Indonesia Embraces Progress

I wanted to highlight some good stuff today because it seems like the headlines have been pretty depressing recently.  As you know, I love to read about women’s organizations around the world and learn about other cultures.   I’ve mentioned that my research has a lot to do with developing nations and why some develop rapidly and others languish. Indonesia is one of the countries I follow closely.

It used to be thought that every economic development problem could be solved by just putting more technology in place in a country or adding more physical capital or infrastructure.  That is important at some level, but given the same amount of technology and infrastructure, some nations will develop a healthy economy and society while others will still have serious issues.

The major factor that’s highlighted in development policies today is a country’s institutions; specifically their soundness and openness.  The most important are institutions that support the judicial and political system.  These institutions must protect private property, not allow the rich and powerful to abuse the poor, and they must be fair and translucent. (Problems we have now here.)   Given that, other solid related institutions will spring up.  These would include educational institutions. If these are in place, financial and economic institutions that bring a country into the modern world will germinate and deepen.   Indonesia is a good place to demonstrate that it’s many things in a country’s culture than can cause it to oppress its women, its minorities, and its poor and a good government can make a difference in many people’s lives.  It’s also on our radar today because of the pending Presidential visit.

One of the bright spots in the ASEAN region is Indonesia.  It is a beacon for many reasons but high among them is that it’s a model of Democratic Islam.  This is from Project Syndicate.

The visit by “Barry Obama,” the Indonesian nickname for the former resident and current United States president, to Jakarta is intended, as much as anything, to celebrate the achievements of the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. In the 12 years since its transition to democracy, Indonesia has regularly held local and national elections, developed a functioning free market, and strengthened its culture of tolerance towards the country’s Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese minorities.

Of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, only Indonesia has a “free” rating from Freedom House. The largely Catholic Philippines, Buddhist Thailand, and Confucian Singapore lag behind Indonesia in providing basic democratic rights to their people. American policymakers have therefore looked to Indonesia as a model for the rest of the Muslim world. But what lessons are to be learned from Indonesian democracy?

The most important lesson is that Islamic organizations can provide the backbone of a tolerant civil society. Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), mass Islamic institutions with more than 30 million and 40 million members, respectively, operate more than 10,000 schools and hundreds of hospitals, as well as run youth organizations and support women’s movements. Both have connections to political parties, most of which have consistently spoken out for democracy and against an Islamic state.

Women in Indonesia are the majority workers for the garment industry and work very long hours for very low pay.  There is also a problem with human trafficking.  The government has been responsive to calls to stop the exploitation of women and children. Here’s one unique program via  the BBC. It seems women-only train cars were introduced on government run public transportation to stop women from being sexually harassed and grabbed during their commutes to work.  This reminds me of the pink taxis initiatives that I’ve blogged on before.  However, the pink taxis are a private effort and not public.

Women-only train carriages have been launched in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, in an attempt to prevent sexual harassment on public transport.

The state-run train operator is running two new carriages for its female passengers on one busy commuter route.

The service has been introduced after a series of complaints of sexual harassment from women who travel on Jakarta’s trains and buses.

There are ongoing programs to stop the sexual exploitation of women, but the garment worker’s are still experiencing problems with enforcement of labor laws.  Developing countries are frequently trapped between the need for cash from new industry and the need to protect their people. Another bright spot about Indonesia is that there is no significant gender gap in early or secondary education.  Girls and boys attend school in the same proportions.

As with other parts of the world–including our own–some policy makers in the rural areas still view girls in a poor light.  Last month, one lawmaker tried propose a law to subject girls to a “Virginity Test’. Indonesia’s Women’s Affairs Ministry rejected the proposal outright as a violation of human rights. Other members of the legislature were also outraged and dismissed the proposal.  It looks like there are attempts to instill Jane Crow Laws every where.

Women’s reproductive rights still suffer in Indonesia.  It is some what like the situation here because if you are poor, there is no place to go.  As you’ll read, a lot of this is OUR fault. This is from Amnesty International.

