Becoming a Fierce Organizer

Siti Harsun

When I first met Siti Harsun, my impression was of a quiet girl and a warm smile. But I soon learned not to be fooled by her appearance. Beneath her gentle manner, Harsun is a fierce organizer. Once our discussion turned to food security, her soft voice became fiery and filled with indignation.

As food prices rise, Harsun explained, the quality deteriorates. Women struggle to feed their families, buying cheaper but much less nutritious items mass-produced by corporations, artificially flavored and colored. This is the face of neo-liberalism, changing the way people eat. Instead of protecting citizens, the state is silent. But food is important at every level, Harsun argues, from the home to the country’s security. Instead of waiting for the state to lead the way, she started a campaign for food independence with the slogan “ora utang, ora tuku, gawe dhewe” (no debt, don’t buy, make your own). This growing movement rejects the trans-fat snacks and instant factory-made noodles available everywhere, and encourages people to go back to producing and preparing their own food. In the organization, Serikat Petani Qaryah Tayyibah (SPPQT), a federation of local farmers from ten districts in Central Java, members buy raw materials and prepared food from each other.

Who is this fierce activist? What is her story? It turns out that Harsun’s journey to this point has taken many turns. In the late 1990s, she earned a diploma in computer studies, at the same time working to support herself in a factory, as a waiter in a restaurant, and as a soy sauce salesperson at malls in a number of cities and towns in Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces. She considers herself a survivor of trafficking after a friend lured her into traveling to Papua ostensibly to work in a restaurant there in 1999. On the journey, others informed her that they would actually be employed as sex workers rather than waitresses, so Harsun fled from the troupe. Her experiences drove Harsun to form SEKAR (Youth Creation and Creativity Studio) in Salatiga, Central Java with women friends. Around 24 unmarried teenagers, men and women, held regular discussions, with topics ranging from job-seeking, human trafficking, adolescent sex education to establishing and managing a library.

Then, in 2003, SEKAR joined a village community organization and became part of SPPQT, the umbrella group of farmers. Within SPPQT, Harsun’s potential was recognized and she was selected for training of trainers by groups such as Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity) and the International Labor Organization (ILO). By 2011, Harsun had become a member of SPPQT’s governing council where she leads the work on women and children.

siti-harsun-jassIn 2009, Harsun joined JASS Southeast Asia’s movement-building initiative, first in a capacity-building workshop for young women activists, and later in a writeshop to document experiences and learning in the women’s movement, published as PRISMA: Women’s Stories. JASS processes struck Harsun as unique in many ways. She valued the creative and participatory methods that JASS facilitators use, such as a poster café, night-time discussion sessions, and the use of multimedia for analyzing power relations.

The communications skills that Harsun learned with JASS continue to enrich her organizing efforts. She feels she has gained a clear understanding of the history of the women’s movement and how it can work to meet women’s needs. With the tools to analyze power and the solidarity of JASS women activists, Harsun is better equipped, she says, to assert herself and take the lead as an organizer. Together with another JASS activist, Fika Mudia Rahman, Harsun is now building a radio community to share experiences between villagers.

Resource Topic: