Information Kit – Portrait of the Indigenous Women of Asia page – 10

Information Kit – Portrait of the Indigenous Women of Asia

November 2007

Authors: Asian Indigenous Women’s Network (AIWN), and the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN: Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara), in partnership with Rights & Democracy

Portrait of Indigenous Women in Indonesia

The Indonesian Archipelago hosts more than 1000 different ethnic and sub-ethnic groups, and as many languages. Such diversity means that it is a challenge to have a clear picture of the situation of indigenous peoples in general, more so to get a true overview of the situation of indigenous women in Indonesia. This is particularly true because Indonesian women are invisible in Indonesian statistics. They are not acknowledged in any government statistics related to health, justice, education, poverty or violence. However, despite this diversity, or perhaps because of it, indigenous women in Indonesia share one common element: they have to face a double marginalization: as indigenous peoples and as women.


The first factor of this marginalization is due to the fact that indigenous women are affected by the issues that touch indigenous peoples. In Indonesia this means that indigenous peoples are limited by government policies that do not acknowledge their rights to their traditional lands and natural resources. As a result of each problem affecting indigenous peoples, indigenous women face issues which affect their everyday lives. For example, if an indigenous community is displaced because their land has been granted by the government to a logging or plantation company, it is the women who have to walk longer distances to fetch water, find food and medicinal plants.


The second factor of this marginalization is that in general, as women, they do not have access to decision-making at any level, including within their own communities and in many cases within their own homes. Important decisions that influence the future direction of the community and family are done without involving women. At the community level, according to most hukum adat (customary law), the division of roles and labour of men and women in indigenous communities are quite clear. The role of women is linked to productive and reproductive work (e.g. finding water, working in the gardens and rice fields, giving birth and taking care of the family), while men hold more dominant roles in the community, such as political positions at all levels (for example in adat institutions, farmers groups, youth associations or others).

A demonstration of Indonesian indigenous women against all forms of discrimination by the State.
A demonstration of Indonesian indigenous women against all forms of discrimination by the State.


In some indigenous communities, however, important roles and positions in decision making and leadership are held by women. This is the case in the Dayak Sikung community in West Kalimantan, the Toro Community in Central Sulawesi and the Toraja Community in South Sulawesi.


Common Issues


Indigenous women in Indonesia face several common issues such as the disregard for their basic human rights, linked with their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Indigenous women are denied access to decision-making processes which has direct impacts on their interests. This often results in problems related to health and education, as well as violence.


Ibu Den Upa Rombelayuk is an indigenous woman from Toraja, South Sulawesi. As a community leader, former AMAN Council Coordinator and key figure within the indigenous women’s movement in Indonesia, Den Upa is an inspiration for indigenous women everywhere. This story is about her experiences in her village in Toraja.
Empowering Indigenous Women and their Access to Decision Making


The roles and positions of indigenous women in Toraja regarding decision making are equal with that of the men. Kombongan is the highest village-level decision making space, and decisions cannot be legally made without the presence of all community groups including women and youth groups. History has proven that many Torajan women can take on leadership roles in the community. For example, several women were elected as District Head during the Dutch government period. Even if these women came from already prominent families, it is a significant point with regard to women’s leadership.


This situation changed after the Indonesian government made all Indonesian village government systems uniform through Regulation No 5/1979 regarding Village Governments. Since then, all government systems including decision making mechanisms in the village have been determined by the Central Government. This meant that Kombongan automatically lost its decision making powers in the village and was replaced by a Village Meeting Agency consisting of several village manager positions generally occupied by men. With the disappearance of Kombongan, women no longer played a role in decision making; women were obliged to accept all decisions made without any consideration for them.


In 1985, after my husband was elected Village Head of his community, I used this opportunity to strengthen women’s groups whose activities were limited to household skills and errands such as cooking, gardening and sewing. We translated these skills into economic activities in the form of social gatherings. From theseactivities, women’s groups could afford to buy things that they needed such as clothes, cooking utensils that could be hired out for traditional ceremonies. There were even groups that could afford to provide educational help to their members’ children. This increase in economic capacity had a direct impact on women’s sense of self-confidence and pride.


