati broke traditions with her gender, she was the daughter of a former president and none of her policies advanced gender equality. True progress is not just about ensuring that women get elected, but that candidates who get elected will promote gender equality.

Despite Landmark Legislation, Violence Remains Rife

A key priority for promoting gender equality in Indonesia is addressing gender-based violence. One in three Indonesian women has experienced violence at the hands of a spouse or someone known to them. Young women and women in unregistered marriages are at a higher risk of domestic violence, according to data from the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection. There is also a high risk of domestic abuse in households where the husband has more than one wife.

In 2022, Indonesia introduced landmark legislation targeting sexual violence. The law, which followed more than a decade of advocacy by activists, recognizes nine types of sexual violence not covered in existing laws. It also requires that police, prosecutors, and judges who handle cases of sexual violence use a victim-centered approach to case handling. This is a start.

Also underway are a range of measures to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, including strengthening laws and policies, providing support services for survivors, and promoting gender-sensitive attitudes and behaviors.

But while the sentiment is there, action is not yet resulting in tangible gains. There remain very few support services for domestic violence survivors, as myself and a group of other Australian and Indonesian researchers have found.

Economic Empowerment Needs a Boost

Work also needs to be done on promoting women’s economic empowerment. 

Women’s labor force participation in Indonesia has remained almost unchanged for more than two decades, hovering at just above 50 percent. That’s despite declining early marriage rates, lower fertility, and structural changes to the economy.

Opportunities for women to participate fully in the workforce — including through skills training, access to finance and resources, and support for women entrepreneurs and small business owners — are desperately needed. This is particularly the case among Indonesia’s aging farmer workforce, where older women are a growing demographic.

The World Bank has observed that as Indonesia moves toward middle-class jobs and growth of manufacturing and services sectors, “the work-care nexus is becoming a constraint to women’s ability to seek paid work.”

Indonesia is also lagging on workplace flexibility for mothers. Formal sector employers do not generally offer flexible workplace conditions. In this context, female labor force participation is low, as many women leave the formal workforce when they get married and have children.

Healthcare and Education a Priority

Access to education and healthcare for women also needs improvement.

Child marriage remains an issue in Indonesia, with a national prevalence rate of 11 percent as of 2019. This impacts girls’ education, as many child brides are forced to leave school. Indeed, research indicates a girl’s chances of finishing secondary school decline for each year she is married before her 18th birthday. There is also a cultural bias against girls’ education in some rural areas, where girls are more likely to be excluded from school.

The availability of healthcare in rural areas is another pressing issue for the country. The maternal mortality rate, reported at 177 per 100,000 live births in 2017, is the third highest in Southeast Asia. Access to family planning services and other forms of reproductive healthcare is often limited due to cultural and religious beliefs, which can lead to unintended pregnancies and maternal mortality.

Ensuring equal access to quality education and healthcare services for women and girls, including addressing barriers such as poverty, cultural norms, and geographic remoteness, is needed.

Partnering With Australia, a Key Regional Neighbor

While some of these gender equity priorities can be tackled nationally, regional partnerships can help them progress too. Australia, a large and relatively wealthy neighbor that has signaled an interest in deepening ties with Indonesia, can support bilateral capacity-building initiatives. 

Australia already provides funding and technical assistance to Indonesian organizations and government agencies working to advance gender equality, including grassroots women’s organizations, NGOs, and government departments. The KONEKSI grant scheme is a prime example as Australia has provided AU$50 million.

Going forward, Indonesia can continue to work with Australia to advocate for policy and law reform to promote gender equality and women’s rights, and to foster partnerships and collaboration. Australia could help by coming to the table with more investment in education and healthcare for women and girls, including scholarships, school infrastructure projects, and initiatives to address gender-based barriers to healthcare services.

It could help promote women’s economic empowerment by supporting initiatives that provide women with economic opportunities, such as vocational training programs, microfinance initiatives, and support for women-led businesses and cooperatives.

By working together, Australia and Indonesia, along with other key stakeholders, can advance gender equality and women’s empowerment and create a more inclusive and equitable region for all.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.