First published in The Jakarta Post, October 12, 2006
EVA KUSUMA SUNDARI: TACKLING SOCIETY'S MISCONCEPTIONS OF WOMEN
Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta
When asked about the role of women and their social situation in Indonesia, Eva Kusuma Sundari looked gloomy and disappointed.
However, she immediately bombarded The Jakarta Post with facts and arguments during an interview at her office in the House of Representatives here.
"People are usually unaware of women's contribution to this country's development, which is significant, " said Eva, a legislator from the opposition PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), who is also a member of the House commission that oversees legal matters, regulation, human rights and security.
Eva gave an example: In the small and medium business sector, which accounts for about 40 million businesses here, about 80 percent are operated by women, she said.
"The nation was able to emerge from the 1998 economic crisis thanks to the role of women in the sector, but does the public recognize that?"
With a rising voice she added, "The role of women is invisible! Even public policy does not acknowledge this powerful section of our society."
Low awareness regarding the role of women can be traced to the education sector, which seldom touches on issues of social marginalization.
For example, when she studied development economics at Airlangga University, Surabaya, she did not hear much about urban poverty, mistreatment of workers or other social ills.
Recalling how disempowering our society can be toward women, Eva cited a research finding from Sampang, Madura, in 2002, which showed that reciting the Koran is considered far more important than learning the Roman alphabet.
"What is the result? Many housewives have inadequate understanding about sanitation and nutrition, which is detrimental to their family's well-being."
A Muslim herself, Eva highlighted that there should be a balance in learning religion and simple but important life skills.
Eva recalled another piece of research that indicates a high fatality rate for women and children, forced marriages at a young age and a high dropout rate from elementary school.
"Women are systematically and culturally marginalized, " she said.
Born Oct. 8, 1965, in Nganjuk, Eva continued her studies after graduating from Airlangga. Her first Masters was in the politics of alternative development strategies from the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands in 1996; her thesis was on traditional Javanese markets and their impact on the local economies of related villages.
Her second Masters was in economics and development economics from the University of Nottingham, U.K., in 2000, with a thesis on the role of the local public sector on regional economic growth and the impact of decentralization on poverty alleviation.
Eva became a member of the teaching staff at her alma mater and was extensively involved in research at the Center for Research and Studies for Women (PPSW) at the same university.
The research included Women Politicians and their Articulation of Gender Interests (1997); Impacts of External Debt on Women: An Analysis of Stabilization Policy during the Crisis (2001) and Analysis of the Inter-Sectoral Program for Women's Empowerment (2001).
She also produced Violence towards Street Women Sexual Workers in Joyoboyo (Surabaya) Terminal (2002); and The Implementation of Gender Mainstreaming Strategy by Local Governments in Surabaya, Pasuruan, Madiun and Pamekasan (East Java) (2004).
She became an advisor to the women's advancement program for the East Java provincial government in 2002, program officer for gender and women's participation at The Asia Foundation from 2003 to 2005 and gender consultant at the same institution in 2005.
Asked why she ventured into the world of politics, she frowned, saying, "What do you mean by politics? Fighting for the cause of women is everyday politics for me."
She started while still a student. As a former activist of the Indonesian National Student Movement (GMNI), it was during her student days that she established relations with the nationalists.
She finally quit her teaching career in 2004 and became a member of the House of Representatives in 2005 for PDI-P; she is now one of the 13.8 percent of woman legislators in the national legislature.
She is also a member of the ASEAN Inter-Parliament Myanmar Caucus, which struggled to bring democracy to Myanmar and to free its woman leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest under the orders of the junta.
Asked what should be done to effectively introduce gender equality in Indonesia, she said all responsible citizens are morally obliged to show greater appreciation of women.
However, the state as an agent of transformation should work harder to formulate policies that are antidiscriminatory and support gender equality.
"The Office of the State Minister of Women's Empowerment should take the role of catalyst in this initiative," she said, referring to a task force formed by the office.
It comprises officials from all ministries to ensure that women's issues are substantively incorporated within all government policies.
Nonetheless, the task force is very weak -- even impotent -- because it comprises low-level officials, so nobody in the government feels obliged to heed its recommendations properly.
"Also, the office should do more to influence strategic policy, but instead it acts like a non governmental organization merely running training sessions and workshops," she lamented.
She likewise deplored many regional sharia-inspired regulations that are perceived as disadvantageous to women.
"In Tangerang, the wage of a laborer can only cover minimal physical needs, not minimal living needs. This means a woman laborer needs to work overtime if she wants to cover the latter.
"Yet, how crazy it is that the local government issued a regulation that prohibits women from being outside in the evening," she said.
She added that these regulations are having a negative economic impact. For example, 50 large companies in one region need to close down because they can no longer produce kebaya, traditional blouses that are considered immoral by hard-line conservatives.
Needless to say, there is a growing number of women laborers desperate to work overseas as domestic industry cannot absorb them, she warned.
She said the misconceptions about women that are deeply entrenched in society need to be tackled at the grass roots. She recalled her time as a researcher and the story of a pregnant woman who bled heavily at a critical stage of delivering her baby.
"The family panicked but her husband refused to take her to the hospital straight away; instead, he waited for a kyai (religious figure) to go to their house to advise them. The woman died," she said.
"And this is all reflected in our movies on TV -- religion is reduced to superstition and is conveyed as something frightening, while women are portrayed as stupid, heavily dependent and the root of evil."