Building Women-Driven Economic Alternatives

Oemi Faezathi

Community organizer, Oemi Faezathi brings an infectious laugh, boundless energy and a whole palette of skills to JASS’ work in Indonesia and to her organization, PEKKA. Oemi is not only an accomplished and passionate facilitator, she’s also a writer, photographer and videographer.In an interview with JASS Southeast Asia's, Osang Langara, Oemi talks about how PEKKA is building women-led economic cooperatives that empower women individually and collectively to transform their lives and their communities, and to challenge the structures and belief systems that breed discrimination and poverty.

Organizing Single Women Heads of Households 

I have been working as community organizer for ten years with PEKKA or Perempuan Kepala Keluarga, a women’s organization committed to empowering women heads of households, who are among the most marginalized and mistreated women in Indonesia. We organize poor women, most work in the informal sector or as migrants or petty traders. They might provide labour on other people’s land, cultivating rice or vegetables, or working in coconut plantations. We define a women-headed household as one led by a single, abandoned, widowed or divorced woman, or a wife responsible for the family’s livelihood.

Indonesians have a saying that a beautiful widow is an enemy to other women. Women will not ask to be friends with her; they will not invite her to take part in village discussions because they see her as a threat, someone who might steal their husband. But if you are a poor widow, you are just asking for charity. It’s very difficult to be in a woman-headed household.

The common problem that these women all face is economic. Women earn lower wages than men and women who head households are treated as second class citizens in the community. So our first challenge is how to bring isolated women together to build solidarity and confidence. We start with money. Saving and borrowing are difficult for the women so the process takes a lot of time and patience, and many drop out. But those who continue begin to save, pool, manage, and benefit from resources.

We work step-by-step on the issues that affect women. Divorced women are eligible for some entitlements such as rice, but only if they have the official documents. So PEKKA has a legal programme that  trains individuals chosen by their cooperatives in these skills. These women gain confidence as they learn to navigate the system for others who need divorce certificates, or custody of their children, or other legal processes.

Using Media to Change Minds and Influence Power

I started using media as part of my organizing, learning about video documentation through PEKKA training. The women need to identify common issues for themselves and visuals help women understand problems and concepts better. If I don’t have any videos to show, I draw something or ask the group to participate, using the methods of participatory rural appraisal.

I do filming and work with PEKKA’s team of video editors to make documentaries. Women in the cooperatives make their own videos, take photographs, and run community radio stations too. Women show these videos when they invite government officials for dialogue as part of their advocacy work. So the media is powerful in our work and sharing these skills with the women we organize is important. 

The “Balcony Faction” 

The women I organized in a part of West Java started what Indonesian activists call ‘The Balcony Faction’ about four years ago. After several years of organizing, they learned that any member of the community is legally entitled to attend the deliberations of the local council and they insisted on taking up this right. There was a lot of resistance to “poor widows” entering that official space, but they stood their ground.

Since then, they attend whenever there is a hearing, sitting on the balcony. They have first-hand knowledge of policies in action on the ground, which they supplement with community surveys. They make sure they have all the information on budgets and spending, and challenge officials who are making incorrect claims in the hearings.

This involves another aspect of PEKKA support – we educate women in how these processes work, from local to district to national level. The women encourage reporters to attend as well, to publicise any wrongdoing. When I first met some of these women eight years ago, they were isolated. Now, they monitor elected officials and hold them to account.

Expansion and Reach 

Once PEKKA was established in four provinces, we expanded to cover five more provinces in Indonesia and will include others to bring the total to 18 provinces about 50,000 women in all. There are different issues in different provinces. NTB, for example, faces specific challenges regarding migrant workers. For the first eight years, I worked in West Java but for the past two years, I have been supervising the expansion of PEKKA’s program as well as working with teams to organize in West Sumatra and South Sumatra. Community organizers in the team live in the community for a year, but I am now mobile, responding to teams that ask for my help.

A Vision for the Indonesian Women’s Movement for Justice

For me, this work is a calling. I have a vision for the women’s movement. Indonesia is a very big country with a huge population – 252 million – many of them lacking resources. A large number of women lack education and have no access to decision-making institutions such as village discussions;the “Balcony Faction”  is unusual! So I am passionate about building the numbers of women we involve in our processes. According to the concept of family in Indonesia, a woman must be married. If you have a child outside of marriage, for example, you are not considered a family. This issue affects LGBTI people. In one rural hamlet where, I am organizing, there are ten transgender people. They have a beauty salon. It’s difficult to be LGBTI in urban areas too, butrural and conservative communities make it especially difficult. 

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