Although women’s groups have emerged across the world, struggling for gender equality and justice, disparity and violence against women continues to be commonplace in Indonesia, limiting the full participation of women in the country’s development.
Melly St. Ange, head of the Bali International Women’s Association (BIWA), spoke with Carla Albertí de la Rosa and stressed the importance of government action and education in bringing about change.
Melly St. Ange: Raising awareness is very important.
Q In places like Bali, women don’t have the same rights as men. For example, if a couple divorces, the children automatically go to the father. What does BIWA think of this?
A If you ask BIWA, as an international women’s club, we don’t agree with this. It’s not fair. But we live in Bali and respect their traditions and culture. If you marry a Balinese you have to follow family regulations. So before you get married to a local Balinese, you have to think about it because you are also marrying all the traditions, family and culture. In my opinion, there’s no other choice.
Q Bali tops the nationwide incidence rate of HIV/AIDS. BIWA is working with the Hati Hati organization to try to combat this. What realistically is being done?
A We give money to the foundation and they visit victims – we call them clients, not victims. They are usually very poor people so they give them money for the food and education. We try to do what we can but it’s still not enough. We need the government to open their eyes and support them. AIDS used to be a taboo but now it shouldn’t be like that. We need to say to people: When you have sex, use a condom. Bali has the second [-highest rate of HIV incidence] in Indonesia. People should talk about it, in the villages, everywhere. The government doesn’t realise we have to talk to the Balinese people.
Q According to figures from the National Commission for Women (Komnas Perempuan), 14,020 cases of violence were reported nationally in 2004. That figure has almost quadrupled in the last couple of years. But many Indonesian women fear asking for help over being publicly stigmatised. What is it going to take for this attitude to change?
A People have to improve their knowledge. This is a traditional taboo, an internal family affair. In Bali and the rest of Indonesia if you speak about this issue it’s embarrassing. We have to keep educating people from banjar(community) to banjar, from community to community, exposing the problem in the newspapers. Everyone has to understand this is not good.
We give money to the Sruti Foundation to produce a book that we give out in the villages. It’s like a comic that explains that the husband cannot hit his wife or kids. But many see their grandparents have done it and they learn from them. We have to teach them that if abuse takes place they have to report it to the police so that aggressors can be put in jail.
Sruti also produce flyers and educate people through workshops. They go to the politicians, parliament, and to the high-ranking officer’s wives to push equal rights. At least there are people moving and trying to do something about it.
Q Police recently found that Indonesian minors have been recruited through Facebook and other sites for prostitution. Some of the girls come from middle-class families without any financial difficulties and it’s the luxury goods that lure them in. Are you going to educate younger ones about the potential hazards of the internet and help stop child prostitution?
A It’s not our field. Other people should do it.
Q East Bali is in dire poverty. Is BIWA helping out?
A We help according to BIWA’s goals. We have been to Selisihan village in Karangasem to ask people in the village what they need. They said they need Albesia trees because they can harvest them in five years and then they can replant again. They can make building material and sell the wood. So we gave them 1,500 baby trees.
We also send our BIWA dental clinic to remote areas in eastern Bali. We visited different schools and village to give free dental treatments. We pay for treatments and medication and give toothbrushes and toothpaste. We have also done this in Singaraja and Lovina.
Last year we gave donations to three schools in remote areas as well. In Bali, government helps schools but not enough. Some don’t have roofs or enough educational materials.
Q From what we see of your members’ postings on Facebook – those who are Bali Times “friends” – they seem to go to a lot of BIWA-organised events like lunches. Is there a danger that BIWA might be stigmatized as a bored-housewives lunch club?
A BIWA is not only for housewives. Our luncheons are a monthly meeting for members. Our members don’t stay in Bali all the time; they travel for business or go back to their countries for a while. So when they’re in Bali they want to join. BIWA is about friendship, cross cultures, networking and charity. If people don’t know BIWA they should click on our website (www.biwa-bali.org).
Q How many members do you have now?
A We have almost 300 members, representing 29 countries.
Q Do they pay a yearly fee to join?
A Yes, Rp250,000, so around US$25. Membership fees are an income to raise money to support BIWA’s social-welfare projects.
Q Breakdown for us where the cash is spent?
A It depends on the proposals. We do a survey and get information and then decide. We act according to our main goal: working to protect women and children.
Q What do you see as the main problems affecting Bali now?
A The government needs to pay special attention to women’s health. Breast cancer, AIDS and cervical cancer are some important problems. Cancer kills you without you knowing. Other issues are children’s malnutrition and children and women abuse, as well as education for poor children.
Q How can they be solved?
A BIWA tries to do as much as possible but the government has to help. The government has to open its eyes and ears, work properly, see their people are suffering. We send press releases to the local newspapers and talk to the government through the media. We are working closely with the governor’s wife, Ibu Ayu Pastika. She’s the head of all the social projects in Bali, including BIWA. Raising awareness is also very important.