Women of Aceh Raise their Voices

With the loss of so many community leaders, and everyday life resembling little of how it was before, there have been opportunities for strong characters with leadership qualities to come to the fore.


Gia with villagers at the bridge she saved

When Gia arranges one of the regular village meetings she knows she has to ensure the women speak up.She repeats what happened in her own training to be a facilitator. “I ask individuals for their views, give them a marker pen and get them to write up their ideas on a big chart I’ve pinned to the wall.”

Water supplies are at issue in much of tsunami-hit Aceh, especially as ground water has been contaminated by the sea.
“Water is an example of why women’s views must be taken into account during reconstruction, says Gia, 26.

“Most of women’s activities involve dealing with water – cooking, bathing children. It is essential that the aid donors and government listen to them and get them involved in planning the supply network.”

Australia (AusAID) is providing AUD 40 million (about US$ 32 million) to assist the Acehnese in building strong governance and re-establishing village communities. Two hundred community facilitators like Gia have received training in leadership, problem solving and negotiation.

This unique programme, to ensure that the tsunami-devastated communities of Aceh got their views heard in the reconstruction process, is being funded by the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development (AIPRD). Village facilitators, often survivors themselves, have been carefully chosen and trained to help people lobby government and donors. Women’s empowerment is key. The views of women are especially vital but in today’s Acehnese society women sit separately and often stay silent in meetings where men are present. To address this, half of the 200 facilitators are female as are most of their trained assistants, known as cadres.

New homes in a safer location away from the sea

The village Gia was assigned to, Meunasah Lhok, in the district of Lhoong, has recently relocated from beside the sea to a safer spot at the foot of mountains. During 30 years of conflict between the GAM rebels and the Indonesian army, which ended in 2005, this was a rebel area.    It is a beautiful verdant setting, served by clean water from a river descending from the hills. a child is playing in the river, watched by his mother. There are rows of smart, new wooden houses on stilts, decorated with flowerpots. There are separate shower and toilet blocks and communal areas to wash clothes. If you didn’t know better, you would think it a contented place.

New homes at Meunasah Lhok village

As I wade through long grass and mud (it has just rained) the loneliness is tangible. Only 100 people live here – 200 more died. Most of those who survived were away when the tsunami struck. Now many of them live in their new huts alone – most unnatural for Indonesians, who are accustomed to being in large family groups.

Work is now hard to find locally for this traditional community of fishermen and farmers – their fishponds and farmland contaminated by seawater. Much of the time they are away in Banda Aceh or picking up what they can along the coast, employed in various reconstruction projects.

It takes Gia an hour and half to get there by motorbike, along the temporary unmade road from Banda Aceh. Children on their way to and from school run and wave until she stops to give them a ride. She’s had to deal with punctures and tumbles and she jokes that she always arrives covered in dirt and with lungs full of dust.

The villagers did not take to her at first – she is a strong character with, to them, a strange accent. The daughter of an Acehnese, she left as a schoolgirl and studied in the city of Medan, just over the provincial border in north Sumatera. “My father wanted a son and brought me up as a boy. He always encouraged me to speak up.” She returned to Aceh to join the relief effort.

Gia is the only woman allowed to drink coffee here

To win people over, Gia endured the same harsh conditions and lived in a tent just like everyone else. However there were more shocks in store for them.
“I realised that the important decisions were being taken in the coffee shop, by the men. I went and joined them – something that’s just not done. I continued to do this and now they call me over to join them. I’m the only woman who’s invited though.”

Just as people were moving out of their tents and into their new permanent homes, calamity threatened again. After heavy rains, torrents of water were descending from the hills and threatening to flood them. The only bridge, newly constructed by an American team, was damaged and villagers feared it would be rendered unusable. As it was their only route onto the road this would be disastrous. Gia waded waist high through water until she found a motorbike. She rode 10 kilometers along the rocky, temporary road and persuaded the American team to bring out their heavy equipment. They repaired the bridge while she lamented the loss of her AIPRD raincoat, which had been washed away.

We talk inside the hut belonging to one of the village cadres, Darmawi. He is the one on whom she relies the most.

“One of my responsibilities was to choose a team of five assistants who would receive training themselves in leadership and negotiating skills,” she says. “I was looking for those who, in spite of what had happened, were in relatively high spirits. At the meetings, Darmawi would always be there with ideas for the future.”

“Darmawi is a 28 year old fisherman who was at sea when the tsunami struck. It took him a month to get home, to find that all 38 members of his family had perished. “


Gia and Darmawi with AusAID worker

In his new one-roomed hut, we sit on the floor to chat. The mattress is propped against the wall. There’s a single burner stove in one corner, a frying pan, and a broom. Jeans and t-shirts are tossed across a line. In the early days, he saw Gia as the means for him to look beyond his own tragedy. He happily tolerates what would seem to some men bold behaviour. As we chat, Gia lights a cigarette. It is highly unusual for women here to smoke. Moreover, it is the fasting month. I raise my eyebrows and she grins and explains she has dispensation from all the fasting rules because she is menstruating.

Darmawi explains how the cadre training gave him confidence.
“I learned how to negotiate,” he says. “First I went to our old village chief and suggested to him that he could take a rest – it was time for the younger men to take on this hard work.

“What we needed was somewhere safe to live. I approached villagers near here to ask if we could buy some of their land to live on. It was difficult to reach a price but my training definitely helped me.”

He then asked the government agency responsible for tsunami reconstruction, the BRR, for money. Once they’d agreed, rebuilding could then begin.

