Opinion

Why we need a ‘gender
equality’ bill

Along with the hustle and bustle of domestic politics, religious intolerance and corruption news, last June focused the Indonesian public debated on whether the gender equality bill should stay on the agenda.

The Jakarta Post had mediated the discussion by presenting Julia Suryakusuma’s viewpoint — that women themselves can be patriarchs (June 27). Her article answered the inconveniences stirred by earlier news reports on opposition to the bill by women (June 19). This article intends to expand Julia’s stand on why Indonesia needs the bill using the findings of the World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development.

The aim of gender equality is equal access to education, ownership of assets, economic opportunities and income to improve well-being (p. 7). The report stated that closing the gaps of gender inequality has enhanced development within the fields of human rights, education, health and access to jobs and livelihoods.

However, developing countries still show the worst disparities, especially in the number of female death rates compared to male. The report estimated 3.9 million excess female deaths each year caused by maternal death, malnutrition in children and selective abortions due to preferences for sons.

The first reason why Indonesia needs a gender equality bill is because in this country, the maternal mortality remains high compared to other countries in East Asia and the Pacific region that enjoy similar levels of development.

The country has not shown efforts to combat this fact, especially for women in rural and remote areas. Health care in regions far from the capital is also limited. Only 33 percent of births in Maluku are attended by a skilled provider, compared to 97 percent in Jakarta (Regional Report, p. 41).

The report shows that Indonesia is in a position similar to Bangladesh, Cambodia and India by having maternal mortality ratios comparable to Sweden’s in the 1900s. Article 9 in the proposed bill demands a guarantee for public health services, especially maternal health.

The second reason is that a gender equality bill will provide protection for women in public. A statement by an Indonesian woman was quoted in the report: “Boys can be as free as they wish and that is alright. Girls cannot go out in the evening. Boys can go anywhere they wish” (p. 283).

The irony is that 70 percent of Indonesian women compared to 60 percent of men tend to work in informal sectors that are unable to provide security in the workplace, working hours, salary and also infrastructure to and from work.

More pressing is the issue that Indonesia has no law regulating sexual harassment in the workplace, and therefore the gender equality bill might be a good way to start.

The proposed bill states the equal rights of women and men to work in all sectors; equal access to job training; equal pay for equal work; and guaranteed social, health and safety protection (Article 8).

These are not bad things to demand, but why are there women who are protesting against the proposed bill?

The third reason is that the bill will act as catalyst to change a repressive mind-set. Julia had elaborated that women can have a patriarchal mind-set.

This is also demonstrated in the World Development Report 2012. The results of surveys conducted on the perception of wife-beating, and whether it is justifiable in situations such as when food is burned (by the wife), when the wife is arguing with the husband, or refusing to have sex are shocking: in Ethiopia and Guinea, more than 80 percent of women agreed that this was acceptable. In Indonesia, approximately 30 percent of women agreed (p. 83).

A Tanzanian man was quoted as saying: “I think that women are now a problem: they get money and no longer listen to us. So, if you want to continue being a man in the house, you need to bring the discipline. You must beat her up, and if any child intervenes, you also beat them. Then they all fear and respect you”.

Euis Sunarti said, in an article published in the Post on June 19, that: “As more and more women getting smarter because they have better access to education, they could easily challenge their husbands and look for a divorce.” Have Euis and her organization, the Assembly of Indonesian Muslim Young Intellectuals, contemplated that divorce is not a bad option when it comes to domestic violence?

Even after a divorce is allowed, it is still not an easy option for an Indonesian woman because the average cost is around US$220 per divorce case. This amount is as high as 10 times a poor woman’s monthly income.

In rural areas, women are particularly disadvantaged because — compared to men — they may have lower levels of education, are less able to travel even to court, have less money to pay for court services and face increased discrimination due their status as a divorcee.

Moreover, the legal system in Indonesia has not treated women fairly because the civil code prevents women from entering into contracts on their own behalf, including to sell or buy property. Access to land is also dependent on a woman’s marital status and control and ownership might be lost upon divorce, widowhood, migration or desertion by her husband.

Therefore, the gender equality bill could be a way to reassert women’s protection, aside and in addition to, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women 1984 and the Domestic Violence Law 2004.

The fourth reason is to eradicate the gender bias in the Indonesian education system, as pregnant girls are still being forced to drop out of school. In 2011, the World Bank evaluated textbooks used in various Indonesian classes, and found that the textbooks contained gender biased material with messages of sexual harassment, gender-based violence and stereotypes.

However, eliminating the gender-biased curriculum has not yet been covered in the draft of the gender equality bill.

It has only proposed that “everybody has the right to gain education in every field and level; and to obtain a scholarship and other educational support” (Article 6). This proposal is not too bad, considering Indonesian girls are more likely to be withdrawn from school if her family experiences a fall in income or crop losses.

It is true that many sections of the gender equality bill could still be improved. There is no doubt that the country needs laws on gender equality, and to make other laws and regulations more gender sensitive.

Nonetheless, effective legal enforcement and a working judicial system should support these laws, otherwise, their existence will not matter.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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