Many Indonesian women and girls, especially those from poor and marginalised communities, struggle to achieve reproductive health in the face of discriminatory laws, policies and practices, a new report by Amnesty International says.

Left Without a Choice describes how government restrictions and discriminatory traditions threaten the lives of many Indonesian woman and girls by putting reproductive health services beyond their reach.
“The Indonesian government has pledged to enhance gender equality, but many Indonesian women still struggle for fair and equal treatment”, said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. “A combination of unchallenged social attitudes, unfair laws and stereotyped gender roles often relegate women to second-class status.”
Amnesty International research shows how discriminatory practices and problematic laws are restricting access to contraception for unmarried women and girls, and allowing early marriage for girls younger than 16. The law also requires a woman to get her husband’s consent to access certain contraception methods, or an abortion in the event that her life is at risk. Amnesty International also found that health workers frequently deny the full range of legally available contraceptive services to unmarried or childless married women.
Even though the government has taken steps for better protection for women victim of violence, it is failing to ensure that survivors of rape can access health information and services. Although abortion is legally available to women and girls who become pregnant as a result of rape, this fact is not well known, even amongst health workers, and victims of rape can face significant obstacles to accessing safe abortion services.

The US policy under George W. Bush made things worse for Indonesia Women.  This is another quote from the Project Syndicate article that I referenced in the first quote.

Indonesia also demonstrates how Islam can provide support for women’s rights. Among the activist community in Jakarta, the most successful organizations are those that draw support from the women’s wings of Muhammadiyah and NU: Muslimat, Fatayat, and Aisyiyah. The former head of Fatayat, Maria Ulfah Anshor, has made sophisticated arguments grounded in fiqh for women’s access to reproductive rights. And, thanks to a partnership between the state and Islamic scholars stretching back 40 years, Indonesia has one of the most successful family-planning programs in the developing world.

Ironically, the US has done as much to block the efforts of Indonesia’s women’s-rights activists as it has to support them. Former President George W. Bush’s restrictions on funding for health programs that used condoms or other forms of contraception meant that Islamic organizations receiving any funding from the US Agency for International Development were unable to publish material promoting safe-sex and family planning.

This could be, and often was, highly counter-productive. In one particularly absurd case, a group of Muslim feminists who wrote a book promoting women’s rights based on Koranic exegesis had to publish their work in secret, because it included arguments for women’s reproductive rights and a small percentage of the group’s funding came from a foundation that had received money from USAID.

The fact that Islamic organizations have benefited women may also help explain Indonesian women’s political success. The parliament is 18% female (a slightly higher percentage than in the US Congress), and a woman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was the country’s fourth president. Leading organizations like Umar, Fatayat, and Muslimat provide a corrective to the widespread view that Sharia necessarily impedes women.

Indeed, Indonesian women have shown how Sharia can provide a tool for combating misogynist policies. For example, the head of Islamic affairs in the Ministry of Religion, Nasaruddin Umar, is a self-described Islamic feminist who has published sophisticated critiques of gender bias in Koranic exegesis

Just a short time ago, ABC  announced that the Presidential trip may be canceled because of eruptions by Mount Merapi that has been causing ash clouds and dangerous flying conditions near Jakarta. This would be a shame if this happens because bringing attention to developing nations is important and a U.S. Presidential visit can accomplish that.  Usually, TV programs and newspapers will provide interest pieces about the country and its needs as well as the NGOs that service its people.  There has been a history of military juntas in the country and there are still rebel forces that would like to put a damper on the country’s nascent democracy. Other nations’ need to help stop any potential violent attacks on Indonesia’s democratic government. There is also need for further international support as the country responds to the Mount Merapi Disaster.

Focus on Indonesia is important also because of its successes and its needs.  Other countries in ASEAN–like Vietnam–have similar issues and can benefit from increased focus on the area.  When the US does positive things for the region, the region responds positively. SOS Hillary Clinton visited Indonesia in 2009.  Details about her trip are documented here.

I hope you’ll take the time to read about Indonesia and watch any public interest stories that come up on the country. It’s one of the developing nations that gives development economists a lot of hope.  It’s also important to support our the rights of women and children through out the world.