Encouraged by Gia, villagers have formed self-help groups and with money provided by NGOs they are starting small businesses.

Gia looks back on the past year:

“I have made an impact here. The community was so pessimistic when I arrived. I encouraged them to become more active. But I followed their rhythm patterns, I didn’t impose anything. Gradually they have taken control and made change.”

Gia would concur with the widely held view that women in Aceh have long been considered more outspoken than their sisters in some other Indonesian provinces.

“The Acehnese are traders. For generations they have had to sell their wares by being forthright and shouting,” says Professor of Humanities at the University of Indonesia, Gadis Arivia,(pictured, right) who spent holidays in Aceh with her grandmother during the 1980s. Recently she has been a guest lecturer in women’s studies at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh.

“During the conflict between GAM and the Indonesian army, women as well as men were victims. They had to take on extra responsibilities because their men were dead. They had to earn money and bring up their children alone.

“Some young women even had their own rebel unit, Inong Bale, where they were taught to be tough and to defend themselves.”

In 2002, sharia law was introduced. It became compulsory to wear the jilbab. Women could go out after dark only if accompanied by their “muhrim” – a male relative.

“Many women now will tell you their role is to stay at home and raise their children. Of course, the poor continued to work because they had no choice and the tsunami further changed circumstances.

“Life is so difficult for those affected by the tsunami. All their energies have been put into how to survive, get food and put the kids through school.”

Professor Gadis and her team from the University of Indonesia visited Aceh in March 2005 to survey how women and children were faring in temporary barracks.

“Life was tough. Terribly traumatised women were doing all the work – cooking, washing, fetching water, taking care of the children without having time to take care of themselves. This is why it’s so important to listen to what they need.”

Two hours up the road from Gia’s village, in Ruyung, west of Banda Aceh, is Dewi, 23.

Dewi had been studying to be a counsellor, living in a students’ hostel in Banda Aceh. “I was in my room on the day of the tsunami. I felt the earthquake then people started shouting that water was coming. I just ran. I could feel it wasn’t far behind but I managed to get to a two-storey house and shelter there.”

She worked as a children’s counsellor until she joined the facilitator programme.

“It’s interesting how my life has changed and how confident I’ve become. I remember I couldn’t wait to leave village life behind and get to Banda Aceh as a student, but now I love the dynamics of working in a small community.”

She has had to learn to deal with men and show them she means business. “I dress carefully, to engender respect. The young ones know they can’t hassle me.”

At first, when she was collecting information about the survivors, she realised that they were so wary of what she would do with it that they wouldn’t tell her the truth.

“I had to use all my skills of persuasion – something else that was covered in facilitator training. I explained that I had been a victim too, and would not misuse the data. It took a month or two. Now I feel accepted as one of the family.”
AIPRD recently provided an infrastructure grant to Ruyung and Dewi’s role was to help the community decide how to spend it. After rigorous meetings they drew up a list of priorities.

“My training – both as a facilitator and before that as a counselor – enabled me to show them the alternatives and the possible results. In the end they chose to build a bridge to replace the one that was severely damaged in the tsunami.

“This is a fishing community and without the bridge they’ve had to wade through the water, carrying their catch to the road. With the bridge they can transport the fish by motorbike.”

She pictures herself as a flea! “I’m always there, jumping from place to place, from problem, to problem.”

Ermalisa, 19, was elected by village elders

With the loss of so many community leaders, and everyday life resembling little of how it was before, there have been opportunities for strong characters with leadership qualities to come to the fore. One of those is 19 year old Ermalisa, who lives on the coast at Paya Kaneung, 40 kilometers west of Banda Aceh.

Her mother had drowned as the family crossed a river to safety. Ermalisa took over the care of her 3 younger siblings and her father. The village elders spotted that she had the qualities to inspire and voted for her to be a cadre. In a meeting with older cadres and the village chief, she is not afraid to voice her opinions, even interrupting them.

“The training course forced me to speak in public on different topics. I am far more confident,” she explains.

She has focused her energies towards her peer group. She feels there’s not enough to occupy teenagers and children in the village. During Ramadhan she was busy organising games and competitions. Her village facilitator had arranged a computer course for youngsters and she used her new skills to write letters to NGOs asking for money for prizes. She’s now also using the computer to help her as she studies to be a teacher.

The man responsible for the facilitator and cadre program is Lalu Suhaytman, of AIPRD. He designed the training and took part in the recruitment.

“The cadres are the agents for change in every village,” he says. “Many of the bright ideas in the redevelopment process have been from them.”

Women formed a micro-credit collective which men were not allowed to join.

In Calang, a devastated area still struggling to recover, cadres in one village noticed that women weren’t turning up to meetings. They arranged a special “women-only” gathering. One of the topics discussed was the idea of small loans – or microcredit. A women’s collective was formed. They received training in book-keeping and how to manage their money. They opened a joint bank account, using loans to develop their businesses – typically small shops and fisheries.“They started with 10 members and quickly grew to 80,” says Lalu. “Men are allowed to borrow money, for example to pay for motorbike repairs, but they’re not allowed to be managers. If the cadres hadn’t arranged that special meeting none of this would have happened.”

Professor Gadis acknowledges that the facilitator and cadre programme is positive.

“Getting women into decision making and giving them access to information, giving them the courage to ask questions is all very important.”

Lalu is planning to extend the facilitator and cadre programme. Another 1,500 cadres will be trained before the end of the year.

“At the beginning of this project my vision was to support the people so they could rebuild their lives. I never imagined that, within a year, there would be all these hundreds of people working towards that same goal. I am very proud.”

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