The Jakarta Post
Prominent gender expert and avid advocate of women’s and girls’ rights Endah Trista Agustiana has myriad stories to tell. (Endah Trista Agustiana/File)
Palembang, the provincial capital of South Sumatra, is famous for a dish locally known as mpek-mpek, savory fish cake served with a dark sweet and sour vinegar sauce.
But to Endah Trista Agustiana, a prominent gender expert and avid advocate of women’s and girls’ rights, mpek-mpek is more than delicious food. “It was my life-saver. It has brought me this far in my present career.”
Raised by a single mother of four, Agustiana had to work since her early school days.
“I had to get up at 4 a.m. to help my mother cook and deliver mpek-mpek to her customers. My mother, the late Rohanna Yahya Hakim, used to wake up at 3 a.m. to prepare the dishes,” she recalled her humble beginnings in her hometown of Palembang.
Agustiana had after-school tasks as well — making popsicles and sweet green bean cakes called punggu in the local language of Palembang.
Her mother used the money to send her children to the best school in town, a Catholic school, Xaverius.
“When the time came to pay my monthly tuition fees, tears would run from my eyes. My mother later begged the priest to postpone the payment until she got enough money together, but she was a woman of her word.”
She has myriad stories to tell.
“I just want to share my childhood stories with others, especially with young girls, that no matter what adversities you face growing up, you have to believe in yourself. With hard work, discipline and a positive attitude, you can achieve any dream you create for your life.”
Being a poor girl should not deter her, nor anybody else, from dreaming big, she said.
“My mother, my role model, kept telling me, ‘if you have a dream, you have to say it out loud,’” Agustiana said.
Despite mountains of obstacles, Agustiana managed to obtain a bachelor’s degree in social and political science at Sriwijaya University (UNSRI) in Palembang.
With a scholarship from the British Council, she continued her studies at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom in the field of Gender Analysis and Development Studies.
“I was the first Indonesian to earn a master degree in gender studies in the early 1990s, when the term was alien to many Indonesians.”
She went to the United States to get her doctoral degree at Ohio University in the field of study of interpersonal/cross-cultural communication and women’s studies.
Her doctoral dissertation, “Living in Crisis: Women’s Experiences of Violent Conflict in Poso, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia,” earned her a GPA of 3.8 out of 4.
With a successful career and family life and as a mother of two daughters, Agustiana has carved her own path.
“Family plays a very significant role in my life, although it was so hard to leave my two daughters when I had to pursue my education overseas.”
Agustiana had a thriving career at national and international institutions, including positions as senior gender specialist at UNDP’s New York headquarters; gender specialist for human development Australia-Timor-Leste; technical lead in capacity-building, human rights and women’s and children’s rights at the ASEAN-US Partnership for Good Governance, Equitable & Sustainable Development and Security (Progress).
Her passion for gender equality, women’s and girls’ rights started in her early career at UNSRI’s Women Study Center.
“In the early 1990s, gender equality and women’s issues were in the infant stages. Many people were still undermined on the need for a women study center at Indonesian universities.”
Indonesia today has a female population of approximately 132.3 million, or 50.01 percent of the country’s population. Around 21 million are girls between the age of 15 and 24 years.
“How can we ignore the voices, the needs and the rights of women and girls?” she says.
“The first thing to do is to focus on girls’ education, as that sets them on a path to greater opportunities and participation in their societies.”
Many obstacles stand in the way of women and girls fully exercising their rights to participate in and benefit from education.
Poverty, geographical isolation, minority status, early marriage and pregnancy are just some of the reasons why, in many parts of the world, young women and girls are denied an education.
“I owe my life to many people, especially champions of women’s and girls’ rights here in Indonesia and in the world,” says Agustiana.
The former rector of UNSRI, Amran Halim, University of Indonesia professor of political science Saparinah Sadli as well as Zaenab Bakir, Ita Nadia and Elizabeth Collins from Ohio University and many other prominent women and girls’ advocates have made gender equality a household name.
“Other areas of concern include getting more women into politics and technology as well as achieving gender parity in business, women’s health care, equal pay and more.”
The 2014 elections, she added, were a major disappointment for advocates of increased women’s representation.
The proportion of women elected to the House of Representatives in 2014 declined from 17.86 percent to 17.36 percent. At the provincial level, women won only 14.6 percent of 2,114 seats, while at district/municipalities, women won only 14.2 percent of 12,360 seats.
“Promoting the prevention of sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence against women in both the domestic and public space is equally critical.”
Agustiana has just established IFORWARD – Indonesia for Empowering Women, Youth and Children — an NGO that grants young people scholarships.
The organization also helps victims of violence against girls and women, children, as well as victims of trafficking in persons, online sexual violence and cyber-bullying.
“We have helped many girls pursue their dreams despite obstacles. Every girl who succeeded in overcoming her barrier has given me energy to do more.”
Agustiana admits that the road to achieving gender equality and providing a wide range of education and job opportunities for girls and women in Indonesia is still long and winding.
“There is still a lot of work to do, but every one of us can make a difference in the lives of girls and women in Indonesia,” she said.
“We started in my hometown of Palembang as a pilot project. I know there are so many young girls and young boys all over Indonesia who need our hands in order for them to thrive in their lives,” she said.
In the past, Agustiana has received support and assistance from many people around her to be what she is now. “It is high time for me to pay it back. It is not just about ideas and hope, but real action.”