The Merry Widow and the Shed of Tears © Duncan Graham 2007
As a caring and sharing center for women it’s the pits. The shed is basic bloke; a couple of truncheons hang on the wall along with a thick web belt, the macho man’s favorite fashion statement. A scruffy banner promotes the local football team Arema Malang, the champions of East Java.
Truck batteries leak acid on the coarse concrete floor and the chairs are as hard as the pain being expressed. The smoking yard outside is an oil-puddled knackery for bashed autos. When trains rumble past everything shakes.
But this is the best that can be found for the headquarters of Pekka (Program Pemberdayaan Perempuan Kepala Keluarga). The World Bank, which supports the program, clumsily translates this as ‘Indonesia Women Headed Household Program’, but that’s something of a euphemism. ‘Empowering Single Mums’ might be more direct.
“We’d prefer to be more central, but this is the only place we could find,” explained group leader Hardiastarti. “We borrow it from a men’s club. We used to meet in my home, but the neighbors didn’t like to see so many women coming into their street.”
What will the neighbors say? It seems to be the dominant question directing behavior in small communities everywhere, maybe more so in Indonesia. Hardiastarti, 47, is conscious of the conventions and doesn’t want to offend, but she’s also a change agent bucking traditions.
If these push-pull factors are worrying her she’s not letting on. She dislikes discrimination but takes a charitable view of other’s attitudes. Nor is she letting her own marital hassles drag down her ambitions to lift the lives of those less lucky.
“If divorce can be said to be good, then I made a good one,” she said. “I was married for 11 years and we had two daughters. But he went off with another woman. In 1999 when the girls were 10 and 5, I divorced him. Fortunately that’s relatively easy in Indonesia.
“Before we split I got him to pay regular maintenance for our children. That stopped in 2004 so I confronted his new wife. She agreed with me that he had to keep up his responsibilities and the payments restarted. Women have to work together on these issues.”
In telling others of her experiences Hardiastarti soon realized that her story was unusual. Most divorcees only get the kids and the contempt. When the breadwinner vanishes so does the cash and status.
There are no government welfare benefits for wives alone, no child support schemes where public servants track down runaway husbands, to garnishee their salaries as payment for their kids’ education and upbringing.
In a culture where the community consensus is that women are responsible for failed unions the discarded wife is doubly victimized. Men see her as sexually famished so easy prey; women fear she’s out to steal their hubbies.
Nowhere is the discrimination clearer than in the language.
Technically janda is a widow and diceraikan is a divorcee. But the first word is widely used to cover both conditions in the hope that no-one will ask for details of his last resting place – which is likely to be another lady’s bed rather than a cemetery.
Hardiastarti is a noble exception, a taboo breaker. While others drop their voices and scour the corners for eavesdroppers she’s cheerfully upfront about her own fractured life and the need for women to take a tough stand.
This hasn’t made her a harridan. Not for her the dumped Western feminists vengeful cry – ‘All men are bastards!’ You won’t find her in self-defense classes perfecting the knee in the crotch.
“I believe in fate,” she said. “This is my life, the one that God has decided. I thought I was a good wife, but my husband wanted another woman. I should not feel sad and grave – I want to get married again.
“Before the break up I wasn’t like this. Divorce has made me stronger. I realized I had to help others.
“At present our culture won’t sustain the laws that operate in the West where abandoned wives get community support and the police will intervene in domestic violence. I can’t imagine men being charged with rape in marriage.
“There are some laws to protect women but they aren’t strong. So if there are going to be any changes we have to introduce them ourselves. The male politicians won’t do it. They think they’re superior. They just want to tread women down.
“Pre-marriage contracts that determine property ownership in the case of a marriage breakdown may be alright for celebrities in Jakarta where both have careers. But these aren’t for ordinary people where the expectation is that the man earns and gives his wife a household allowance every month.
“My advice to young women is to get a skill before you get married so you can retain your independence.” And her words to young men? “Be responsible. Fulfill your obligations. Treat your wife as an equal.”
Hardiastarti said that women headed about one in seven households in Indonesia. Some had to turn to kawin seri (serial mock marriages), not because they were immoral but because they had no other means of providing for their children.
Pekka, which started in 1991, now has branches in eight provinces. It works to help widows and divorcees take control of their lives, build self esteem, develop economic independence and eyeball society without shame.
Hardiastarti knows this is a tough call, and not just from her own experience. Although she has no formal social work qualifications (she used to be a university lecturer in marketing, and later had her own catering company) she seems to have some rare listening skills that encourage other women to tell their torrid tales of matrimony gone bad.
Encouraged by the empathy of others in the room, and indifferent to the presence of this lone male reporter, a Catholic mother of three tearfully claimed to have been beaten up by her husband, who had originally trained for the priesthood.
She said he’d taken another woman four years ago and was now living with a former prostitute. In the meantime the discarded wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, which she thought could be the result of having had a civil wedding and not a church blessing.
Hardiastarti heard the long sad story without comment, just smiling encouragement to continue while others were weeping and touching. She could suggest no solutions, but knew that offering an unshockable non-judgmental ear might help ease the pain just a little.
“Once a woman has children she has to concentrate fully on their welfare,” she said. “In this culture if the kids aren’t good the mother gets blamed. Very few men divorce and become single parents. The women have to start their lives again from zero.
“May I say this to your readers? Please care and have sympathy for widows and divorcees. Don’t think of us as bad – we’re just people with a different experience of life. The system in Indonesia is not fair – men don’t suffer like women do when a marriage ends. Treat us as equals.
“I’ve had many problems, but I’m happy. I want all janda to be happy.”
(For Pekka contacts see: http://go.worldbank.org/5D4ANF95M0 )
(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 August o7)