Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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The Military and Violence Against Women: The Aceh Experience, Part 1

Aceh is Special Territory of Indonesia situated on the island of Sumatra.  Between 1976 and 2005, an insurgency was waged in Aceh by the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM), who wanted independence from the rule of the capital Jakarta, and from Indonesia. After the devastating tsunami in December 2004, GAM declared a unilateral cease-fire, and in 2005 a peace agreement was reached, granting Aceh special autonomy within Indonesia in return for GAM’s disarmament.  Here Donna Swita Hardiani, from Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity) recalls her experiences in Aceh during the immediate years after the peace agreement.

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32 years living with conflict in Aceh taught me a lot of lessons.  In 2005-2012 I worked in Aceh as one of the feminist activists with Solidaritas Perempuan supporting woman survivors in the district of Bener Meriah.

Aceh consists of two regions, coastal areas and mountainous regions. Usually people in coastal areas will be referred to as the people of Aceh and the people residing in the highlands called the Gayo people. Bener Meriah district, one of the highland areas, is one of regencies in Aceh which has felt the greatest impact of the conflict, owing to its position as a border region between the mountains and the coast.

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Bener Meriah is a border area between the coastal and highland parts of Aceh, which suffered greatly in the Aceh conflict.

In the period before the conflict, Bener Meriah district was also a place which received a lot of migrants from Java. So Bener Meriah has a mix of ethnicities: Aceh, Gayo, and Javanese. While the Aceh conflict was initially a struggle for resources, on the ground it transformed into a racial conflict between the Acehnese and Javanese. Because the leader of Indonesia was always Javanese and Javanese dominated within the military, Acehnese people came to associate the Javanese in Aceh with their enemy, and hatred built up towards the Javanese within communities.

Bener Meriah felt the impact of the conflict from different directionsThere was a dispute between GAM and the Indonesian Armed Forces, while there was conflict between people who disagreed with the Republic of Indonesia and supported GAM, against the people who supported the Republic of Indonesia, who renamed themselves the Homeland Defense (PETA).

Living with women in Bener Meriah

Solidaritas Perempuan (SP) Aceh began working in January 2004 before the tsunami came to devastate Aceh. I joined the SP Aceh team in 2007. In one of my assignments, I was sent to stay with women in Bener Meriah district to assess the situation.  I lived with these women, ate where they ate, slept where they slept, and did the daily work just as they do in the community.  During this time, I stayed with a woman name Maskayani, a single mother of four daughters. Her husband had disappeared without any notice, after deserting from the army to join GAM. Maskayani was an outstanding and brave woman, who taught me a lot about toughness and courage.

Maskayani had been a nurse but was dismissed when the state learned that her husband was a deserter from the army. She had had to flee with her children and hide them from the army.  She had escaped through a coffee plantation, smothering her children’s mouth and whispered to them to stay silent and not cry.  Maskayani has suffered as a single mother; she feels afraid in her community and was negatively labelled when a male guest came to her house. But Maskayani always remained strong and kept one goal in mind: raising and protecting her four children, and providing them with protection. I was deeply impressed by this woman’s attitude of independence and struggle.

Reaching out to remote communities

At this time, post-tsunami relief was helping many people living not far from main roads – giving mosquito nets, organising community groups, and giving some venture capital. But access to the conflict areas was almost impossible so people in those places were not seeing any of the aid.  One thing kept entering my head: that I should help the women in these areas, no matter what.  I conveyed this to Maskayani, and asked her if she would go with me the areas that were considered dangerous or bases for GAM, telling her that I wanted to know the women there and share experiences with them.  Maskayani supported my idea and agreed to go with me.

So from then on we made it our goal to visit four villages which were more than 5-10 miles from the roadside, which could only be reached by narrow dirt tracks and mountain passes.  The first time I got to the area, I was struck by the hostile and suspicious gazes of the people. Women and children seemed a little afraid to invite foreign people to speak who enter their territory, and men were especially suspicious. Maskayani and I introduced ourselves and explained our goals in coming into the village. After the first visit things got easier and we came back many times. I would play with the kids in the village, help in the gardens, with the cooking – we did all the usual work together. Houses there were quite spread out and the way between them was not lit at night.  The basic bathrooms and showers were generally located outside the homeand covered only by a tarp.  These conditions contributed to making women vulnerable to sexual violence.

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The highlands of Bener Meriah.

Building bridges between women

After 2-3 months of visiting and staying in the community came the next stage - conducting a training for women in target groups. At that time we collected 20-25 women from seven villages in 7 districts in Bener Meriah.  The participants came from various layers of the communities, including former military wives, the combatants wives, civilian wives who support the Homeland, and farmers who had suffered violence.  In the trainings we saw how women from different villages and districts were reluctant to communicate with each other. So we tried to vocalise and map out different women’s concerns, experiences, feelings, and hopes, using the brainstorming technique to do this. 

In some of the first training sessions, the women cried a lot and were afraid to speak too much. But as our sessions went on, they began to talk about how they felt during this time, and began to understand what was going on between each other. They began to hug each other and empathise with women on other sides of the conflict.  They began to feel that they all had the same fate as a woman and as victims of conflict. They had all lost a father, brother, son or husband. They had all experienced psychological and physical violence,  and some had also been sexually assaulted.

The story continues tomorrow with Part 2 of The Military and Violence Against Women: The Aceh Experience

Donna Swita Hardiani grew up in Aceh and lived there until 1985. Having previously worked for the Indonesian Women’s Coalition, in 2007 Donna joined Solidaritas Perempuan Aceh, working the conflict-affected areas of in Bener Meriah, Aceh Besar and Aceh Utara.  Donna was part of the Solidaritas Perempuan team that hosted the WELDD workshop, “Culturally-Justified Violence Against Women: Resistance and Sustaining Our Activism” in Jakarta, Indonesia in August 2014. 

This is the 2nd entry in our #16Days 2014 blogging series.  We are bringing you an entry from one of our inspiring activists on each day during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

Peace and Security