Today, as we have for 57 years since Kartini Day was declared in 1964, Indonesia celebrates the birth of Raden Adjeng Kartini, a 19th century writer and thinker who inspired women’s empowerment and gender equality in the country.
Kartini was born on April 21, 1879 to a Javanese noble family in Jepara, Central Java, which gave her access to education, unlike most of her peers. Through her writings, she challenged the patriarchy and traditional values of the time that deprived women of their right to define their own future.
She did not marry at a young age as other women of her day, but lived in confinement for years for refusing to wed a man who she thought would not treat her as an equal and would force her into a polygynous marriage, a life she had grown to despise after watching her mother's fate as a mistress.
At 24, Kartini finally accepted a proposal from the regent of Rembang, the neighboring town, who agreed to support her dreams of building a school for women. This was regardless of the fact that she would be sharing her husband with three mistresses.
She died young at 25, a few days after giving birth to her first child.
It is with deep regret that 116 years after Kartini’s passing and the legacy she left behind, we are still seeing many Indonesian girls forced into child marriage and Indonesian women falling victim to domestic violence, discrimination and injustice.
Things have only worsened during the pandemic. The Supreme Court received 34,000 requests to approve child marriages in January-June last year, up 43 percent from the previous year. The court granted 97 percent of these requests, and 60 percent of applications involved children below 18 years. The 2019 Marriage Law sets 19 years as the minimum marriageable age for both men and women, but still permits child marriages only with Supreme Court approval.
Due to the resulting economic pressures of the pandemic, these women are at high risk of domestic violence and poor health.
The National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) recorded a 75 percent rise in domestic violence reports it had received since the pandemic began. The Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Women's Association for Justice (LBH APIK) received an average of 90 reports on domestic violence each month between March and June last year, up by 30 cases from the previous year’s figure.
The pandemic has highlighted the grim fact that, regardless of the freedoms and progress the nation has enjoyed, the rights of its women continue to be violated, if not ignored. This is often taken for granted and overlooked amid the rat race toward prosperity.
Kartini's writings, many in the form of letters to her friends in the Netherlands, were collected and published in the original Dutch as Door Duisternis tot Licht (1911; From darkness into light), in the Indonesian translation as Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang (1938) and as Letters of a Javanese Princess (1921) in English.
Many women have basked in the light that Kartini longed for throughout her life. But let us not forget those who remain in the dark today, including girls at risk of early marriage and women vulnerable to systemic exploitation.
The government, through gender-sensitive policies, and society can help these girls and women emerge into the light.