Ani Widyani Soetjipto
Women and Development in Indonesia:
Cases of Urban Women

Immediately after the colonial period, countries in South East Asia expressed a general commitment to constructing a "new society" with primary concern and priority to eliminate poverty and inequality. Development planners, in their efforts to achieve these goals, have embarked on a development approach taking western industrialization processes as their model. As a result, views with regard to gender roles and the status of women, current in western industrialized societies, have been taken as one of the important references in finding a suitable, if indeed desirable goal for their society as a necessary indicator and measure for their social progress.

Under that premise, it was very often the case that the unique potential of women to play their true, genuine and central roles in their society was not fully recognized. The development stereotype has been that women have been regarded as having the same interest and nature of participation as men. Moreover, women were regarded as dependent upon men and their specific needs are still, generally, not attended to in development planning.

Therefore, what was generally felt as one of the negative impacts of the development effort on women's potential was the widespread displacement of women from their true sources of power and influence in all sectors of society. One important impact of the introduction of capitalism in developing countries was its ability to undermine women's traditional spheres of power and influence, while at the same time creating new conditions for the further dependence of women on men. As as result of this introduction of inappropriate development ideology,with its corresponding values and practices, the traditional and unique role of women in societes in developing countries has been severely displaced. Compared to men, the role of women has been almost universally altered, displaced and reduced, as development, industrialisation and modernisation proceeds.

The awareness of integrating women in the development process only later became popular, when planners realized the potential of women, regrettably however, as an abundant supply of 'less utilised' labour. Efforts to increase the economic contribution of women was meant not only to make fuller use of all available human resources, but also as a way of improving the society's quality of life and income distribution. Current discussions on issues of integrating women into development indicate that only limited success, if any, has been achieved. For until now, the position of women in South East Asia has not improved very much at all.

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Perspectives for Women in the Development Process

Perspectives for women in the development process have, until now, varied on a wide-range of issues. Some writers examined the effect of economic development programmes on the status of women and argued that women's contributions to the production of goods and services had been ignored. Researchers are also concerned with the issues of women in poverty and women's productive roles. They point out that the relative importance of women's productive roles increases with poverty, as the survival of poor households are generally directly related to the economic activities of women in those households.

A lot of attention has recently been focused on the study of women and technology. Technology has been shown to be a potentially powerful force in promoting economic development. However, the positive impact of the adoption of technology, is not coupled with due attention to its social implications, and can be undermined by negative and unanticipated effects in the social sphere.

Much of the existing work on South East Asian women is descriptive and concentrates on the difficulty that women have in obtaining adequate resources and services. Studies of women tend to be focused on gender as an isolated issue. There is a lack of investigation into the consequences of rapid economic growth and social change on women and on gender relationships. We do not know much about the reaction of women to these changes and how these changes affect them in terms of stress, conflict and contradiction, both at the macro and micro levels. In short, the effect of socio-economic dynamics and dilemmas of rapid change on women and their relationships has been poorly documented.

Based on the limited amount of available information, I would like to examine the consequences of the rapid economic growth on the situation of women and to reveal the reaction of women to these changes. The focus of my attention will be on the situation of women in urban areas.

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The Situation of Urban Women in Indonesia

In 1990, nearly one-third of the Indonesian population lived in urban areas, distributed throughout the country. Half of the urban population were women. Evidence suggests that the toughness of urban life may fall particularly heavily on women. In discussing the situation of urban women in Indonesia, factors such as discrimination in employment opportunities and disparities in the level of compensation relative to men, their multiple role as workers and as women of the household are very important issues which must be addressed. The overall environment - social, political,cultural,economic and physical - also has a profound impact on her world and on herself.

Women in most communities in Indonesia have, throughout history, had well-defined roles in the family and sometimes in the community as well. Women are now experiencing an unavoidable, far-reaching and rapid change which is both planned and spontaneous. Given the attractiveness of some new options, changes are sometimes embraced with enthusiasm. In other cases, being able to meet the necessities of daily life involves changes which are only reluctantly accepted. The contest between change and continuity is dynamic, ongoing and never ending, evolving as people and the situation changes.

Change itself is not new. What is new and needs more attention is the number of changes going on at one time and the intensity of pressure felt by society or the individual to accept the imperative to change. In urban areas, change happens very fast and often in a disorientated manner, compared to what might be taking place in rural areas. There are some indications that stress and hardship caused by this change falls particularly heavily on urban women. Social, economic, family, occupational and political changes all interact, triggering and responding to each other.

As women, they have been objects of government policy which assumed that their appropriate role in society was clear and trivial, and therefore their priority needs were also known. In both cases, the focus was generally defined as revolving around the household, supporting husband, raising children and nurturing society. As city residents, women's unique urban needs and challenges have generally gone unrecognized and unaddressed. In the national effort to meet the needs of Indonesia's vast rural majority, urban / rural distinctions were ignored in many aspects of public policy, planning and programming.

