If you ask the Indonesian public who has made the biggest difference for Indonesian fishers, one name will keep coming up: Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s minister of fisheries and maritime affairs. A colourful self-made entrepreneur, Susi has gained a reputation as a maverick and a bold reformer through her policies, including cracking down on illegal foreign fishing.
But the focus on Susi neglects another group who have also made a lot of difference to the lives of Indonesian fishers: women in fishing and coastal communities. In my recent visits to fishing villages in Central Java and North Sumatra, I found that women in these communities have played a crucial role in advocating for fishers’ and women’s rights. They have improved the lives of many in their communities. This achievement is particularly commendable given the government’s lack of attention to issues affecting women in fishing communities and enduring patriarchal values in Indonesian society at large.
Indeed, women’s contributions to fishing communities often go unnoticed. According to a 2015 study conducted by Kiara, a fishers’ rights advocacy group, women contribute close to half (48 per cent) of income in fishing households across Indonesia. They also work long hours – 17 hours per day, both in fishing activities and at home. This was true for the women I interviewed – they had a major role in processing and selling fish products as well as in handling domestic chores. But as Kiara head Susan Herawati notes, “women’s work is often not recognised as real work”.
Despite facing a double burden of fishing and domestic work, women in fishing communities get involved in activism and policy advocacy in a variety of ways, including building community-led organisations and enterprises and promoting women’s rights.
In Kendal, for example, I met Sulyati, a teacher from a fishing family in the village of Gempolsewu. Since 2012, she has been organising women through a village-level women-led community business unit (KBU) called Sekar Wilujeng. “It is challenging to encourage my neighbours to get involved in community organising,” Sulyati said. She is convinced that women in her village need to organise to better promote their interests and improve their community.
While Sulyati and her neighbours are still struggling, a women’s group in Serdang Bedagai district, North Sumatra, has had a degree of success in promoting economic empowerment and independence for women in coastal communities.
I spoke to Jumiati, one of the initiators of Muara Baimbai, a community organisation and cooperative in the fishing village of Sei Nagalawan. With the support of her husband and other community members, Jumiati has been promoting community-based mangrove conservation and eco-tourism and selling local fish and mangrove food products since 2004.
In the beginning, her motivation was simple. “At that time,” she said, “I thought we needed to support our movement [to improve the livelihood of the fisherfolk] with economic strategies.”
The result has been incredible: over the past few years, residents of Sei Nagalawan have been able to generate and manage a sizeable profit from their business for the benefit of the community. Further, women have played an important role in this initiative, actively participating in the organisation and managing its business.
Another women’s and fishers’ organisation in Central Java, Puspita Bahari, focuses on rights advocacy in fishing communities. Based in Demak, Puspita Bahari promotes not only livelihood development but also gender equality and awareness of civil rights among the most marginalised in coastal and fishing communities in the district.
Puspita Bahari’s founder, Masnu’ah, told me she established the organisation to fight domestic violence and improve women’s rights in her community. “We’ve been working since 2005 and continue to expand the scope of our activities, from campaigning for the rights of women and fishers to paralegal advocacy for people with disability.” For this work, Puspita Bahari has received numerous awards and recognition within and outside Indonesia.
From fighting against domestic violence to encouraging women’s participation in social life, these groups are at the forefront of promoting women’s interests in fishing and coastal communities. While their scope of activities and areas of operation are still limited, they are making real impacts for their communities and have the potential to promote meaningful local level policy change.
For instance, Puspita Bahari has been fighting for the formal recognition of Demak-based women who engage in fishing activities. Being formally recognised as fishers, like their male counterparts, will enable them to make use of a variety of state facilities and services, as stipulated by Law 7 of 2016 on Protection and Empowerment of Fishers and Salt Miners.
By doing so, they also challenge and help dismantle dominant patriarchal understandings that fail to acknowledge women’s contributions in both fishing activities and the domestic realm.
These women’s advocacy efforts are also important because Indonesia’s dominant political discourse on women, including in the recent presidential debate, tends to treat women in a superficial or tokenistic manner.
For Sulyati, Jumiati, Masnu’ah, and many other women in fishing communities across Indonesia, the fight for the rights of women and the most marginalised still has a long way to go. But the future is not entirely bleak. Through small-scale, locally targeted activities, these women have been able to make a tangible difference in their communities.
Like many other actors in the women’s movement, they are fighting the good fight for a better life for women and a more meaningful democracy for many.
Dr Iqra Anugrah would like to thank Kiara and community members of fishing villages in Kendal, Demak, and Serdang Bedagai for their help throughout his fieldwork.