Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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The Military and Violence Against Women: The Aceh Experience, Part 2

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).  In 2005 a peace agreement was reached, granting Aceh special autonomy within Indonesia in return for GAM’s disarmament.  In her second installment, Donna Swita Hardiani, from Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity) recalls her experiences in Aceh during the immediate years after the peace agreement.

Read Part 1

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Negotiating alliances with men and militants

One of the most vivid memories of my time in Bener Meriah was the occasion when I was called by one of the parties to the conflict at the time.  They put me in a room to be interrogated about what me and my organisation were doing in the area. At the time when I was alone in the room, I thought to myself what if they are going to rape me? I was scared.  But fear disappeared when the group leader told me to make drinks for them.  This hurt my pride and insulted me – I had never been asked to do this in my family!  Not giving another thought, I stood up and kicked the guy!  I admit that at this time I was no longer thinking about my own safety because my anger had become greater than the fear I experienced. I could see the four men in the room standing shocked, and the leader stand up quickly holding his gun... But then they all broke into laughter! “This is the character of a real Acehnese woman!” they said.

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And since that encounter we became good friends.  When I provide reinforcement to women's groups in their area, the soldiers would actually facilitate it, offering some of their limited vehicles and equipment. Even when there was a meeting at the village, district and level they must contact me and Solidaritas Perempuan asked to be involved in decision-making meetings.  They now also often consult and seek views of women in the village when doing an activity. 

I also started to build informal communications with the men who were in coffee shops. Aceh, and especially the Gayo area, is known for its coffee and coffee stalls. There are so many men who are in the habit of getting together with a friend and chatting about politics in a coffee shop. It's like a habit that has become the culture.  I am happy that I got the chance to sit down with them, discuss and talk politics in Aceh over coffee with them. These discussions taught me about the customs and culture in the Bener Meriah District in contrast to culture of the coastal areas of Aceh.  In the coastal areas women are generally required to be at home to look after the house, finances, and children, while her husband works. Meanwhile, in the Bener Meriah District it is actually considered a disgrace if a woman does not help her husband work in the garden or fieldsHowever, while a woman there might have access to this work, still she would not have control over their crops without the permission of their husbands. In fact, women actually get an extra workload, working in the fields as well as at home.

Relied upon in conflict, forgotten in peace

When the conflict in Aceh occurred, women were at the forefront of having to continue to ensure a sustainable livelihood for their families, while also maintaining the care of children and the family. Women also have to ensure that the agricultural land belonging to the family continues to produce enough to meet the needs of their families. Women also had to endure all this while facing sexual abuse committed from men.   Man is considered the symbol of family dignity, the provider.  But during the conflict, adolescent and adult men disappeared to the forest to fights or sought refuge in other regions or countries.  Women became the providers, became “the men”.

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A white dove is released during an Aceh peace rally in Jakarta. (Photo: AFP)

After the peace agreement, however, men re-took the role as head of the family, with no recognition given to women's work. Women who initially had been at the forefront during the conflict were not acknowledged after return of peace and only were re-confined to the domestic sphere.  This is not to mention the rampant polygamy that occurred after peace was declared. Again, women were experiencing violence and injustice.  At the time of the conflict, there were so many polygamous marriages on the grounds. Of course, rarely is polygamous marriage accompanied by a responsibility to provide for the families equally.

Ironically first wives were sometimes the person who proposed other women to become their husband’s second wife.  When I worked there, a woman who was the wife of one of the highly respected former combatants in the region to proposed a woman (my colleguage).  And, the most surprising thing to me, this woman came carrying a newborn. I asked the woman "Why do you proposed other women for your husband?" Short answer: "If I proposed the woman, I will get a guarantee to enter heaven"That statement always makes me sad when I think of it, because I consider it a form of violence against women in the name of religion which promises a reward in order ​​to legalize discrimination and oppression.

My lessons from Bener Meriah

My experiences in Bener Meriah during the conflict taught me a great deal.  Spending time in the hills, in the farms, in the houses and the coffee shops gave me an insight into the experiences of survivors of conflict.  I learnt how women became the backbone of conflict families during the conflict, and how they suffered greatly as women in many different ways.  From being allowed into their daily lives I saw the connection between personal matters and elite politics.  I left Bener Meriah as those in the elite tiers of society were busy talking about peace and building a ‘New Aceh’.  But the topics discussed at that level don’t map onto the opinions of women at the grassroots level.  For those women peace is very simple, such as being able to make a living, not being afraid to go to school, being able to work in the fields safely, and to gather with their friends and family peacefully.

Donna Swita Hardiani grew up in Aceh and lived there until 1985. She now lives in Jakarta.  Donna 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 3rd 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