Women make up more than 50 per cent of the urban population. They constitute a substantial portion of the urban workforce, particularly in the less skilled and lower paid occupations. They manage the household and at the lower socio-economic level their financial contribution to family income is often a decisive factor in maintaining the well-being of the family.

Problems of urbanization and urban poverty affect people in almost every province of the country. Migration, both permanent and circular, has been and continues to be an important factor in the growth of urban areas. The pace of change in urban areas often outstrips the capacity of formal systems and regulations to manage and provide the necessary services, such as water, electricity, transportation, housing etc. Informal systems evolve and become a key mechanism for the production and distribution of goods and services needed by large sections of the population who fall within the category of the lower income group. The informal sector often plays an essential supporting role to the formal sector, being a source of cheap labour and location for low-cost piece-work processing of commodities.

The informal sector is particularly important as a place of work for poor urban women, who capitalized on its lack of rigidity in working conditions. On the other hand, precisely because of this, women are often exploited: they have to work under conditions of great hardship and have few avenues of appeal in the event of difficulties. The relative restriction on mobility makes them particularly vulnerable to lay-offs and they are only recruited as temporary employees.

Family responsibility for women in Indonesia is heavy. As in other parts of the world, Indonesian women are generally considered to be responsible for all aspects of household management and child-rearing. The multiple roles of women are generally grouped into three categories - the family, work and the community. Despite this "overburden", it was found that many women choose to join the workforce for economic reasons. The percentage is higher amongst the lower income group.

In addition to women entering the paid workforce, many find themselves compelled by obligation or social pressure to invest substantial amounts of their time to community activities. There is a compulsory wives organization for the wives of civil servants and there is also a semi-government organization called the "family welfare movement" which is primarily run by women. These concern, in particular, maternal and child health, as well as broader family welfare. In the urban setting, women are compelled to participate in community activities. It is becoming fashionable now that women become the preferred choice for officers of neighbourhood organizations.

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From the previous pages, it has been shown that women are playing a central role in the true process of social change. The role of women is affected by the development process. Although central to their societies, women have often benefitted unequally from opportunities and the resources of development in comparison to their male counterparts. The decision-makers very often assume that women's interests are the same as those of men. As a result, special consideration of women is not considered as particularly necessary, because they can always be included in various groups that the government plans, e.g. workers, farmers etc. Yet on closer examination of the reality of social discourse, one finds that women are different. This lack of concern for women at the planning stage has resulted in exacerbating several problems, such as an increase in women's work burden, more losses of existing employment opportunities and a significantly lower level of participation in the labour force in comparison to men.

One of the reasons why many governments neglect the role of women in the development process is because development planning is basically a political process. Because women are politically weak, in the sense that substantial leverage of women in the decision-making processes has not been achieved, their true voices have not been significantly heard in the process of formulating policies affecting women. It is uncommon that the interests of women are explicitly considered in either the economic or political aspects of development planning. Women's interests have been overshadowed by broader allegiances and other interests.

The process of integrating women's issues into development planning has been slow and the national machinery for the organization of women has been relatively ineffective. While there has been some progress and some change in the status and participation of women, the effort to include women tends to remain compartmentalized and isolated from the mainstream of development itself.

The integration of women's issues into development plans, when it is successfully fought for, provides no guarantee that there will be follow-up in terms of the successful implementation of women-oriented development processes. Plans must be formulated based on the reality of women's lives and society's perception of the importance of the role of women. Attempts must be made to consider information on the sexual division of labour in work roles outside the usual measured labour force participation rates. Besides paying attention to quantitative data, national development plans must be designed to respond to qualitative information, dealing with the needs of women in their multiple roles. Policy makers must no longer assume that women and men are identical. They have to appreciate also the notion that different groups of women will not automatically benefit equally from a well meant political decision.

In the urban economy, where women face problems of poor prospects for regular employment, and many disadvantages, the strategies available to planners to deal with this problem is not so easy. One of the reasons is that the economic problems in urban areas are also entrenched in the broader political and ideological context. The obstacles facing women in the informal sector, for example, are not only their lack of employment alternatives, but also the fact that they are unorganized and unprotected and that attempts at organizing these workers have met with hostility from many sections of government. Protective legislation for women in this sector needs to be initiated, because women working in this sector are not protected by any form of regulation pertaining to their working conditions, on wage levels and benefits given to them and the nature of employer and employee relationships. Moreover, very often some women are also involved in what has been classified as illegal activities within the informal sector. Planners can reduce the excess by liberalizing and reducing the burden of illegality of some informal activities in which many women are engaged and generating their income for their livelihood.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek

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