In 1992, I was elected as the Nanggala Village Head by my community. I used this opportunity to bring back Kombongan. Its processes are quite long and complex because there are many problems that must be discussed, especially those related to women’s participation. Fortunately at this time, women’s groups are quite strong and we have been able to convince all parties that there is no reason not to involve women in Kombongan.

For indigenous women, the main causes of their health problems are a shortage of health services, a lack of information about family planning and contraception as well as the disappearance of natural medicines because of the destruction of their environment and natural resources. The most significant health problem is related to the reproduction and the maternal mortality rate. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), for every 1000 births, four women die. In Papua more than 10 indigenous women die for every 1000 births.


Indigenous women face increasing violence because of the implementation of private companies which employ militias and trans-migrant workers, facilitate the sale of alcohol and increase prostitution in the areas where they operate. Moreover, women from indigenous communities whose lands and natural resources have been taken away have very few other options other than to work abroad or on other islands as transmigrant workers. Transmigration is also an issue that increases violence against indigenous women, as there are many cases of murder, sexual harassment, rape, and disappearances of indigenous women who have become trans-migrant workers.


The Indonesian Legal System and Indigenous Women

 Despite the fact that Article 28I(2) of the Indonesian Constitution states that every person has the right to be free from any discrimination on any grounds and the fact that Indonesia has ratified CEDAW, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which contain non-discrimination and gender equity clauses, Indonesia still has some national laws that discriminate against indigenous women. The following are just two examples:


Marriage Act (No. 1, 1974)
The Marriage Act rigidly divides roles between men and women: “The husband is the head of the household and the wife is the housewife”, (Article 31(3)). For indigenous women, this article legitimates the domination of men in the family and in the community. It also means that it is even more difficult for indigenous women to be recognized as legitimate leaders in Indonesian Law, even if they are recognized in some hukum adat. This Act restricts women’s activities to the household and keeps them far from decision-making.


Despite the fact that the 1945 Indonesian Constitution states in Article 29(2) that “The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief”, a Religious Ministry Instruction (no. 4, 1978) ignores this and recognizes only the five major religions of Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism and Hinduism, ignoring the existence of indigenous beliefs. This makes it technically illegal for indigenous peoples to perpetuate their traditional culture, customs and beliefs.


What is AMAN?


In March 1999, more than 250 indigenous representatives from all over the Indonesian Archipelago met in Jakarta to share experiences and discuss their concerns at the First Congress of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago. AMAN (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara – The Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago), was created as a result of this Congress. AMAN is an independent civil society organization that acts as a forum for the indigenous peoples of Indonesia. It is the only national indigenous organization that also constitutes a network of indigenous organizations at the provincial and regency levels. See the map on the page 04.


Although indigenous peoples are partially recognized under Indonesian Law, the Indonesian government does not politically acknowledge indigenous peoples’ rights or existence. Consequently, AMAN works on the issues of indigenous collective rights concerning lands and territories, as well as natural resource management and the right to self-determination.


Since the Third Congress of the Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago held in March, 2007, AMAN has a directorate specifically working on indigenous women’s issues. The directorate recognizes the importance of the work done by indigenous women at the community level, and therefore aims to involve indigenous women locally through the formation of communitybased indigenous women’s organizations. The directorate will also pursue the recognition of indigenous women at all levels, an increase in the resources that are available to indigenous women, the involvement of indigenous women in the planning, implementation and evaluation of policies at all levels as well as greater awareness among indigenous women of their rights as women and as indigenous peoples.



According to AMAN’s Statutes and Rules of Association (1999) (Chapter 5, art.19.2), Indigenous communities are a group of people who have lived on their ancestral land for generations, have sovereignty over the land and natural wealth in their customary bounded territory, where hukum adat (customary law) and institutions arrange the social life of the community, and carry out the social-political and economic lives of the community.

Masyarakat Adat is AMAN’s Indonesian translation of Indigenous communities, where masyarakat means society/ community, and adat means custom/tradition.

Questions for Discussion


  1. What are some of the common issues that Indigenous women face in your community?
  2. What can be done locally and nationally to address these common issues?
  3. How can indigenous women overcome laws that ignore their rights as indigenous peoples and as women?

To Find Out More

AIWN – AMAN – Rights & Democracy 2007